Dec 01, 2022 I Nick Redfern

Should Such Creatures as the Wendigo, the Skinwalker and the Wildman be "in" Cryptozoology?

It's a fair question to ask: after all, I often have debates with people who think those particularly bizarre creatures should be removed from the field of cryptozoology and replaced to the domains of the paranormal and the supernatural. The occult, even, too. Let's begin with the Kushtaka. As for me, I think that just about all Cryptid creatures are paranormal in nature. The Kushtaka – or the Kooshdakhaa, as it is also known – is a monstrous, manipulative and sometimes deadly creature that is a staple part of the folklore of two specific groups of Native Americans living predominantly in the state of Alaska, but also in other portions of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their names are the Tsimshian and the Tlingit. The former are known as the “People of the Tides,” while the latter are referred to as being “Inside the Skeena River,” on account of the fact that they once inhabited significant portions of the Skeena River, British Columbia. It is within the teachings of these two tribes of people that we learn of the hideous shapeshifting things that provoke mayhem, terror and death throughout the region.  

Dennis Waller is one of the leading experts in the field of the Kushtaka. He notes in his 2014 book, In Search of the Kushtaksa, that the word, “Kushtaka,” equates to “Land Otter Man,” which is highly appropriate, taking into consideration that this is precisely how the Kushtaka is described. It is important, however, to note that the creature is not, literally, half-human and half-otter. Rather, it can take on both forms. But things don’t end there: the Kushtaka can also manifest in the shapes of giant wolves – and very often bipedal, upright wolves – and also large, hairy humanoids not at all unlike Bigfoot. In the Bigfoot-seeking community, Waller observes, this has given rise to the thought-provoking theory that the Kushtaka may well be an Alaskan Bigfoot; one which, over time, has been incorporated into Native lore and legend. On the other hand, however, and as Waller also notes, for the Tsimshian and the Tlingit, the creatures are monsters with the power to morph. In that sense, the jury is very much out when it comes to their true identities. The otter angle is a very intriguing one and is born out of the fact that otters are highly intelligent animals, that they have structured communities and even leaderships, that they are occasional tool-users, and that they even hold each other’s hands. These parallels - between the societies and actions of both otters and humans – amount to one of the key issues that led the Tsimshian and Tlingit people to associate them in very much the same fashion. There is, however, yet another aspect to the otter issue.

(Dennis Waller) Many thanks to Dennis Waller, who generously gave me a copy of his book and to use the cover

Otters are perceived as being good-natured and friendly animals – which, for the most part, they certainly are. But not for the two tribes that fear the Kushtaka. For the tribespeople, the engaging and outward character of the otter is merely a ruse, one which is designed to deceive and manipulate people, and to lure them into situations that range from the stressful to the outright deadly. Notably, tribal history maintains that each and every otter is secretly part-human; something which allows it to jump from form to form as it sees fit. It is very eye-opening to learn that the Kushtaka has a notable way of luring its human prey into darkened forests, where it can work its evil ways: it mimics the cry of a baby, or that of a young child, in distress. Cunning activity has been reported in Bigfoot encounters in Texas and Pennsylvania, and also at Bridge 39 on England’s Shropshire Union Canal, the home of the hair-covered shapeshifter known as the Man-Monkey. Clearly, there is an undeniable connection here – a connection which is made all the more fascinating by the fact that these stories span not just countries, but even entire continents. This begs an important question: how, centuries ago, and from lands separate by thousands of miles, could such tales proliferate? Coincidence? Doubtful. Far more likely, the people of those widely varied areas and eras encountered extremely similar shapeshifters, ones that utilized the very same supernatural skills, mimicry and powers.

