Cryptozoology, that is, the search for mysterious undiscovered animals or those thought to have become extinct, has some firm ties to folklore and myth. In many cases, the creatures that people report seeing can be somehow linked to what has already appeared in various local legends and lore, with these tales holding some possibility of being more than just stories. It is often unclear exactly what connection these folkloric stories have to real modern day cryptid sightings, but one area of myth that certainly seems to fit it is that of some of the Native American legends of hairy wild men in the wilderness. Here we have a menagerie of strange entities that not only have bizarre and intriguing backstories, but might also be somehow linked to strange sightings to this day.
By far the most well-known and discussed type of hairy wild man of Native lore is none other than the mysterious and legendary entity known as the Wendigo. Originating from the myths and legends of the Native American Algonquian tribes based in the northern forests of Nova Scotia, the East Coast of Canada, and Great Lakes Region of Canada, it truly holds a place amongst the most frightening creatures of lore, and with good reason. Most often described as a hulking, hairy brute up to 15 feet tall, with a mix of human and animalistic features, the Wendigo has long been said to partake in acts of murder, insatiable greed, and cannibalism. In lore, the creature is supposedly a gaunt, extremely tall apparition that had glowing eyes, long yellowed fangs, wicked claws, and a long tongue, and which was eternally en thrall to insatiable hunger, growing ever larger with each kill it made and yet never fully satiated, always skeletal and slight no matter how much it ate. One description of the Wendigo was given by Native author and ethnographer Basil H. Johnston, who wrote of it:
The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. With its bones pushing out over its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into the sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody… Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.
There are many local traditions of the Wendigo with slightly different details in its appearance depending on the region, but it is always said to be frightening, and there are also variations in their powers. They are variously described as having the ability to turn invisible, to read minds, or to mimic human voices in order to draw victims away to isolated areas, as well as shapeshifting powers. Their origins also have some variations, but the main cause according to the majority of traditions, is that humans who were overcome by greed or hunger, or those who resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, were at risk of becoming Wendigos themselves. In one account of the origins of this beast, the Wendigo started as a warrior who made a deal with the Devil in order to save his tribe from some unspecified calamity, in others it is simply greed and cannibalism that does the trick, yet in every one of them the spawn of this all is an unholy abomination that seeks constant sustenance. Wherever these creatures came from, there are some historical accounts of this supposedly happening for real. For instance, in 1661, The Jesuit Relations reported:
What caused us greater concern was the intelligence that met us upon entering the Lake, namely, that the men deputed by our Conductor for the purpose of summoning the Nations to the North Sea, and assigning them a rendezvous, where they were to await our coming, had met their death the previous Winter in a very strange manner. Those poor men (according to the report given us) were seized with an ailment unknown to us, but not very unusual among the people we were seeking. They are afflicted with neither lunacy, hypochondria, nor frenzy; but have a combination of all these species of disease, which affects their imaginations and causes them a more than canine hunger. This makes them so ravenous for human flesh that they pounce upon women, children, and even upon men, like veritable werewolves, and devour them voraciously, without being able to appease or glut their appetite —ever seeking fresh prey, and the more greedily the more they eat. This ailment attacked our deputies; and, as death is the sole remedy among those simple people for checking such acts of murder, they were slain in order to stay the course of their madness.
Another similar account comes from 1878, when in Saskatchewan, Canada, a Cree fur trapper by the name of Swift Runner claimed that he had been possessed by insidious dark forces and had become a Wendigo after killing and eating his family during a harsh winter without food. Apparently local settlers went to the trapper’s home to corroborate the story and found a veritable charnel house of blood, strewn about body parts, and half-eaten corpses in such a jumbled morass of gore and effluence that it could not even be ascertained how many people had been killed. Swift Runner was then publicly executed for his crimes and his body buried far away, as some of the Cree claimed that his corpse would be reanimated by the Wendigo within him. Such instances would give birth to a whole new term, called “Wendigo psychosis,” or a deep desire or craving for human flesh, regardless of whether there are other food sources available. This would come to bring the term “Wendigo” as being synonymous with “cannibal,” but there is little in the way of hard evidence to link the two. There are many stories of this supposedly occurring, often debated and questioned, but the myth of the Wendigo itself remains intact.
Seemingly far from merely creature of myth, Wendigo were seen by settlers as well, with many settlements of the 1800s claiming to have been subject to the wrath of one of the beasts. In that era mysterious disappearances were also commonly attributed to the Wendigo, as were lost corpses found just lying out in the wilderness. To this day there have been supposed sightings of these creatures, and one wonders whether it is mere folklore or not. Even more physically imposing than the Wendigo are the beasts of Native legend known as the Genoskwa, or “Stone Giant Man.” They were said to be extremely massive, between 11 and 15 feet tall, hulking with muscles, with skin as hard as rock and a propensity for violence and throwing stones and boulders. These horrific giants were not known to be friendly at all, said to raid villages and twist the heads right off of their victims, all while exuding a foul stench like a mix of rotting corpses and the smell of a skunk.
