- With skinwalkers becoming the subjects of popular books
and recently, movies, it is fair to ask about their origins. In August
1996, a team of scientists arrived on a remote ranch in NE Utah to investigate
a bizarre litany of phenomena; including unidentified flying objects,
animal mutilations, paranormal and poltergeist occurrences that appeared
to erupt almost on a nightly basis. The list went on and on. The first
piece of information the team learned from local people was that the ranch
lay "on the path of the skinwalker". Was the skinwalker responsible
for the weird happenings on this ranch? What followed was a multi-year
odyssey into the dark unknown as the science team tried to pursue, measure
and photograph the elusive "skinwalker". The complete account
of the unprecedented research project is published in the book "Hunt
for the Skinwalker".
- In the religion and cultural lore of Southwestern tribes,
there are witches known as skinwalkers who can alter their shapes at will
to assume the characteristics of certain animals. Most of the world's
cultures have their own shapeshifter legends. The best known is the werewolf,
popularized by dozens of Hollywood movies. European legends as far back
as the 1500's tell stories about werewolves. (The modern psychiatric term
for humans who believe they are wolves is lycanthropy.) The people of
India have a were- tiger legend. Africans have stories of were-leopards
and were- jackals. Egyptians tell of were-hyenas.
- In the American Southwest, the Navajo, Hopi, Utes, and
other tribes each have their own version of the skinwalker story, but
basically they boil down to the same thing--a malevolent witch capable
of transforming itself into a wolf, coyote, bear, bird, or any other animal.
The witch might wear the hide or skin of the animal identity it wants
to assume, and when the transformation is complete, the human witch inherits
the speed, strength, or cunning of the animal whose shape it has taken.
- "The Navajo skinwalkers use mind control to make
their victims do things to hurt themselves and even end their lives,"
writes Doug Hickman, a New Mexico educator. "The skinwalker is a
very powerful witch. They can run faster than a car and can jump mesa
cliffs without any effort at all."
- For the Navajo and other tribes of the southwest, the
tales of skinwalkers are not mere legend. Just ask Michael Stuhff. A Nevada
attorney, Stuhff is likely one of the few lawyers in the history of American
jurisprudence to file legal papers against a Navajo witch. He has often
represented Native Americans in his practice. He understands Indian law
and has earned the trust of his Native American clients, in large part
because he knows and respects tribal religious beliefs.
- As a young attorney in the mid-70s, Stuhff worked in
a legal aid program based near Genado Arizona. Many, if not most, of his
clients were Navajo. His legal confrontation with a witch occurred in
a dispute over child custody and financial support. His client, a Navajo
woman who lived on the reservation with her son, was asking for full custody
rights and back child support payments from her estranged husband, an
Apache man. At one point during the legal wrangling, the husband got permission
to take the son out for an evening, but didn't return the boy until the
next day. The son later told his mother what had transpired that night.
- According to the son, he spent the night with his father
and a "medicine man." They built a fire atop a cliff and, for
many hours, the medicine man performed ceremonies, songs, and incantations
around the fire. As dawn broke, the three traveled into a wooded area
near a cemetery, where they dug a hole. Into the hole, the medicine man
deposited two dolls made of wood. One of the dolls was made of dark wood,
the other of light wood. It was as if the two dolls were meant to represent
the mother and her lawyer. Although Stuhff wasn't sure how seriously to
take the news, he recognized that it certainly didn't sound good, so he
sought out the advice of a Navajo professor at a nearby community college.
- "He told me that the ceremony I had described was
very powerful and very serious and that it meant that I was supposed to
end up buried in that cemetery," Stuhff says. "He also said
that a witch can perform this type of ceremony only four times in his
life, because if he tries it more than that, the curse would come back
on the witch himself. He also told me that if the intended victim found
out about it, then the curse would come back onto the person who had requested
- Stuhff thought about a way to let the husband know that
he had found out about the ceremony, so he filed court papers that requested
an injunction against the husband and the unknown medicine man, whom he
described in the court documents as "John Doe, A Witch." The
motion described in great detail the alleged ceremony. The opposing attorney
appeared extremely upset by the motion, as did the husband and the presiding
judge. The opposing lawyer argued to the court that the medicine man had
performed "a blessing way ceremony," not a curse. But Stuhff
knew that the judge, who was a Navajo, could distinguish between a blessing
ceremony, which takes place in Navajo hogans (homes), and what was obviously
a darker ceremony involving lookalike dolls that took place in the woods
near a cemetery. The judge nodded in agreement when Stuhff responded.