One of the primary activities of the Kushtaka is to steal the soul – or the supernatural essence – of its targeted victim. This, too, is something which we have seen before, and specifically in relation to shapeshifters. When a tribesperson loses his or her soul it is the responsibility of the tribe’s medicine man – or Shaman - to seek out the specific Kushtaka that made its victim definitively soulless, and then to hopefully wrestle it from the Kushtaka and reunite body and soul into one. And, just like the water-based Selkies of Scotland’s Shetland Islands – creatures which we will address later - the Kushtaka is known for its cunning and callous ability to lure sailors to watery graves, deep below the high seas. Oddly, but also paralleling the tales of shapeshifting fairies, and despite its malignant and dangerous reputation, the Kushtaka is sometimes helpful – even to the extent of saving someone in dire peril. It should be noted, however, that such positive cases are very much few and far between. Although the vast majority of all reports of the Kushtaka come from the Tlingit and the Tsimshian people, that is not exclusively the case. A particularly spine-tingling story, dating from 1910, came from the late Harry D. Colp. It is cited in Maddy Simpson’s article, “Kushtaka: The Alaskan Half-Otter Half-Man Bigfoot.” Colp was an adventurer and a gold prospector, and someone who firmly believed that he encountered a colony of Kushtaka at Thomas Bay, which is located in the southeastern part of Alaska. It is also known as the “Bay of Death,” as a result of a huge landfall which occurred at the bay in the mid-18th century. Its far more chilling name, however, is “Devil’s Country,” on specific account of the Kushtaka legends and encounters. 

(Nick Redfern) Animals or supernatural monsters?

According to Colp, as he climbed one particular ridge on the day in question, he developed a sudden sense of being watched. As Colp quickly turned around, he was terrified to see an entire group of horrific-looking monsters carefully and diligently pursuing him. In eye-opening fashion he described them as creatures that appeared to be half-human and half-monkey. He also described them as being sexless, suggesting, in all probability, that he meant no genitalia was seen. This is not at all surprising, as Colp said that the entire pack was covered by long and thick hair – aside from those areas covered by oozing, infected sores. As the monsters moved closer and closer, howling and screaming in the process, Colp wretched at the foul odor that emanated from their forms – and to the point where he almost passed out. Fortunately, and after hurling his broken rifle at them, Colp managed to outrun his hideous pursuers, ensuring that he did not fall victim to this grisly band of hungry beasts. There is no doubt at all that the tale of Harry D. Colp has more than a few Bigfoot-themed overtones attached to it: the strange howling, the stinking smell, and the description of the animals appearing to be semi-human and semi-monkey are all part and parcel of what, today, passes for much of Bigfoot lore. Add to that the aforementioned ability of the Kushtaka to imitate the stressed cries of a baby – just as Bigfoot does – and what we have is an undeniable connection. That the Tlingit and the Tsimshian people are firmly of the belief that the Kushtaka is a shapeshifter.

For certain Native American people, the Skinwalker – tales of which date back centuries - is a definitive witch, a crone-like thing that has the ability to change its form, and radically so, too. And it is not just one specific type of beast into which the witch can change, but multiple ones. While a shapeshifting Native American witch can take on, quite literally, hundreds of forms, the most often reported guises are bears, coyotes, various types of birds, and – at the top of the list – wolves or wolf-like animals. This latter issue, of course, emphasizes that the Skinwalker is not that dissimilar at all to the traditional European werewolf, despite being separated by distances of thousands of miles. There can be no doubt that, in recent times, at least, interest in the Skinwalker mystery soared in 2005. That was when Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp penned their best-selling book, Hunt for the Skinwalker. It was a book which detailed strange and terrifying activity on a remote ranch in Utah – activity which suggested manipulative Skinwalkers had descended on the ranch and who quickly began wreaking havoc – maybe, simply, because they could. As well as experiencing countless UFO encounters, and sightings of large and hairy Bigfoot-type beasts, the family also had confrontations with a huge, malevolent wolf; a monster-size animal upon which bullets had absolutely no effect at all. 

As George Knapp noted in Hunt for the Skinwalker, with regard to the many and varied phenomena that caused chaos and mayhem on the ranch:  “…reality isn’t what it used to be.” For the Native Americans, however, reality hasn’t been what it appears to be for a very long time. The process by which a witch can become a Skinwalker is a highly complex one, and one which involves several different processes. For example, witches who are both learned and skilled in magical arts can transform themselves into a wide variety of creatures, and all by focusing on its image in their minds – very often in the confines of their teepee. In most cases, however, a witch will secure the hide of the animal they wish to become and wrap it around their shoulders and back. By effectively wearing the hide, the witch - slowly and step by step – becomes the very beast it specifically seeks to emulate. And, so Native American teachings maintain, that includes adopting its keen senses of smell and sight, its agility and speed, and even its complete, physical form.