Native American legends say that these creatures were well protected by those who would fight them, claiming that they had armored fur that was bolstered by stones and dirt encrusted within it, and it was even said that arrows couldn’t penetrate this mass. The creatures were said to have great, vast strength, and one Tuscarora Chief Elias Johnson, an 1800s chronicler of his tribe’s history and lore, wrote in the account Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois:
[the Tuscarora] were also invaded by a more powerful enemy, the Ot-nea-yar-heh, or the Stonish Giants. They were a powerful tribe from the wilderness, tall, fierce and hostile, and resistance to them was vain…These giants were not only of great strength but they were cannibals, devouring men, woman and children in their inroads.
It all sounds very much like Bigfoot, to be honest, except for the gratuitous violence. Curiously, there has been a fairly modern account of what some have considered to be actual physical evidence of what could be the Genoskwa, or at least something like it. In 1926, guano miners at Lovelock Cave, in Nevada, allegedly found a series of bizarre skeletons ranging from 7 to 8 feet in height, which oddly sported flowing red hair. When the word got out on the discovery, the Native Paiute people claimed that these were the remains of a race of primitive red-haired giants they called the Si-Te-Cah, with whom they had had once warred with. These creatures were described as being extremely violent and had the habit of kidnapping tribe members to eat, causing the tribe to go to war with them, slaughtering them and sending the few remaining red haired giants into exile within the Lovelock Caves, after which fires were set to kill any who were still lurking within the gloom. Tribal elders warned that the remains were not to be disturbed, and so the bodies were purportedly put back where they had been found and the cave sealed.
Speaking of savage, half-human monsters, from the legends of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of the northwest we have the sinister lore of a creature called the Bukwus. These were gaunt, very tall animalistic humanoids with matted, long hair and often said to appear to be rotting or bloated. This would make sense, as according to the legends these were the reanimated corpses of drowning victims, although the appearances most often given are more akin to something like a Bigfoot. They were often referred to as the “Wildman of the Woods” and the “Chief of the Ghosts,” and they seemed to have been mostly preoccupied with luring people away to be drowned and turning human beings into more Bukwus. To do this they were said to approach and offer people some of their food, which would invariably turn whoever ate it into shambling, hairy man beast like them, and it was said to never accept any food or drink from them. While this seems to be pure myth, one modern day explanation for the Bukwus is that these were legends spun around a very real, Bigfoot-like creature.
Not all hairy wild men from Native lore are massive, hulking brutes. From in Delaware and Wampanoag folklore, as well as the traditions of the Ojibwe, Algonquin, Abenaki, Wampanoag, and Mohican tribes we have the diminutive, impish, troll-like entities known as the Pukwudgie, also spelled Puk-Wudjie, which basically translates to “little wild man of the woods that vanishes,” as well as various other regional names along the same lines. That is an apt description of these creatures, as they are generally described as being between 2 to 5 feet in height, with grey faces, long hair, an often ugly, trollish appearance, often with quills along their backs, and the ability to appear or disappear at will, as well as other magical powers such as invisibility and the ability to mesmerize with a stare. Said to inhabit vast swaths of the northeastern United States, the Great Lakes region and southeastern Canada, in the lore these are said to be incorrigible trickster spirits, stealing food, starting fires, and accosting travelers at any chance they get, sometimes even attacking and killing humans, as well as orchestrating various acts of nefarious sabotage. Depending on the tribe, the lore describes them as being anything from harmless nuisances to truly dangerous monsters, but one common feature is that they are considered best to be avoided.
Many tribes describe these creatures as having been once peaceful and friendly, but then became more malevolent over the centuries, turning to ever more malicious behavior towards us. It is interesting to note that sightings of Pukwudgies have continued right up into the present day, with these gray little trolls often seen in conjunction with mysterious orbs of light. One well-known supposed encounter with these little imps was given by a woman walking her dog one day when the animal became agitated and ran off. When the witness chased after her beloved pet, she apparently then came face to face with a 2-foot-tall little humanoid creature with a slightly muzzled human-like face, pale gray skin, and short, stocky legs. The woman would claim that this creature would follow her home and terrorize her for several days afterwards, appearing at her window at all hours.
These might all be pure legends, or perhaps something more, and it is interesting to see how entrenched they are in Native lore and how some of them seem to mesh with the wildman stories of what people actually report encountering. It goes to show that sometimes the lines between legend and lore and reality are sometimes blurry, and that perhaps real phenomena have become wrapped up in tales of myth. Whether it is legend or not, tales such as these are entwined with the Native peoples of the regions they call home, and serve as curious glimpses into the histories of these great cultures.