Before the judge could rule, Stuhff requested a recess so that the significance
of his legal motion could sink in. The next day, the husband capitulated
by agreeing to grant total custody to the mother and to pay all back child
- "I took it very seriously because he took it seriously,"
Stuhff says. "I learned early on that sometimes witches will do things
themselves to assist the supernatural, and I knew what that might mean."
- Whether or not Stuhff literally believes that witches
have supernatural powers, he acknowledges that this belief is strongly
held in the Navajo nation. Certain communities on the reservation had
reputations as witchcraft strongholds, he says. It is also unknown whether
the witch he faced was a skinwalker or not. "Not all witches are
skinwalkers," he says, "but all skinwalkers are witches. And
skinwalkers are at the top. They are a witch's witch, so to speak."
- According to University of Nevada-Las Vegas anthropologist
Dan Benyshek, who specializes in the study of Native Americans of the
Southwest, "Skinwalkers are purely evil in intent. I'm no expert
on it, but the general view is that skinwalkers do all sorts of terrible
things---they make people sick, they commit murders. They are graverobbers
and necrophiliacs. They are greedy and evil people who must kill a sibling
or other relative to be initiated as a skinwalker. They supposedly can
turn into were-animals and can travel in supernatural ways."
- Benyshek and other scientists do not necessarily endorse
the legitimacy of the legends, but they recognize the importance of studying
stories about skinwalkers because the power of the belief among Native
Americans manifests itself in ways that are very real. "Oh, absolutely,"
says Benyshek explains. "Anthropologists have conducted scientific
investigations into the beliefs in Native American witchcraft because
of the effects of such beliefs on human health."
- Anthropologist David Zimmerman of the Navajo Nation
Historic Preservation Department explains: "Skinwalkers are folks
that possess knowledge of medicine, medicine both practical (heal the
sick) and spiritual (maintain harmony), and they are both wrapped together
in ways that are nearly impossible to untangle."
- As Zimmerman suggests, the flip side of the skinwalker
coin is the power of tribal medicine men. Among the Navajo, for instance,
medicine men train over a period of many years to become full- fledged
practitioners in the mystical rituals of the Dine' (Navajo) people. The
U.S. Public Health Service now works side by side with Navajo medicine
men because the results of this collaboration have been proven, time and
again, in clinical studies. The medicine men have shown themselves to
be effective in treating a range of ailments.
- "There has been a lot of serious research into
medicine men and traditional healers," says Benyshek. "As healers,
they are regarded as being very effective in some areas."
- But there is a dark side to the learning of the medicine
men. Witches follow some of the same training and obtain similar knowledge
as their more benevolent colleagues, but they supplement both with their
pursuit of the dark arts, or black magic. By Navajo law, a known witch
has forfeited its status as a human and can be killed at will. The assumption
is that a witch, by definition, is evil.
- "Witchcraft was always an accepted, if not widely
acknowledged part of Navajo culture," wrote journalist A. Lynn Allison.
"And the killing of witches was historically as much accepted among
the Navajo as among the Europeans." Allison has studied what she
calls the "Navajo Witch Purge of 1878" and has written a book
on the subject. In that year, more than 40 Navajo witches were killed
or "purged" by tribe members because the Navajo had endured
a horrendous forced march at the hands of the U.S. Army in which hundreds
were starved, murdered, or left to die. At the end of the march, the Navajo
were confined to a bleak reservation that left them destitute and starving.
The gross injustice of their situation led them to conclude that witches
might be responsible, so they purged their ranks of suspected witches
as a means of restoring harmony and balance. Tribe members reportedly
found a collection of witch artifacts wrapped in a copy of the Treaty
of 1868 and "buried in the belly of a dead person." It was all
the proof they needed to unleash their deadly purge.
