In Navajo (Navajo: Diné) culture, a skin-walker (yee naaldlooshii) is a type of harmful witch who has the ability to turn into, possess, or disguise themselves as an animal, usually for the purposes of harming people. Most skin-walker magic is done with the intent to commit murder.
In the Navajo language, yee naaldlooshii translates to "by means of it, [he or she] goes on all fours". While perhaps the most common variety seen in horror fiction by non-Navajo people, the yee naaldlooshii is one of several varieties of Navajo witch, specifically a type of ’ánti’įhnii. The legend of the skin-walkers is not well understood outside of Navajo culture, mostly due to reluctance to discuss the subject with outsiders (in part because strangers may be witches themselves), thus people are led to draw their own conclusions from the stories they hear. Navajo people are reluctant to reveal skin-walker lore to non-Navajos, or to discuss it at all among those they do not trust.
Navajo witches, including skin-walkers, represent the antithesis of Navajo cultural values. They are evil reflections of goodly medicine men and women, performing twisted ceremonies and manipulating magic in a perversion of the good works medicine people traditionally perform. In order to practice their good works, traditional healers learn about both good and evil magic. Most can handle the responsibility, but some become corrupt and can become witches.
Animals associated with them usually include tricksters such as the coyote, but can include other creatures such as owls. They may also possess living animals or people and walk around in their bodies by locking eyes with them. Skin-walkers may be male or female but are typically male.
Skin-walkers are believed to have a secret society, living among Navajo, and can look like anyone else. Skin-walkers might wear body paint in a mockery of what is worn by goodly medicine men. In the dead of night, they are said to sneak off to a cave to meet and perform a twisted mockery of the holy chants conducted by medicine men in order to work their evil magic.
Skin-walker stories told among Navajo children may be complete life and death struggles that end in either skin-walker or Navajo killing the other, or partial encounter stories that end in a stalemate. The home is viewed as a place of safety and strength, so Navajo are usually safe in the domestic environment. Skin-walkers act as an antagonistic alien force, so they have power in an alien environment. A story about a Navajo who meets a skin-walker out in the woods away from home is a sure skin-walker victory story. Skin-walkers typically cannot gain access to a home and may be scared away by threats of violence but some are successful with home invasions and will rape women or kill children, but family members will always kill the skin-walkers in the end. Encounter stories are similarly composed as Navajo victory stories, with the skin-walkers approaching a hogan and being scared away. The end result is a sense of temporary safety with continued fear of the skin-walker, but to vocalize this is an Anglo-derivative faux pas.
Anglo variations on skin-walker stories typically take the form of partial encounter stories on the road, where the protagonist is temporarily vulnerable, but then escapes from the skin-walker in a way not traditionally seen in Navajo stories that take place away from home. Sometimes Navajo children take Anglo folk stories and substitute generic killers like The Hook with skin-walkers.
- Wall, Leon and William Morgan, Navajo-English Dictionary. Hippocrene Books, New York City, 1998 ISBN 0-7818-0247-4.
- Hampton, Carol M. "Book Review: Some Kind of Power: Navajo Children's Skinwalker Narratives" in Western Historical Quarterly. 01 July 1986. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
- Keene, Dr. Adrienne, "Magic in North America Part 1: Ugh." at Native Appropriations, 8 March 2016. Accessed 9 April 2016. "What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions…but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I'm sorry if that seems 'unfair,' but that's how our cultures survive."
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