Hunting The Wendigo (Part 1)

According to Algonquian folklore, a wendigo (also spelled windigo) is a carnivorous spirit or demon that often possessed or transformed humans. The legends described them as monstrous creatures that feasted on unwary travelers. Once a human became a wendigo, they became steadily larger with each human they ate and stories of fifteen-foot high monsters lurking in the woods were often told around campfires. In appearance, wendigos were often described as having yellow eyes, jagged teeth, enormous feet, clawed hands. Not only did the wendigo have a heart of ice but a body "swelled to the size of a pine tree, and as hard as stone. imopenetable by a bullet or arrow and insensitive to cold". Wendigo[1]

Whenever a member of the tribe disappeared, the usual explanation was that a wendigo was responsible. Anyone killed by a wendigo became a tortured spirit that would never find rest. Although the legends differed on how a human could become a wendigo, one of the most common stories involved cannibalism or being possessed by a cannibal spirit while in a vulnerable state. For that reason, Algonquian law was clear concerning the need to kill anyone displaying symptoms of wendigo possession to prevent them from becoming a danger to others. Considering the importance of sorcery and wendigo legends in traditional Algonquian society, tribal elders were often called upon to deal with anyone suspected of practicing hostile magic or eating human flesh.

These wendigo legends were a continuing source of fascination for the traders, missionaries, and government officials who came in contact with isolated native bands.Although numerous legends of wendigo activity were handed down and "wendigo psychosis" became identified as a culture-bound syndrome, actual recorded cases remain extremely rare. The most well known case occurred in 1879 when a Cree trapper named Swift Runner was reported to the Northwest Mounted Police. His wife and children had disappeared after he took them on a hunting trip and the wife's relatives asked the police to investigate. The police sent a patrol to Swift Runner's remote camp north of Edmonton, Alberta and found evidence that he had killed and eaten his family. When Swift Runner went on trial on August 8 of that year, he confessed to the killings and stated that he had seen spirits telling him to become a wendigo After returning to his camp from a moose hunt, all that he could hear were "young moose, nothing but moose".Despite evidence of insanity, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Swift Runner agreed with the verdict and actually made a speech from the gallows confirming his guilt and thanking his prison guards for his care. The case was especially remarkable for coming to the attention of the Canadian legal system at all. Previous incidents of actual or suspected cannibalism were typically dealt with by tribal custom, i.e., the offender being killed by the family members of the victim or by tribal elders.

While reported incidents of cannibalism were rare, cases of "wendigo killings" in which people suspected of being wendigos were considerably more common. Prosecution of these cases led to inevitable culture clashes between remote tribes attempting to protect themselves from what they viewed as a grave threat and Canadian police officers attempting to enforce legal codes based on European law. Considering the mistrust that many remote Native bands had for the judicial system, it was fairly unusual for cases to come to trial at all and the ones that did proceed were usually based on reluctant testimony by intimidated witnesses.

One classic case involved an Ojibwa hunter named Machekequonabe who apparently shot and killed his foster father in the belief that he was a wendigo. According to the legal testimony at the trial held on December 3, 1896 in what is now Kenora, Ontario, Machekeqonabe and his foster-father were on sentry duty at a small reserve in Northern Ontario. Due to reports of a wendigo that had been stalking the reserve for months, all of the sentries were unusually tense. When a "tall Indian with a blanket over him" was spotted, he began to run and Machekeqonabe went after him. After shooting his quarry, Machekeqonabe began crying when he realized the identity of the man he had killed. The trial was extremely brief and represented the first experience that Machekeqonabe and most of the others involved had with Canadian law. The resulting manslaughter conviction set a legal precedent in Canadian law that is still recognized today.While an appeal was launched, the verdict was upheld and Machekeqonabe was sentenced to six months in jail for the killing.

The most famous criminal case involving a wendigo killing occurred in 1906.

More on that next week...

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