- "Unexplained sickness or death of tribal members
or their livestock could arouse suspicion of witchcraft," wrote Allison
in her book. "So could an unexplained reversal of fortune, good or
- In the Navajo world, where witchcraft is important,
where daily behavior is patterned to avoid it, prevent it, and cure it,
there are as many words for its various forms as there are words for
various kinds of snow among the Eskimos. If the woman thought he was adan'ti,
she thought he had the power of sorcery-to convert himself into animal
form, to fly, to perhaps become invisible. Very specific ideas. Where
had she gotten them?
- The Navajo people do not openly talk about skinwalkers,
certainly not to outsiders. Author Tony Hillerman, who has lived for many
years among the Navajo, used the skinwalker legend as the backdrop for
one of his immensely popular detective novels, one that pitted his intrepid
Navajo lawmen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn against the dark powers of witchcraft.
The following excerpt is from Skinwalkers:
- "You think that if I confess that I witched your
baby, then the baby will get well and pretty soon I will die," Chee
said. "Is that right? Or, if you kill me, then the witching will
- "You should confess," the woman said. "You
should say you did it. Otherwise, I will kill you."
- Hillerman has been harshly criticized by some Navajo
for bringing unwanted attention to the subject of skinwalkers. "No
one who has ever lived in the Navajo country would ever make light of
this sinister situation," wrote one critic after Hillerman's book
was produced as a movie that aired on PBS in 2003.
- Anthropologist Zimmerman explains why so little information
is available on skinwalkers: "Part of the reason you won't find a
lot of information about skinwalkers in the literature is because it is
a sensitive topic among the Dine. This is often referred to as proprietary
information, meaning it belongs to the Dine' people and is not to be shared
with the non-Dine'."
- We know from personal experience that is it extremely
difficult to get Native Americans to discuss skinwalkers, even in the
most general terms. Practitioners of adishgash, or witchcraft, are considered
to be a very real presence in the Navajo world. Few Navajo want to cross
paths with naagloshii (or yee naaldooshi), otherwise known as a skinwalker.
The cautious Navajo will not speak openly about skinwalkers, especially
with strangers, because to do so might invite the attention of an evil
witch. After all, a stranger who asks questions about skinwalkers just
might be one himself, looking for his next victim.
- "They curse people and cause great suffering and
death," one Navajo writer explained. "At night, their eyes glow
red like hot coals. It is said that if you see the face of a Naagloshii,
they have to kill you. If you see one and know who it is, they will die.
If you see them and you don't know them, they have to kill you to keep
you from finding out who they are. They use a mixture that some call corpse
powder, which they blow into your face. Your tongue turns black and you
go into convulsions and you eventually die. They are known to use evil
spirits in their ceremonies. The Dine' have learned ways to protect themselves
against this evil and one has to always be on guard."
- One story told on the Navajo reservation in Arizona
concerns a woman who delivered newspapers in the early morning hours.
She claims that, during her rounds, she heard a scratching on the passenger
door of her vehicle. Her baby was in the car seat next to her. The door
flung open and she saw the horrifying form of a creature she described
as half-man, half-beast, with glowing red eyes and a gnarly arm that was
reaching for her child. She fought it off, managed to pull the door closed,
then pounded the gas pedal and sped off. To her horror, she says, the
creature ran along with the car and continued to try to open the door.
It stayed with her until she screeched up to an all-night convenience
store. She ran inside, screaming and hysterical, but when the store employee
dashed outside, the being had vanished. Outsiders may view the story
skeptically, and any number of alternative explanations might be suggested,
but it is taken seriously on the Navajo reservation.
- Although skinwalkers are generally believed to prey
only on Native Americans, there are recent reports from Anglos claiming
they had encountered skinwalkers while driving on or near tribal lands.
One New Mexico Highway Patrol officer told us that while patrolling a
stretch of highway south of Gallup, New Mexico, he had had two separate
encounters with a ghastly creature that seemingly attached itself to the
door of his vehicle. During the first encounter, the veteran law enforcement
officer said the unearthly being appeared to be wearing a ghostly mask
as it kept pace with his patrol car. To his horror, he realized that the
ghoulish specter wasn't attached to his door after all. Instead, he said,
it was running alongside his vehicle as he cruised down the highway at
a high rate of speed.
