The Mythology and Misrepresentation of the Windigo

A photo of "Cannibal feast on the Island of Tanna, New Hebrides" by Charles E. Gordon Frazer. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A photo of “Cannibal feast on the Island of Tanna, New Hebrides” by Charles E. Gordon Frazer. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Elizabeth McCauley

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, horror movies, science fiction novels, or the show Supernatural, there is a pretty good chance you’ve heard of the windigo. But do you know where–or more importantly, from whom– this story originated? Hint: It was not in a writers’ room at Warner Bros.

The windigo originates from spiritual beliefs held by Indigenous peoples who inhabited large parts of both the northeastern seaboard and continental interior, especially the region around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. A diverse mix of many different cultures and nations, the people share a set of similar dialects of the Algonquian language. As a result, they’re often referred to as “Algonquian” peoples.

The windigo, sometimes spelled wendigo or weendigo, is believed to be the spirit of winter and a symbol of the dangers of selfishness. Although beliefs vary, the windigo is generally considered a horrifying entity with an insatiable taste for human flesh. Anyone who encounters a windigo risks being devoured or even being turned into a windigo.

One usually becomes a windigo as punishment for dishonorable or taboo activities, such as engaging in cannibalism due to starvation. According to Shawn Smallman, author of Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History, “it was a means of defining moral social behavior, which could serve as a warning against greed and selfishness.” One could also become a windigo if a shaman cursed them or if they dreamed of the windigo. The myth was also used to explain mental illness and other serious afflictions.

Today, the windigo has become a fixture in North American popular culture and is a frequent subject in film and literature all over the world. It is featured in novels such as Rick Yancy’s The Curse of the Windigo and Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery. The windigo also appears in Marvel comics, video games, and even the cartoon My Little Pony. Non-Native writers seem to be fascinated by the windigo. However, their depictions of the windigo vary considerably from those presented by Indigenous authors. These differences speak volumes about how non-Native people tend to simplify Indigenous beliefs and often strip them of cultural context in the process.

Brady DeSanti, a professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, notes  that “the windigo of pop culture often gets most everything about the windigo wrong, including the depictions of Native Americans and First Nations communities.” According to most Native American legends, the physical form of a windigo is often said to be human-like. Over time, it becomes a giant. In some stories, the windigo has a heart of ice, and is  so hungry for flesh that it chews its lips off. Conversely, when the windigo appears in North American pop culture, it is usually likened to a werewolf, vampire, Yeti, or some combination thereof.

DeSanti thinks that this has to do with Hollywood’s tendency to understand the windigo in terms of other popular monsters of cinema.  A quick Google Image search for “windigo” produces pages of antlered snow demons and giant reindeer-like beasts.This image is a far cry from how Indigenous people understood the windigo. As Shawn Smallman notes, traditional Indigenous narratives never imagined the windigo with antlers.

In addition to inaccurate imagery, popular depictions of the windigo as a ravenous animal have also displaced the original emphasis that Indigenous people placed on the windigo as a lesson on human greed. These narratives also fail to acknowledge that the windigo, and the Indigenous cultures that imagined it, have evolved over time, as have Indigenous peoples’ cultural practices. Smallman notes that current images of the windigo separate it  “from Aboriginal culture, in that there is little meaningful discussion of Native beliefs. Instead, Aboriginal peoples are often associated with a simplified version of the past, in which discussions of colonialism are avoided.”

Among many Native peoples, the windigo remains a warning against greed–but now, they associate it with the excesses of capitalism and colonialism, rather than wilderness or barren winters. Importantly, even this modern conceptualization of the windigo among Indigenous peoples is not without hope. Dr. Grace Dillon, professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University has observed that Indigenous authors’ depictions of the windigo “tend to offer hope in what seems to be such a desperate moment.” They often have happy endings involving characters who escape the windigo against all odds, while in Western interpretations “the windigo has so much power that this spirit-person decimates all in [its] path.”

In the end, pop culture’s fascination with the windigo may prove a misguided attempt to draw from non-European folklore.“I think audiences and filmmakers alike occasionally get tired of the old, tried and true monsters of the big screen and look outside a Western context for inspiration,” said DeSanti. Still, “more often than not, the filmmakers simply take the windigo and make it into a relatable monster for Western audiences, which kind of defeats the purpose of going outside of a Western context for inspiration in the first place.”


Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
434-924-6894
dianaw@virginia.edu

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