(Federal Bureau of Investigation) Were the 1970s-era cattle mutilations caused by deadly Skinwalkers?

NOTE: This document was released into the public domain by the U.S. Freedom of Information Act

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the Skinwalker is that it has the ability to supernaturally infect people with deadly diseases and life-threatening illnesses. Strangely, on more than a few occasions, those who have found themselves in the direct, close presence of a Skinwalker have –in mere days - succumbed to very rare medical conditions. Precisely how the Skinwalker can perform such a hostile thing remains unknown. It is, however, worth noting that the Skinwalker is said to have an expert knowledge of medicine, both ancient and modern. No wonder Native Americans avoid them at all costs. And it is not just people who can fall victim to this dangerous beast. Animals – very often, farm animals – have also become the targets of these multi-formed creatures. 

For example, so-called cattle-mutilations, which reached their peak in the 1970s – but which are still occasionally reported to this very day – are believed by some, certain Native Americans to be the work of crazed Skinwalkers. The approach of the creatures is to remove organs and blood from cattle, specifically to use it in yet further rites and rituals designed to enhance its paranormal powers to even greater degrees. This may not be quite as strange, or as unlikely, as it might seem: between 1975 and 1978, police officers investigating dozens of cattle mutilation events in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona found that many such attacks had specifically occurred on Native American reservations – something which is most assuredly food for thought. Of course, there is one critical issue we have yet to touch upon: namely, why would anyone even want to become a Skinwalker in the first place?

Now, onto the ancient Wildman of the United Kingdom: at first glance it appears just to be a hair-covered ancient creature. Not so. Like those creatures we've already focused on, the Wildman is clearly a paranormal thing. There's a specifically English term that dates back hundreds of years: the Woodwose or Wodewose - possibly derived from a combination of wudu, which means forest, and wasa, that translates in today’s language as being – was, essentially, a hairy wild man of the woods, whose rampaging form can be graphically seen to this very day in countless pieces of priceless medieval European artwork from countries including Germany, Italy and, yes, the United Kingdom. Tabitca Cope, author of the excellent cryptozoological novel, Dark Ness, says of the Woodwose that it "…is a savage, naked man decked out in leaves and boughs or moss and ivy, carrying a huge club. He has been reportedly seen in England since 14th Century and up to the 16th Century and has been described as a large bearded man whose entire body was covered in curly hair. Historians theorised that the wodewose may have been some ancestor of man, and during the periods of its existence, had learned to fashion tools from wood. Similar stories of large hairy ape-men are found in the Pacific Northwest, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Guiana, Ecuador, Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, parts of Africa, and of course the Himalayas."

(Nick Redfern) Weird and Wild


Unlike the classic Bigfoot of the Pacific northwest regions of the United States, or the Abominable Snowman of the frozen Himalayas, the Woodwose was – despite its oft-reported abundance of body hair - far more human-like in its appearance and nature; something that has led to deep speculation that the legends of such creatures might very well have had their origins in sightings of so-called feral people: human-beings who, either by choice or unfortunate circumstances, lived solitary lives, deep in the heart of the woods and, as a by-product, descended into states of definitive savagery. There is also the astounding theory that, possibly, the tales of the Woodwose were born out of occasional sightings of pockets of ancient humans, such as Neanderthals, or people of the Neolithic era, who, rather incredibly, may have survived long after conventional wisdom and science tells us they became utterly extinct or absorbed. Added to that, there was a widespread belief across much of Europe centuries ago that if a man or a woman decided to live among the beasts in dense and foreboding forests and woodland, he or she would inevitably become more and more animalistic as time passed by. Eventually, it was accepted, they would become wild people in the literal sense of the term: Nothing less than fully-fledged, hair-covered beasts of the trees. These "animals" or hairy men;" however, have the ability to vanish. That's right: they can become invisible.

All of the cases and creatures in this article make me fully believe that, yes, these things should be in the field of Cryptozoolgy. But, it's Cryptozoology, itself, that needs changing: to a far more paranormal approach to strange creatures.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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