- The officer said he had a nearly identical experience
in the same area a few days later. He was shaken to his core by these
encounters, but didn't realize that he would soon get some confirmation
that what he had seen was real. While having coffee with a fellow highway
patrolman not long after the second incident, the cop cautiously described
his twin experiences. To his amazement, the second officer admitted having
his own encounter with a white-masked ghoul, a being that appeared out
of nowhere and then somehow kept pace with his cruiser as he sped across
the desert. The first officer told us that he still patrols the same
stretch of highway and that he is petrified every time he enters the area.
- Once Caucasian family still speaks in hushed tones about
its encounter with a skinwalker, even though it happened in 1983. While
driving at night along Route 163 through the massive Navajo Reservation,
the four members of the family felt that someone was following them. As
their truck slowed down to round a sharp bend, the atmosphere changed,
and time itself seemed to slow down. Then something leaped out of a roadside
ditch at the vehicle.
- "It was black and hairy and was eye level with
the cab," one of the witnesses recalled. "Whatever this thing
was, it wore a man's clothes. It had on a white and blue checked shirt
and long pants. Its arms were raised over its head, almost touching the
top of the cab. It looked like a hairy man or a hairy animal in man's
clothing, but it didn't look like an ape or anything like that. Its eyes
were yellow and its mouth was open."
- The father described as a fearless man who had served
two tours in Vietnam, turned completely white, the blood drained from
his face. The hair on his neck and arms stood straight up, like a cat
under duress, and noticeable goose bumps erupted from his skin. Although
time seemed frozen during this bizarre interlude, the truck continued
on its way, and the family was soon miles down the highway.
- A few days later, at their home in Flagstaff, the family
awoke to the sounds of loud drumming. As they peered out their windows,
they saw the dark forms of three "men" outside their fence.
The shadowy beings tried to climb the fence to enter the yard but seemed
inexplicably unable to cross onto the property. Frustrated by their failed
entry, the men began to chant in the darkness as the terrified family
huddled inside the house.
- The story leaves several questions unanswered. If the
beings were skinwalkers, and if skinwalkers can assume animal form or
even fly, it isn't clear why they couldn't scale a fence. It is also not
known whether the family called the police about the attempted intrusion
- The daughter, Frances, says she contacted friend, a
Navajo woman who is knowledgeable about witchcraft. The woman visited
the home, inspected the grounds, and offered her opinion that the intruders
had been skinwalkers who were drawn by the family's "power"
and that they had intended to take that power by whatever means necessary.
She surmised that the intrusion failed because something was protecting
the family, while admitting that it was all highly unusual since skinwalkers
rarely bother non-Indians. The Navajo woman performed a blessing ceremony
at the home. Whether the ceremony had any legitimacy or not, the family
felt better for it and has had no similar experiences in the ensuing years.
- This disturbing account is not offered as definitive
proof of anything, particularly since we have not personally interviewed
the witnesses. It is presented only as an illustration of the intense
fear and unsettling descriptions that permeate skinwalker lore, and which
are accepted at face value by the Native Americans for whom the skinwalker
topic is not just a spooky children's story.
- So, exactly how and when did the skinwalker legend intersect
with the Gorman ranch in northeastern Utah? Retired teacher and UFO researcher
Junior Hicks says his friends in the Ute tribe believe the skinwalker
presence in the Uinta Basin extends back at least 15 generations. The
Utes, described by historians as a fierce and warlike people, were sometimes
aligned with the Navajo against common enemies during the 1800's. But
the alliance didn't last. When the Utes first acquired horses from the
Spanish, they enthusiastically embraced the Spanish example by engaging
in the slave trade. They reportedly abducted Navajos and other Indians
and sold them in New Mexico slave markets. Later, during the American
Civil War, some Ute bands took orders from Kit Carson in a military campaign
against the Navajo. According to Hicks, the Utes believe the Navajo put
a curse on their tribe in retribution for many perceived transgressions.
