Skinwalkers: Terror of the Southwest Tribes

Updated on November 26, 2019
Yamuna Hrodvitnir profile image

Yamuna tries to use her study of history and her own experiences to create meaningful and informative articles.


Corrupt Shamans

Skinwalkers appear in the legends of many Native American tribes, but the most frequently cited is the Navajo. These beings are said to have a human form but to have the ability to transform into terrifying beasts. They can transform into any number of formidable animals such as coyotes, wolves, bears, or birds of prey. One name for them is the Navajo “Yee Naaldlooshii,” which translates to, "With it, he goes on all fours," or just “Naagloshii.” The legends are somewhat different depending upon the region or tribe of origin, but the main details of the the being and the experiences with them tend to remain the same.

According to the known lore, Skinwalkers were once humans who had great spiritual power. Most often, they were shamans or Native American witches who became too arrogant, and in their hubris they crossed over into forbidden realms, or participated in dark ceremonies in the pursuit of power. It is a common practice among shamans to work with animal spirits and to form bonds with certain animal totems, but these individuals pushed that relationship too far by calling upon evil forces that would grant them the power to physically transform into animals of their choosing. The sorts of rituals required to gain such immense power involve horrible acts, or even atrocities, which are forbidden within most Native American cultures, such as the murder of a family member. These shamans possess an intoxicating level of power and strength while in their state of transformation, which compels them to remain in their animal form longer and longer. It is said that when these individuals spend too much time in their animal form, they begin to lose grasp of their humanity. As time passes, what was once human about them decays and the spirit of the animal takes over. When their humanity has all but disappeared, they become the Skinwalker.


Incredible Power

It is said that the Skinwalkers can transform into whatever animal they choose by wearing its skin or another piece of the animal such as a foot or a tooth. Their options for transformation aren't limited to the specific creature that they are adorned with however. When the shaman achieves a certain level of power or control, they can transform into any number of beasts regardless of which pelts they are wearing. Because of this belief, the Navajo refuse to wear the pelts of any animal, unless during ceremonies. Even on such occasions, only the skins of docile animals can be worn. Skinwalkers have even been said to transform into other humans (Smith, 2013). This adds an extra element of horror to the stories of these dark shamans, because they can choose to appear to you as someone that you trust. Someone that you would follow out of the village or find yourself alone with. This makes it even easier for the Skinwalkers to lure and capture victims.

Along with the obvious advantages of transforming into a ferocious predator, Skinwalkers have many other terrifying powers. Some say that they can take control of an individual’s mind and read their thoughts if they look them directly in the eyes. They have unimaginable physical strength and endurance, as well as speed.

Much of the troubles that would befall a village or tribe could be blamed on Skinwalkers. Disappearances, unexpected deaths, sicknesses, and animal attacks would all be attributed to Skinwalkers. They are said to lurk around the edges of villages and wait for people to wander away from their group. They make terrible noises and shrieks in the night to frighten people, particularly those who they have chosen as their victim. The target of a Skinwalker's ire is considered cursed and while suffer from bad luck, illness, injury, or even a sudden and mysterious death. Despite their tendency toward evil, they aren’t overtly murderous beings and do hold within them some rational thought and the ability to make decisions. They don’t eat their victims like most frightening creatures of legend, and they don’t kill or attack people for the sake of blood alone. Like humans, they are motivated by revenge, greed, or anything else that pushes an individual to kill. They do however find joy in frightening people, and will follow, chase, or otherwise terrorize for sport.

Wearing branches instead of furs.
Wearing branches instead of furs. | Source

Speak its True Name, or Not at All.

The legends say that there is no way to kill a Skinwalker. If your family or your village is being terrorized by one or many of them, you cannot destroy them or fight them off. The only way to stop them is to learn their real name and call them by it (Smith, 2013). Apparently, this calls them back to reality and reinstates some part of their humanity. After this, they can be reasoned with and will have the chance to atone for what they’ve done.

Many people still believe in Skinwalkers today, and the legends are a part of the culture of Native Americans in the Southwest. They are more than legends to many people, and traditions which formed around the tales of the Skinwalkers are still respected today. The belief in Skinwalkers is particularly strong among those of the Navajo nation, and many individuals will refuse to walk alone at night in case a Skinwalker may be lurking nearby. Countless sightings of strange half-animal creatures occur across the country every year, and these often go without explanation. The weird, hunched being that leaps into the road while you drive through a forest at night could very well be a Skinwalker.

It is widely believed that openly discussing Skinwalkers or other spiritual entities can draw their attention and bring them to you, so most individuals who believe in them will avoid talking much about them (Lenhardt, 2016). This is true with many legends and beings in regard to Native American tradition and belief. Hopefully, reading about them doesn't have the same effect.


Lenhardt, C. (2016). Wendigos, Eye Killers, Skinwalkers: The Myth of the American Indian Vampire and American Indian “Vampire” Myths. Text Matters, 6(1), 195-212.

Smith, M. (2013). Legends, Lore & True Tales of the Chattahoochee. Arcadia Publishing.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Yamuna Hrodvitnir


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      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        2 weeks ago from Kaufman, Texas

        I'm going to attempt to avoid the skinwalking sorts. I do certainly admire their power, and gosh, I'd love to have some werewolf abilities. I doubt I'd be willing to pay the cost for such, however.


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