Skinwalkers Are Shapeshifting Witches in Navajo Folklore

By: Robert Lamb  | 
Wolves at night
Anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn described skinwalkers as secret witches (mostly male, some female) who creep out in the night to take the form of swift-moving animals like the wolf and coyote. Image by 024-657-834 from Pixabay

The Navajo, or Diné, people of North America have a long-standing belief in magic and shapeshifting – and the skinwalker, or yee naaldlooshii, continues to stand as one of the more widely known examples of both. The Navajo skinwalker is believed to wander far across the American cultural landscape. Often reduced to a mere werewolf trope, this shadowy being frequently emerges in film, TV and even conspiracy theories. Yet the skinwalker's true nature belongs to the night.

The world beyond humanity's campfire has always seethed with danger. We have always populated the night with beings that blur the line between human and beast, the sacred and the profane, order and chaos. Archaeological discoveries in modern-day Germany date the contemplation of therianthropes (shapeshifting or half-animal beings) back to between 35,000 and 40,000 years in the past. More recent findings in Sulawesi, Indonesia, may push the date back even more, to at least 43,900 years ago. Either way, the concept remains a key feature of religion, myth and the fantastic.


In his 1944 book "Navaho Witchcraft," noted anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn explored magical traditions of contemporary Navajos. Specifically, in his book he examined the "influencing of events by supernatural techniques that are socially disapproved." Kluckhohn noted that English language translations like "witchcraft," are useful shorthand in this case, but they're not perfect. You can draw similarities between real or imagined European witches and skinwalkers, but the Navajo spirit world is undoubtedly unique.

Based on his interviews with Navajo people, Kluckhohn pieced together general descriptions of the various forms of "witchcraft" that existed within Navajo folk belief. He described skinwalkers as secret witches (mostly male, some female) who creep out in the night to take the form of swift-moving animals like the wolf and coyote. They were said to gather in foreboding places to work dark magic against their victims and engage in various taboo rituals of incest, corpse defilement and sibling murder.

So, what makes someone become a skinwalker?


What Are Skinwalkers?

Skinwalkers seem to fulfill roles occupied by folkloric beings in many cultures: the secret outsider, the plotter from within, the shapeshifter and the curse caster. Skinwalkers go by different names in different Native American tribes. The Navajo version is called yee naaldlooshii, which translates to "with it, he goes on all fours."

A man or woman becomes a skinwalker by committing a heinous act, like killing a family member. This gives them supernatural powers, allowing them to shapeshift from a human to an animal at will. They often become coyotes, wolves, foxes or bears, though they can shapeshift to any animal. They wear the skin of the animal they want to become (hence the name "skinwalker"), which depends on the needs of the task they want to perform. They might become a bear in order to have a lot of strength. Skinwalkers voluntarily assume this role — it's not a curse, like being a werewolf.


Skinwalkers can also read people's minds, control animals of the night, like owls, call up spirits of the dead, and are almost impossible to catch and get rid of. They must continue to kill or they'll die. You can tell if you're in the presence of a skinwalker by their eyes. If you shine a light on one when he's an animal, his eyes glow bright red. When he's a human, his eyes seem animal-like. Skinwalkers were blamed for everything that went wrong in Navajo society: crop failures, bad marriages, sicknesses, sudden death — you name it.

In order to get rid of a skinwalker, you need a powerful shaman who knows the right spells and incantations to get the skinwalker to turn on itself. You can also shoot the witch with bullets dipped in white ash, but the shot must hit him in the neck or the hand.

It's all too easy to look at another culture's folkloric traditions the same way you'd regard, say, a monster from Greek myth or a demon from medieval literature – creatures for which vibrant belief has long subsided and whose attributes are readily cataloged and canonized in Western tomes. But the skinwalker, as with many other folkloric creatures, does not reside in a text — no matter how many Western chroniclers have attempted to sequester them in one.


Skinwalker Ranch

Skinwalker Ranch (aka Sherman Ranch) borders the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah and is a hotbed of strange phenomena. The cattle ranch has spawned a popular book ("Hunt for the Skinwalker"), a feature-length documentary of the same name and a History channel series ("The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch").