And ever since that time, Hicks was told, the skinwalker has plagued the
- The ranch property has been declared as off-limits to
tribal members because it lies in the path of the skinwalker. Even today,
Utes refuse to set foot on what they see as accursed land. But the tribe
doesn't necessarily believe that the skinwalker lives on the ranch. Hicks
says the Utes told him that the skinwalker lives in a place called Dark
Canyon, which is not far from the ranch. In the early 1980's, Hicks sought
permission from tribal elders to explore the canyon. He's been told there
are centuries-old petroglyphs in Dark Canyon, some of which depict the
skinwalker. But the tribal council denied his request to explore the canyon.
One member later confided to Hicks that the tribe denied the request because
it did not want to disturb the skinwalker for fear that it might "create
problems." The tribe's advice to Hicks: "Leave it alone."
- Dan Banyshek suggests that some parts of this account
don't add up. He thinks it unlikely that the Navajo would enlist the
assistance of a skinwalker to carry out their revenge on the Utes, no
matter how much the tribe might want some payback on their enemy. "The
skinwalkers are regarded as selfish, greedy, and untrustworthy,"
Banyshek says. "If the Navajo knew someone to be a skinwalker, they
would probably kill him, not ask for his help with the Utes. Besides,
even if he was asked, the skinwalker would be unlikely to help the Navajo
get revenge, since his motives are entirely evil and self-serving. From
the Navajo perspective, this story doesn't make sense."
- But from the Ute perspective, it could ring true. "The
Utes could very likely have concluded that the curse is real," explains
Banyshek. "Different tribes or bands would often tell stories about
the evil motives of other tribes they were in conflict with, about how
another tribe was in league with witches, or how other tribes were cannibals.
The Utes might tell themselves this story as a way to explain their own
- Hicks told us that the Indians say they see them a lot.
"When they go out camping," he says, "they sprinkle bark
around their campsites and light it as protection against these things.
But it's not just Indians. Whites see them, too." Like his Ute neighbors,
Hicks sometimes uses the terms skinwalker and Sasquatch interchangeably.
He says he's seen photographs of the telltale huge footprints often associated
with Bigfoot, taken in the vicinity of the Gorman ranch. But whether it
was a run-of-the-mill Sasquatch or a far more sinister skinwalker isn't
always clear, even to those who accept he existence of both.
- "There was an incident 16 years ago where a skinwalker
was on a porch in Fort Duchesne," Hicks remembers. "They called
the tribal police and tracked it east toward the river. They took some
shots at it and thought they hit it because they found blood on the ground,
but they never found a body."
- We also conducted an interview with a Ute man who worked
as a security officer for the tribe. He provided us with details about
his own encounter with a Bigfoot or skinwalker. Brandon Ware (not his
real name) received his police training at an academy associated with
the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He says he was working the 10:00 p.m. to
4:00 a.m. shift, guarding a tribal building near a part of the reservation
known as Little Chicago. Between midnight and 1:00 in the morning, Ware
walked up to check on the building and noticed that the guard dogs inside
were calm but intently staring through a window at something outside.
They weren't barking, he said, just looking.
- "I could see this big ol' round thing, you know,
in the patio over there," Ware recalls, " and the hair started
raising on my neck and I kinda got worried a little bit trying to figure
out what things were. I stood there and watched it for a few minutes,
then it came over the top and headed down the road. But I could smell
it. Even after it was gone, you could smell it."
- Ware says that when the creature realized it was being
observed, it briefly looked over at Ware, then vaulted over a short wall
that surrounded the patio area outside the building. He says it took off
running toward the Little Chicago neighborhood, crashing into garbage
cans as it moved past the homes, and generating a cacophony of loud barking
by every dog in the immediate area. Ware says he then went into the building
and telephoned another on-duty officer who was nearby. By the time Ware
left the building, the other officer had pulled up in his patrol car.
- Ware told the other officer to turn off his engine so
they could listen to the hubbub that was still unfolding among the nearby
homes. "We listened a little bit and we could hear it. Then we jumped
in and took off. We headed down the hill to see if we could catch up to
- The two officers didn't see the creature again that
night, but had no trouble tracing its path through the cluster of homes
because they were able to follow a noticeable trail of scattered garbage
cans. "It must have gone straight on through, " Ware recalls.
"We could see where cans---people usually tie up their cans---they
were all off. I told the other officer, 'hey man, maybe it picked up
them cans and was throwing them at those dogs'."
