What is the Wendigo? Part 2
Whatever its beginnings were, the Wendigo was taken quite seriously in native North American culture. Three groups in particular; the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Ojibwa all had a ceremonial dance sometimes performed during periods of famine. The dance is known as the ‘wiindigookaanzhimowin’ or more simply ‘Wendigo-like dance’. It involves a depiction of the Wendigo and sometimes Wendigo hunters, some performers wear masks and they all dance backwards around a drum. This is a satirical portrayal of the beast and is intended to remind people of the seriousness of the wrongs of cannibalism, even during these most desperate times.
Some psychiatrists have studied a number of the reports of sightings and incidents related to the Wendigo, this has led to the somewhat controversial term ‘Wendigo psychosis’. They believed that this was a culture-bound syndrome, a sort of behavioural epidemic within a specific culture that caused an extreme yearning for human flesh and a strong fear of becoming a cannibal.
The first known inklings of this condition existing were reported in the ‘Jesuit Relations’ in the year 1661. These were chronicles printed annually from 1632 until 1673 that detailed the Jesuit missions in New France, the area colonised by France in North America. This report claimed that a group of native men under their employ were to await their arrival in the “Nations to the North Sea”. Upon their arrival they had found that the men had come under a combination of “lunacy, hypochondria” and ”frenzy”. It then stated that this combination had affected their imagination giving them such a ravenous hunger for human flesh that they would “pounce upon women, children, and even upon men, like veritable werewolves, and devour them voraciously, without being able to appease or glut”. The men were killed as it seemed the only way to stay their madness.
Perhaps the most well-known tale of Wendigo psychosis is that of Swift Runner, a Plains Cree Trapper from Alberta. In the year 1878 during another harsh winter Swift Runner, his wife and his six children were all starving. The situation grew dire when his eldest son died because of it. The family had to travel to a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost to receive emergency food, they were 25 miles away when Swift Runner killed and consumed his wife and five remaining children. After, he claimed that he didn’t do this as a last resort for survival but that he’d become possessed by the Wendigo spirit. He confessed to the murders and was executed at Fort Saskatchewan.
Sightings and reports of the Wendigo have declined since the early 20th Century, as cultures begin to integrate, and our way of living rids us of some the problems of yesterday like food stocks and coping with winter weather, the threat of these extreme measures disappears. Perhaps this is proof that Wendigo psychosis really is a case of mass hysteria.
Though if you’re ever in the woods and you hear a mysterious voice, best head home just in case!