"From encounters with mythical animals, to numerous cattle mutilations, poltergeist activity, crop circles, sightings of glowing orbs, and even flying saucers, virtually everything you might call 'paranormal' has been reported at the ranch and surrounding properties," wrote Austin Craig in TechBuzz in 2021. Owner Brandon Fugal told the publication there was a 100-year-old history of paranormal activity, including skinwalker sightings, at the property.


The Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation is the home of the Ute tribe. At one time, the Ute enslaved some of the Navajo people and also joined with U.S. troops against the Navajo during the Civil War. The result was that the Navajo were expelled from their lands in the Four Corners area, though they returned later. The Ute believed the Navajo put a curse on them and left shapeshifters among them because of their vile deeds. This is why the Ute will not go near Skinwalker Ranch.

Previous owners of the ranch had reported strange occurrences. Fugal said he bought the cattle ranch in 2016 not believing he would see anything unusual. Six months later, he saw "UFO activity" in broad daylight.

Skeptics say there is no hard evidence of anything unusual happening at Skinwalker Ranch. However, a biochemist who was part of an investigative team there in 1997, claimed to see a "humanoid creature" in a tree staring down at the team. He fired at the creature with a rifle and it disappeared. It was then he noticed it had left "a single large print in the snow with two sharp claws protruding from the rear of the mark going a couple of inches deeper. It almost looked like a bird of prey, maybe a raptor print, but huge and, from the depth of the print, from a very heavy creature," according to Was that a skinwalker sighting?

On History Channel's popular "The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch," a team of researchers led by astrophysicist Dr. Travis Taylor, try "applying cutting edge technology to investigate the 512-acre property to uncover the possibly 'otherworldly' perpetrators behind it all," according to the show's website.


Studying the Skinwalker From Inside and Outside Navajo Culture

Other anthropologists have studied and written about skinwalker beliefs over the decades since Kluckhohn's work. In the 1984 book "Some Kind of Power," Margaret K. Brady explored the social importance of skinwalker narratives among Navajo children. She discussed the way in which the skinwalker tales functioned to both serve as childhood ghost stories and also echo contemporary Navajo cultural concerns.

In the 2016 book "Upward, Not Sunwise," anthropologist Kimberly Jenkins Marshall discussed the way skinwalker accounts and beliefs factored into neo-pentecostal Navajo communities. While it might seem paradoxical that one might convert to Christianity and retain belief in skinwalkers, Marshall explored the ways traditional beliefs survive in the face of culture rupture.


In the 2007 journal article "Watching Navajos Watch Themselves," anthropologist Sam Pack examined the way often-flawed media representations of Navajo culture — including the 2002 movie "Skinwalkers" — clashed with cultural understanding of what it means to be Navajo.

And so we come to another key aspect of the media's relationship with the skinwalker: cultural appropriation. Pack wrote that the Navajo viewers he questioned generally seemed to enjoy the film "Skinwalkers," despite some cultural and linguistic inaccuracies. And yet, he also stressed, "This does not mean that the Navajo respondents in my study did not challenge the rights of both Anglos and non-Navajos to undertake such films."

While 2002's "Skinwalkers" was helmed by Cheyenne/Arapaho tribe member Chris Eyre and starred a predominantly Native American (but non-Navajo) cast, other media incarnations of the skinwalker have come at the hands of non-Native people.

Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling garnered criticism in 2016 for inclusion of an altered version of the skinwalkers in her online series "History of Magic in North America." Her critics charged that the move reduced an important and interconnected part of Native belief to a mere prop in an Anglo-centric story. In the Oregonian's coverage of the controversy, however, Douglas Perry pointed to a counter example of an Anglo author whose treatment of Navajo culture was well received by the Navajo Nation. They awarded the late novelist Tony Hillerman the Navajo Special Friends of the Dineh Award in 1991. Hillerman frequently wrote about Navajo culture and Navajo cultural values even penned the 1986 detective novel "Skinwalkers" upon which Chris Eyre's 2002 adaptation was based.

Where does all of this leave us concerning the mysterious skinwalker? Many contemporary Native Americans would argue that its place is in the living beliefs and customs of the Navajo – and that, as such, it is not necessarily open to interpretation and reinvention by those outside of it. Leave the skinwalker to the night.