- Ware provided us with further details about what he
had seen. His initial impression was of something dark and round. But
he says that when the creature stood erect to vault over the patio wall,
it appeared to be "huge." Ware was carrying a large flashlight
at the time of the encounter. He says he was using the flashlight just
minutes before the encounter while checking the doors of the building,
but when he tried to use it to illuminate the creature, the light wouldn't
turn on. When the creature took off running down the hill, the flashlight
clicked back on.
- "He moved quick," he told us. "Whatever
it was, it moved---I called him a 'he'---it could have been a she. It
could have been whatever, but he moved quick going down through there.
But it was kind of cool. It was neat. I never knew it....it was something
I've never seen before. I've heard about them. I heard the old people
talking about some of these things."
- Just a few nights later, Ware got a chance for a second
look. He and another officer, "Bob", were patrolling a back
road that emerges at a spot known as Shorty's Hill. They emerged from
the road to a pasture area that is punctuated by a large rock. "I
don't know if it was the same guy or not," Ware says. "It was
a big ol' black hairy thing hanging there, and when it turned around,
it had big ol' eyes on him about yea big. We'd just passed it and I told
Bob 'there he is,' and then he come to a screeching halt and we backed
up. By the time we got out, it was gone."
- Ware described the creature's eyes as being "coal
red" and unusually large. He isn't sure whether the headlights of
the patrol car might have affected his perception of the beast's eye color,
but tends to doubt it. He has no doubt about the presence of the beast
itself. "We got out there to go look and we had shotguns and pistols
and everything. We were going to blow him away," Ware admits.
- When pressed for his opinion of what he had seen, whether
it might have been a Sasquatch or even a skinwalker, Ware's response seemed
to draw a distinction between the two, but the distinction became blurry
as the conversation progressed and Ware explained his understanding of
- "Sasquatch, he's an old man, an old man that lives
on a mountain," he explained. "He just comes in and looks at
people and then he goes back out again. He just lives there all his life,
never takes care of himself, and just smells real bad. Almost like, almost
like that guy, like he is dirty, dirty human being smell is what it smelled
like...a real deep, bad odor....It smelled like dirty bad underarms...The
closer I got, the worse the smell got." Could the creature he saw
have been a skinwalker?
- "Nope," said Ware. "A skinwalker's smaller.
A skinwalker is the size of humans, six foot and under. They don't come
in most of the time to where the animals are at. They come in where people
are at. They can come right here and you'd never know he was standing
here looking at you in the middle of the night...they can take the shape
of anything they want to take the shape of. Like I said, they're medicine."
- Ware said that skinwalker sightings among the Utes are
not uncommon. He told us of an encounter with two shapeshifters near
the Gorman ranch. The figures he described are so unusual, so far outside
our own concept of reality as to be almost comical, like something out
of a Saturday morning cartoon. One local who saw them in the road in Fort
Duchesne described them as humans with dog heads smoking cigarettes. But
Ware was perfectly serious in his description. He certainly did not bare
his soul for comic effect and we have no interest in making light of his
story. For him, and for many others, skinwalkers are as real as the morning
sun or the evening moon. They are a part of everyday life, and they most
certainly are integral to the story of the Gorman ranch.
- Could the Utes have used the skinwalker curse as an
all- encompassing explanation for their assorted tribal misfortunes, as
Banyshek asks? Or are they relying on the legend as an umbrella explanation
for the wide range of paranormal events that have been reported in the
vicinity of their lands for generations--in particular, in the vicinity
of the ranch?
- If a skinwalker really is a shapeshifter, capable of
mind control and other trickery, might it also have the ability to conjure
up nightmarish visions of Bigfoot or UFOs? Could it steal and mutilate
cattle, incinerate dogs, generate images of monsters , unknown creatures,
or extinct species, and could it also frighten hapless residents with
- At the very least, the skinwalker legend might be a
convenient way for the Utes to grasp a vast menu of otherwise inexplicable
events, the same sort of events that might stymie and confuse a team of
- One thing is sure, by summer 2007 it is obvious that
the legend of skinwalkers is entering popular culture in ways not seen
- Colm Kelleher and George Knapp
- Authors: Hunt for the Skinwalker