According to most Algonquian oral traditions, a windigo is a cannibalistic monster that preys on the weak and socially disconnected. In most versions of the legend, a human becomes a windigo after his or her spirit is corrupted by greed or weakened by extreme conditions, such as hunger and cold. In other legends, humans become windigos when possessed by a prowling spirit during a moment of weakness.
Depending on the many First Nations that speak an Algonquian language, including the Abenaki, Siksika, Mi’kmaq, Algonquin, Ojibwe and Innu, the spelling and pronunciation of the word “windigo” differs. Wendigo, wheetigo, windikouk, wi’ntsigo, wi’tigo and wittikka are all alternative versions of the same term. Other names, such as atchen, chenoo and kewok, are also commonly used to refer to the windigo.
Appearance and Characteristics
Just as there are different versions of the word “windigo,” there are many variations on the creature’s appearance and powers. Sometimes, windigos are described as exceptionally thin, with the skull and skeleton pushing through its ash-coloured, mummy-like skin. Other stories describe the windigo as a well-fleshed giant who gets proportionately larger the more it eats. According to other legends, the windigo has pointed or animal-like ears with antlers or horns sprouting on its head. A windigo’s eyes have been described as sunken or glowing like hot coals. Sharp and pointy teeth, extremely bad breath and body odour are also often traits of a windigo.
The windigo is usually, but not always, endowed with powers, such as superhuman strength and stamina that allow it to stalk, overpower and devour its victims. Windigos are usually credited with exceptional eyesight, hearing and sense of smell. They are said to move with the speed of the wind and have the ability to walk across deep snow or even over open water without sinking.
According to some legends, windigos can be killed with a conventional weapon, such as a club or firearm. Other legends claim that the windigo has to be somehow subdued, its icy heart cut out and then melted in a roaring fire. Still other legends claim that only a knowledgeable First Nations spiritual leader, a shaman, can dispatch a windigo with a specific spell and ceremony.
Origin and History
The windigo legend existed in Algonquian oral history for many centuries, long before Europeans arrived in North America. However, the first European-written account of a windigo was by Paul Le Jeune, a Jesuit missionary who lived among the Algonquin people in the early-17th century in what is now Quebec. In a report to his superiors in Paris in 1636, Le Jeune wrote:
This devilish woman…added that [the windigo] had eaten some Attikamegoukin — these are the tribes that live north of the River that is called Three Rivers — and that he would eat a great many more of them if he were not called elsewhere. But that Atchen (sort of a werewolf) would come in his place to devour them… even up to the French Fort; that he would slaughter the French themselves.
Father Le Jeune’s report demonstrates that 17th-century Europeans believed in evil supernatural spirits just as strongly as their First Nations contemporaries. In fact, Father Le Jeune’s report predates the Salem Witch Trials by nearly 60 years. Missionaries in what became Canada continued to report legends of the windigo until well into the 20th century.
Stories could also be found on the Western frontier in the 1800s, among Plains Indigenous peoples and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Some HBC traders’ records describe encounters with Indigenous spiritual leaders claiming to descend into “fits” of religious passion. Indigenous peoples often accused these people of being windigos; HBC traders sometimes described them as mad. In some cases, community members or relatives of the accused killed the suspected windigo as a precaution. In one example, three men killed Cree spiritual leader Abishabis after he became greedy and killed an Indigenous family — which led others to believe that he was a windigo.
In the early 20th century, the term “windigo” found its way into the Western medical vocabulary. It was used by early psychiatrists to refer to a mental condition in which patients felt possessed by cannibalistic desires. Oblate Missionary J. E. Saindon was the first to use the term in the 1920s while working in a Cree community in the western James Bay area. There he met a woman who claimed that she saw strangers who wanted to kill and devour her. Saindon referred to the woman’s mental condition as a “psychoneurosis” — a mental or behavioral disorder, characterized by depression and anxiety. Overtime, the condition came to be known as the Windigo Psychosis. However, whether this is a real affliction is still a highly disputed discussion among the medical community.
Symbolism and Meaning
Legends of the windigo reveal much about the beliefs, ways of life, social structures and traditions of the people who tell these stories. For some, windigo legends serve as reminders of the importance of community, and more importantly, about what can happen when individuals are left outside of the community. One recipe for creating a windigo — extreme hunger, cold and isolation — were ever-present and threatening facts of life for many First Nations people living in the northern boreal forests. In fact, most windigo stories begin with an individual or small group trapped in the wilderness without food, for an extended period, alone and in the cold. Windigos were said to kill lonely travellers or a member of a group and then take on their personality temporarily, before eventually killing other humans it encountered.
Similarly, a windigo’s legendary greed represented attitudes about sharing in many Indigenous cultures. In the wilderness, human survival often depended on communal cooperation and the sharing of food and possessions. Any individual who refused to share local resources, especially in times of great deprivation, was considered a “monster.” According to historian Shawn Smallman, the windigo is still seen as a symbol of greed in modern society, as manifested in capitalism and corporate consumerism.
The creature has also come to serve as a metaphor for the injustices that Indigenous peoples have faced in Canada, including residential schools, the restriction of rights in the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop and similarly assimilative policies. Armand Ruffo’s film, A Windigo Tale (2010), for example, uses the monster to tell a story about the intergenerational trauma of residential schools. For some Indigenous persons, the windigo represents the forces of colonization. (See also Imperialism.)
In Popular Culture
Unlike the mythological creatures that have been popularized in European culture for centuries, such as vampires and werewolves, Western popular culture has only discovered the windigo relatively recently. However, there are now many films, graphic novels (Mathieu Missoffe’s Curse of the Wendigo, for example), television shows and comics (Marvel’s Wendigo) based on tales of the windigo. The creature has also inspired artworks by Norval Morrisseau and literary works by Basil H. Johnston, Margaret Atwood, Tomson Highway and Joseph Boyden. These new media add to the diversity of the legend and to the ways that it is interpreted by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike.