Classic Canadian Wendigo Stories
Ancient native legend has it that an evil man-eating entity prowls the woods of Eastern Canada, the timberland of the Canadian Shield, and the forests of the Canadian North. For centuries, tales of these North American ghouls were the exclusive domain of lonely Indian campfires, the letters and journals of frontiersmen, and the ethnologies of academics with special interests in the lore of the boreal forests. Native people called this creature the Wendigo, the Windigo, or the Weetiko- a word which translates to ‘cannibal’.
Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries, this disturbing oral tradition gradually made its way into popular literature, film, and video games. Today, the Wendigo is typically depicted as either a rotting anthropomorphic deer or a gaunt, long-limbed humanoid which crawls on all fours like a spider.
The original native portrait of the Wendigo varied from place to place and from nation to nation. Despite their differences, however, most traditional interpretations of that monstrous man-eating menace of the North bear little resemblance to their modern incarnations. In this video, we’ll take a look at some classic Canadian Wendigo stories from the 1800s in an effort to form a clearer picture of this great North American monster.
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One cold spring night in May 1823, in a lonely lakeside cabin in the wooded heart of what is now northern Saskatchewan, a veteran fur trader named George Nelson sat down by candlelight to write a long letter to his father.
George Nelson was in the twilight of a long and frustrating career that spanned the entirety of his adult life, beginning in 1802, when he signed on as a clerk with a small fur trading syndicate at the age of 15. He had served three different fur trading companies- namely the XY Company, the North West Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company- being forced to work alongside his former rivals as each syndicate was absorbed by its successor. He cut his teeth in the forests of Wisconsin, living among his Ojibwa clients, who were on the perpetual run from their easterly enemies, the Dakota Sioux. He spent nearly two decades serving at various posts along the southern and western shores of Lake Winnipeg, in what is now the Province of Manitoba. And in 1822, after two decades of service, he was transferred to a remote outpost on the shores of Lac la Ronge, deep in the frozen forests of northern Saskatchewan. Being of Loyalist New English stock and Protestant persuasion, he had never quite established rapport with the Scottish clansmen who populated the upper management of the syndicates for which he worked, nor with the Catholic French-Canadian voyageurs under his charge. His lack of connections likely precluded his professional advancement; at the time of his transfer to La Ronge, George Nelson still retained the lowly position of clerk.
In a lengthy series of letters to his father, penned throughout the spring and summer of 1823, George Nelson set to paper some of the beliefs and customs of the Cree and Ojibwa with whom he had traded for twenty years. This fascinating correspondence, which has been described as “one of the finest early ethnographic documents of its kind,” is peppered with strange tales of ghosts, Indian magic, and some of Nelson’s own unexplainable experiences in the wilderness of North America. Among the strangest of these stories are those which pertain to the legend of the Wendigo.
Nelson introduced this frightening native tradition in one of his letters, writing, “There is a kind of disease… peculiar to the Crees and Sauteauxs, and of which they have the greatest dread and [horror]; and certainly not without the very [greatest] cause, the consequences 49 times out of 50 being death unfortunately to many besides the subjects or objects, themselves. They term this Win-digo… the proper signification of which… is Giant…
“Suffice it to say that [the Windigo] are of uncommon size- Goliath is an unborn infant to them… Their head reaching to the tops of the highest Poplars (about 70, or 80, feet) they are of proportionate size, of course they must be very heavy: their gait tho’ grand and majestic, at every step the Earth shakes. They frequently pursue their Prey… invisibly, yet they cannot so completely divest themselves of all the incommodities of nature as to prevent their approach being known. A secret and unaccountable [horror] pervades the whole system of one, several, or the whole band, of those of whom he is in pursuit…
“These Giants as far as I can learn reside somewhere about the North Pole; and even at this day frequently pay their unwelcome visits… It seems also that they delegate their Power to the Indians occasionally; and this occasions that cannibalism… proceeds… from a sort of distemper much resembling [mania].”
Nelson went on to describe how, in the boreal forest, where the natives lead a nomadic lifestyle and subsist on game, men frequently went hungry. Out of desperation, some starving Indians were known to occasionally break their gravest cultural taboo and feed upon the flesh of the dead. “I believe that those who have once preyed upon their fellows,” Nelson wrote, “ever after feel a great desire for the same nourishment, and are not so scrupulous about the means of procuring it. I have seen several that had been reduced [to] this disturbing alternative, and tho’ many years after, there appeared to me a wildness in their eyes, a confusion in their countenances much resembling that of reprieved murderers.”
Nelson went on to relate several chilling anecdotes illustrating the mysterious craving for human flesh sometimes acquired by those who condescended to cannibalism. According to one story, sometime in the late 1810s, prior to Nelson’s arrival in the country, a strange Indian woman paid a visit to the trading post at Lac La Ronge.
“Her appearance was haggard, wild, and distressed,” Nelson wrote. “However she was taken into the house- questions put as usual, but the answers, vague, indefinite and contradictory.” The traders gave the women some good food, but although she appeared to be ravenous, she only feigned eating, slipping morsels down the neck of her gown. “This [roused] suspicion,” Nelson wrote. “But what added to this was the extraordinary stench she emitted.”
The traders’ suspicions were confirmed when one of their dogs dragged a ragged human shoulderblade in from the trail on which the woman had travelled. Horrified, yet lacking sufficient evidence that the woman had committed any crime, they directed their unwanted visitor to a nearby Cree camp.
“As soon as she made her appearance,” Nelson wrote, “the indians immediately conceived what was the matter; but thro’ charity as well as for safety and to find the truth they gave her to eat, principally marrow-fat.” The woman refused this hospitality. She proceeded to kiss and embrace her hosts’ children, as was customary among the Cree, and was unable to conceal the voracious appetite that this courtesy aroused in her.
That night, the men of the household kept a watchful eye on their guest, sleeping with their weapons close at hand. Sure enough, the woman quietly rose from her furs in the dead of night and crept over to one of the sleeping children. One of the men perceived this; before the woman could do any harm, he seized a tomahawk and buried it in her brains. Nelson appears to imply that, despite the devastating blow which the Indian administered, the woman began to attack him, and would have succeeded in killing him had his companions not leapt to his defense and put an end to her existence.
Engaging in cannibalism was not the only way by which people made themselves vulnerable to the influence of the Windigo. Anyone who happened to dream of the Far North, or of a land filled with ice, was in danger of falling under the Windigo’s spell.
In such dreams, the dreamer would often be invited to partake in a feast of fowl or some other wild game that had been prepared for him. The wary dreamer, upon examining the victuals more closely, would find that the game he was enticed to eat was actually human flesh. Those who failed to recognize the true nature of the meal would, after eating their fill, be informed that they were doomed to become cannibals, and were advised that a particular sign, like children eating snow indoors, would portend their imminent transformation.
“A young Indian a few years back had one of the above dreams,” wrote Nelson later on in the same letter. Noticing that the dreams seemed to be occurring more frequently, and with greater intensity, the Indian implored his friends to kill him if they ever perceived the slightest sign of his transforming into a Windigo, warning them that he might soon become too strong for them to kill. “He had been a good hunter and a peaceable indian,” Nelson wrote, “and of course much loved by his friends: this business depressed them a great deal.” Nevertheless, acceding to his wishes, the band members developed a plan by which to execute him.
One day, the entire band packed their belongings and moved camp, as the Cree routinely did from time to time. On some pretense, the brother of the afflicted man convinced the latter to remain with him in the old camp for some time. Eventually, the brother declared that the band must have finished pitching their new camp, and suggested that the two of them rejoin them. The brother set off up the trail at a jog, leaving the sick man trailing behind him.
When he was certain the afflicted man could no longer see him, the brother concealed himself in the brush, loaded and primed his musket, and waited for the Wendigo-to-be, hoping to ambush him on the trail. “This was a preconceived scheme,” Nelson wrote. “The other men of course were not far off. The sick one drew near, in a very slow and thoughtful manner: however when he came near to where his brother was hid, he stopped, looked up and called out, ‘Thou thinkest thyself well hid from me my brother; but I see thee: it is well thou undertakest, it had been better for thee however hadst thou began sooner. Remember what I told you all – it is my heart, my heart, that is terrible, and however you may injure my body if you do not completely annihilate my heart nothing is done.’”
The brother was certain that the sick man could not possibly have noticed him, so well was he camouflaged, and suspected that the knowledge of his presence was proof that his brother had acquired preternatural abilities as a result of his affliction. Convinced that the time had come, he emerged from his hiding place, raised his musket, and shot the sick man in the chest, aiming for his heart. The musket ball passed straight through the man’s body, and the sick man dropped to his knees. To his brother’s astonishment, however, the afflicted rose to his feet immediately and continued on up the trail, laughing as he walked. The brother observed that not a single drop of blood oozed from the sick man’s wound, and took it as an indication that his heart had turned to ice, as was said to happen to those possessed by the spirit of the Wendigo.
At the report of the musket, the other hunters of the band rushed to the scene. Seeing the sick man alive and unharmed, they hacked him to pieces with their ice picks and tomahawks. “According to his desire,” Nelson wrote, “they had collected a large pile of dry wood, and laid him upon it. The body was soon consumed, but the heart remained perfect and entire: it rolled several times off the Pile – they replaced it as often: fear [seized] them – then with their [ice chisels] they cut and hacked it into small bits, but yet with difficulty was it consumed!!!”
In 1855, thirty two years after Nelson wrote his letters, a German travel writer named Johan Georg Kohl heard his own Wendigo stories on the shores of Lake Superior, which he included in his 1859 travel memoir, Kitchi-gami: Wanderings Round Lake Superior.
In his book, Kohl wrote, “It is pretty generally accepted and allowed that the Indian North American tribes are not anthropophagists [anthropophagites being eaters of human flesh], and have never been so. Still, as I have just mentioned, owing to their barbarous war habits and wild thirst for revenge, they will sometimes sin by swallowing human flesh. It frequently happens, too, in these barren and poor countries, that men are so reduced by hunger and want, that in their despair they shoot down their fellow-men like game, and eat them in the same way…
“My ears still tingle with the tragic stories I heard of an Indian who killed his two squaws and then his children, in succession; of another who murdered his friend; of a third who wandered about the forests like a hungry wolf, and hunted his fellow-men; stories one of which happened in 1854 on Isle Royale, another on the north bank of the lake, the third occurred somewhere else in the neighbourhood, and were told me in their fullest details.
“But even these cases of unnatural attacks on one’s own brethren, produced by unspeakable want, are only exceptions to a rule. The Indians here, on the contrary, have always returned to a state of natural repugnance against cannibalism, and they have, indeed, a decided aversion from those who have committed the crime, even when in extreme want, and almost in a state of rabid frenzy. They give them the opprobrious name of ‘Windigo,’ which is nearly synonymous with our cannibal. And it is quite certain that if a man has ever had recourse to this last and most horrible method of saving his life, even when the circumstances are pressing and almost excusable, he is always regarded with terror and horror by the Indians. They avoid him, and he lives among the savages like a timid head of game.
“Any one that has once broken through the bounds does so easily again, or, at least, the supposition is rife that he can do so. Hence he becomes an object of apprehension, and must live retired from the rest of his fellow-men. He does not enjoy their fraternal assistance, and thus his hostile position towards society soon drives him back into the same difficulty and temptation. In this manner, or nearly so, a class of windigos is called into existence.
“I was told of a man who wandered about in the forests on the northern bank of the lake. He was known perfectly well, and his name was even mentioned to me. I learnt that during a hard winter he had killed and eaten his squaw: after that he had attacked, killed, and also devoured a girl. This man always went about hunting by himself, and whenever his canoe was seen, the sight produced terror and alarm, and all the world fled from him. He was equally a burden to himself as to the others, and, in consequence of all the agony he endured, he had fallen into a state of brooding melancholy and a fearful affection of the brain. The murder of his wife was the result of a state of delirium, produced by his sufferings; and now, report added, his brain was quite softened, and the sutures of his temple had begun to give way. He was regularly hunted down, so people said, and he would before long receive a vengeful bullet from society…
“It is a universal tradition among the Indians that in the primitive ages there were anthropophagous giants, called Windigos. The people’s fancy is so busy with them, as well as with the isolated cases of real cannibalism, that they begin to dream of them, and these dreams, here and there, degenerate to such a point that a man is gained over to the idea that he is fated to be a windigo.
“Such dreams vary greatly. At times a man will merely dream that he must kill so many persons during his life; another dream adds that he must also devour them; and as these strange beings believe in their dreams as they do in the stars, they act in accordance with their gloomy suggestions.
“The windigo mania rarely breaks out spontaneously; it must have its predecessors and degrees. If a man lives much apart and out of the world, if he appear to be melancholy and is tortured by evil dreams, then people begin to fear he may end by becoming a windigo, and he is himself attacked by the fatalistic apprehensions, and is driven towards a gloomy fate. At times, when a man is quarrelling with his wife, he will say, ‘Squaw, take care. Thou wilt drive me too far that I shall turn windigo’…
“They believe that the windigos have an understanding with the evil spirits, who help them. Hence, a windigo can go on for a long time before a punishment fall on him and the avenger appear. They imagine that a real windigo is very difficult to kill, and that, in order to destroy him thoroughly, he must be torn to pieces. Otherwise, he may easily come to life again.
“There are also windigo women – ‘des femmes windigo’ – in Indian, Windigokwe.
“A Canadian Voyageur, of the name of Le Riche, was once busy fishing near his hut. He had set one net, and was making another on the beach. All at once, when he looked up, he saw, to his terror, a strange woman, an old witch, une femme windigo, standing in the water near his net. She was taking out the fish he had just caught, and eating them raw. Le Riche, in his horror, took up his gun and killed her on the spot. Then his squaws ran out of the adjoining wigwam and shouted ‘Nish!’ – (this was the name Le Riche had received, as the Indians cannot pronounce the letter ‘r’) – ‘Nish! Cut her up at once, or else she’ll come to life again, and we shall all fare ill.’
“I do not know where Le Riche obtained his ‘firm conviction’ that the old woman he shot was really a ‘femme windigo.’ But it seems as if people’s eyes and minds were practiced here in the matter, for another half-breed told me how he met a windigo and fired on him at once, like a rattlesnake:
“‘I was once shooting ducks in that swamp,’ he said, as he pointed to a bed of reeds. ‘I fancied I was alone: but suddenly, while aiming at a brace of ducks, I saw a windigo crouching in the reeds. I recognized him at once, and knew that he had come down from the interior to the lake. He had been going about for some time in our neighbourhood, and he was said to have killed two men already. He had his gun to his shoulder, and was aiming at me, just as I was doing to the ducks. On seeing this, I did not make any sign that I had recognized him, but walked quietly on towards my ducks. He hesitated about firing, probably in the hope that I should soon stand still. I took advantage of the interval, squinted round from my gun, made sure of his position, and, suddenly turning, I shot him down. His charge went off harmlessly in the air. But he soon picked himself up and disappeared in the reeds, for I had merely wounded him. I had not the courage to follow him, but he soon left these parts over the ice, for it was winter. We followed his blood-trail for some distance, and afterwards a report spread that he had fallen through the ice on his flight, and had perished.’
The Wendigo of Loon Lake
The country we know today as Canada changed dramatically in the decades following Kohl’s visit to Lake Superior. Three British provinces which comprise much of what is now eastern and central Canada amalgamated into an autonomous dominion of the British Empire in 1867. In 1874, this fledgling Dominion of Canada dispatched the North-West Mounted Police to the westerly prairies to establish law and order. From 1881 to 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway built a great transcontinental railroad from the easterly Dominion, across the prairies, to the western Province of British Columbia, which had joined Canadian Confederation in 1871. And in 1885, following the construction of that great iron thoroughfare, hordes of homesteaders began to settle the wild country of the Canadian interior which had hitherto served as the hunting grounds of Canada’s First and Metis Nations.
Many of the native and Metis inhabitants of the Canadian interior were horrified at the changes that were swiftly reshaping the face of their ancestral homeland, the Metis being particularly alarmed by the Dominion’s attempts to survey the land on which they kept their independent homesteads, and the natives, especially the Plains Cree, being dismayed by the rapid disappearance of the buffalo on which their ancestors had relied for centuries. In the spring of 1885, a corps of Metis militiamen in what is now central Saskatchewan and a war party of Plains Cree braves in what is now east-central Alberta, respectively, gave violent vent to their frustration, the Metis by engaging a squadron of North-West Mounted Policemen in the Battle of Loon Lake, and the Plains Cree by slaughtering a community of settlers in the Massacre of Frog Lake, touching off a two-month-long conflict known as the North-West Rebellion.
The Plains Cree rebels imprisoned a handful of white and Metis settlers who had survived the bloodshed at Frog Lake and dragged them along their campaign trail skirting the edge of the boreal forest. Four of these prisoners- namely widows Theresa Gowanlock and Theresa Delaney, Hudson’s Bay Company clerk William Cameron, and Metis interpreter Louis Goulet- later described the ordeal in their memoirs.
In late May 1885, an elderly Plains Cree woman who had accompanied the war party began to exhibit signs of what her fellow band members suspected to be Wendigo possession. The strange episode and its grisly conclusion was described by the aforementioned writers, its more gruesome details appearing in the memoirs of Cameron and Goulet.
“You folks there, you don’t know what a wendigo is, do you?” began Louis Goulet in his description of the event. “Well, listen and you’ll see it’s no joke. First of all, the word wendigo means ‘cannibal’. The Indians believe that when a person is about to turn wendigo, he or she lets out a scream and anybody within earshot is paralyzed. You don’t even have to hear it, because it’s not the wendigo’s fault if people don’t hear! You just have to be close enough, that’s all it takes. The wendigo’s scream paralyzes people, and that’s how he can eat a whole camp, even if it takes a month or two to swallow everybody!
“That’s not the most serious part of the whole business, though. When a person shows wendigo symptoms, he must be killed before the change actually takes place because it’s difficult to kill a full-fledged wendigo! They have hearts of ice and the power to rejoin parts of their body and come back to life, even after their head’s been cut off and they’ve been hacked to pieces. The best way to get rid of them is to have a Catholic kill them or else load the gun with some kind of holy object.
“Now, during the time we were camped in the spruce bluff, an old lady started ranting and raving in a fever, telling her daughter that if somebody didn’t do away with her, she’d turn wendigo after the sun went down. Well, let me tell you those Indians were scared, and with good reason. Just think of it, a wendigo in the camp! Quick, somebody had to kill the old woman right away before she changed over!”
William Camerson described the same event in his own memoir, Blood Red the Sun, relating how he first learned of the Wendigo woman while smoking and eating with his friend, Lone Man, a Cree from Frog Lake who had been bullied into joining the war party. “I noticed Big Bear’s men unusually in evidence,” Cameron wrote, Big Bear being the head chief of the Plains Cree, “carrying their guns and wearing grave faces. An ominous quiet reigned. When his tribal friends were gone, I asked Lone Man to enlighten me.
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘you have heard of the old woman in camp who wants to eat human flesh. She says if she isn’t dead before the sun goes out tonight she cannot be killed and will then begin to eat the children. They are afraid. She has but half a smoke to live. Come, we will go and see her.’
“At the farther end of the camp we came to a lodge around which were grouped many of Big Bear’s warriors. Wandering Spirit in full dress was there with his Winchester. His look was inexorable, relentless. Four-Sky Thunder stood near him. The doomed woman, the weetigo, was crouched on the floor of the lodge groaning and mumbling to herself, a poor demented creature, a helpless, aged and ailing imbecile. We had tried to persuade the Indians that nothing serious was wrong, that she could do them no harm- we saw, now, unavailingly.”
“She was seated on the ground Indian-fashion,” wrote Goulet of the Wendigo woman, “with her legs crossed, nothing but skin and bones, probably less than a hundred pounds of her. She was delirious… Just from the look of her we decided she wasn’t dangerous enough to need chaining up, but the Indians, they weren’t so sure. So we had to take every possible precaution and chained her before we took her out.”
Goulet and Cameron described how the woman was taken from her teepee, placed on a stretcher, and carried half a mile from the camp, where she was placed under a clump of willows. According to Goulet, a Metis prisoner named Andre Nault was originally ordered to carry out the execution. With shaking hands, he loaded his musket, using a woman’s scapular- a necklace bearing two square pieces of cloth, which serves as a token of Christian devotion- as wadding.
Nault eventually declared himself too nervous to carry out the operation properly, and the grim task was appointed to two Cree warriors- a boy named Wasagamap, or Bright Eyes, and a man named Wawasehewin, or Dressy Man- as well as an old Metis named Charles Ducharme, who was nicknamed Charlebois.
It was decided that Charlebois would deliver the killing blow. The Metis executioner prepared for the ordeal by painting his legs and the lower half of his face black with charcoal, giving himself the appearance of “a real demon”, according to Goulet. Seizing a heavy Cree war club, Charlebois gave a short speech in which he declared himself innocent of the crime he was about to commit. He placed a shawl over the head of the old woman, who was sitting cross-legged, apparently unaware of her surroundings, and muttering under her breath that she would soon “turn wendigo”. Charlebois then whirled the war club above his head, brought it down in a swift arc, and delivered a terrible blow to the old woman’s temple.
The women fell on her side, stiff and trembling in every limb, blood gushing from her mouth. Young Bright Eyes quickly stepped forward with his rifle and shot three bullets into her skull and body. Finally, Dressy Man, armed with a Mountie officer’s sabre he had taken as a war trophy at Frog Lake, severed the woman’s head with a single powerful stroke. “Then,” Goulet wrote, “clutching it by the braids, he tried to throw the head over the clump of willows, but the braids caught in the branches, and the head stayed hanging there with its hideous face swinging three or four feet above the ground, striking blind terror into the Indians, who ran away as fast as their legs would take them, without risking so much as a backward glance!
“Without a doubt the old woman was dead, decapitated, but the gruesome business was still only half done because the head must, at all costs, be prevented from reuniting with the torso or the old woman could come to life again, even more dangerous than before. We made a pile of dry branches all round and over the body, placing the head on the pile and covering it with a second layer of dry branches. Then the whole works was set blazing.”
William Cameron concluded his account of the affair, the lurid climax of which he did not witness himself, by stating, “The superstitious savages were determined there should be no possibility of the resurrection of the weetigo.”
- The Orders of the Dreamed: George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823 (1988), by Robert Brightman and Jennifer S.H. Brown
Johan Georg Kohl
- Kitchi Gami: Wanderings Round Lake Superior (1859), by Johan Georg Kohl
The Wendigo Woman of Loon Lake
- Blood Red the Sun (1926), by William Bleasdell Cameron
- Vanishing Spaces: Memoirs of Louis Goulet (1930, 1976), transcribed by Guillaume Charette and translated by Ray Ellenwood