What Is a Skinwalker? And Are They Real?

What is a skinwalker? This question has lingered in the minds of curious individuals for generations, as tales of these enigmatic beings have echoed through Native American folklore.

Skinwalkers are creatures that possess the ability to transform into various animals, embodying the essence of shapeshifting legends. Their presence is said to be accompanied by malevolence and an aura of darkness, instilling fear and fascination in equal measure.

Not many are familiar with the creature that haunts Native American legend. Are skinwalkers real? What little is known by people outside Native American reservations is enough to make your skin crawl.

Each nation has its own version of the ‘ánti’jhnii. While each version gives the being different origins and supernatural powers, none of them take the creature lightly. 

So let’s take a look at what happens when medicine men/women chooses to use their powers for evil.

What Is a Skinwalker?

In the Navajo language, yee naaldlooshii translates to “by means of it, it goes on all fours.” This is the term the Navajo community uses for their version of the skinwalker.

No two nations are alike, so they’ll each have their own unique associations with the creature. Yee naaldlooshii is just the Navajo version. The overarching term for a non-specific skinwalker is ‘ánti’jhnii.

With each unique tradition comes a different origin story for the creature. Some say that a skinwalker is a healer that abused magic for evil, instead of for healing. 

The term medicine man is not used by every nation. Some use the term shaman, or something else entirely. Native American culture is not homogenous.

In certain traditions, the origins of skinwalkers trace back to a haunting transformation from healers and medicine men who succumbed to the corrupting influence of their own immense power, ultimately embracing malevolence. This transformation, reminiscent of the fall to the dark side experienced by the Sith Lords in the Star Wars universe, adds an eerie dimension to the concept of skinwalkers.

Furthermore, folklore suggests that the act of committing social transgressions and violating sacred tribal taboos has the potential to induce the transformation into a skinwalker, emphasizing the profound consequences associated with such actions.

As a part of that transformation from an integral, pure force for good for the people of their tribe, they become animalistic. So much so that they have the ability to turn into an animal. They also can possess an animal or person instead of shapeshifting into them.

Some say that a skinwalker isn’t necessarily someone who used magic for evil. Someone can become a skinwalker if they break a sacred rule or commit an act truly against the ways of the people.

Unless you have a bullet or knife dipped in white ash, you cannot kill these humanoid creatures. 


What Does a Skinwalker Look Like?

Even when not in their transformed state, they still have a physical form that is not fully human. So what does a skinwalker look like? They’ll have exaggerated characteristics that make them look more animal than human alone.

A skinwalker, in the accounts of those who claim to have encountered them, is described as a terrifying and shape-shifting creature. It possesses the ability to assume the form of various animals, ranging from wolves and coyotes to bears and birds. When in human form, a skinwalker is often depicted as having unnaturally glowing eyes and an aura of malevolence.

Witnesses have described their appearance as gaunt and emaciated, with an unsettling presence that instills fear in all who encounter them. The physical manifestation of a skinwalker can vary, but its presence is consistently accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dread and an undeniable sense of otherworldly power.

As far as a deeper understanding of these creatures, people outside of these tribes are not welcome to that information. Even among their own communities, talking about the skinwalker can only bring the malevolent forces closer. Discussing the creature is not just asking for bad luck; it’s welcoming them in.

Skinwalker Ranch

So now that the question “what is a skinwalker?” is answered, what is the Skinwalker Ranch?

Gwen and Terry Sherman lived on what came to be known as the Skinwalker Ranch for 18 months before selling in 1996. After what they saw, they wanted their family to live somewhere safer. 

The Desert News published an article called Frequent Fliers? in 1996 and the term “skinwalker” became more commonplace. The article detailed what the Sherman family experienced during their time on the ranch. Everything from cattle mutilations and disappearances, sightings of UFOs, and finding random crop circles found its way into the Sherman’s account.

But the most troubling moment they experienced was at the end of their time on the ranch. Terry was walking the family dogs at night and stumbled upon what he thought was a wolf. He said this creature was at least three times larger than your average wolf. Its eyes glowed red and even though Terry shot the creature three times from close range, it didn’t seem to care.  

Now the ranch acts as a hub for paranormal investigation, named for the creature Terry saw that night. 

What is a Skinwalker

Are Skinwalkers Real?

The short answer? If you do not have Native American heritage, this question is not one for you to answer.

Understandably so, citizens of Native American nations rarely share details of their culture with outsiders. This information commonly gets abused and appropriated. J.K. Rowling herself appropriated skinwalkers in her “Magic in North America” lore on Pottermore.

Dr. Adrienne Keene

Dr. Adrienne Keene, an Assistant Professor at Brown and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, explained her distaste for Rowling’s lazy appropriation of a deeply disturbing topic in her culture. She says in her article on Native Appropriations, “The belief of these things…has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that.”

“My own community also has shape-shifters, but I’m not delving into that either. What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions…but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders.” she continues.

“At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive. The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not “misunderstood wizards”. Not by any stretch of the imagination.” she concludes.

In Conclusion

Dr. Keene writes an extremely powerful piece about how this appropriation of culture damages Native American communities. It’s a thought-provoking read, and one that anyone interested in the unique Native American cultures should look at. 

So what is a skinwalker? A very real fear that informs how different Native American tribes pass on their values to future generations.

Disclaimer: I have no Native American heritage. Individual nations have their own unique culture, traditions, and beliefs, so the specifics of skinwalker details vary from tribe to tribe. This article is a general overview of the basic description of a skinwalker. Many Native Americans have no interest in sharing specifics of their beliefs with outsiders.

Originally Posted: February 8, 2022 / Updated: June 18, 2022


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  1. As the veils are thinning, attempts at understanding these creatures that are starting to encroach outside their normally contained tribal area I would certainly not call this a Native Approriation, as others outside of this culture are experiencing the fear from them. Knownlesge is power, which is needed to defeat Darkness.

  2. I’m a white woman, with very close ties to Native American culture. I’ve been given my “Native American” card by some of the wisest elders, and healers. I’ve adopted many of their beliefs, I came to this article after just seeing “one” last week. I’ve had several accounts, seen on shift from human to cow, from cow to coyote, from coyote to rabbit, to rabbit to bird within 10 minutes. That encounter alone allowed me to understand them more. The encounter last week, a deer popped up in a small Nebraska town I was traveling through. Minutes after seeing the deer, a black cat crossed my path. They just have that look, and you can tell it’s not real, but I refuse to look them in the eyes or mention their existence, it’s very bad luck. Anyways, what I find crazy is I kept that story to myself, next thing you know someone sent me a Facebook post of someone else traveling through the same area. This person saw a random person laying lifeless on the side of the road, no vehicle, IN THE SAME SPOT the deer crossed my path that night.

  3. I grew up in Arizona. Some of my best friends are native american, mostly navajo. Here is what I know.
    Their eyes glow in the dark, blue from what I’ve seen but I’ve heard they can be yellow or red. I’ll never forget those blazing blue lights in the dead of night. Whistling at night attracts them; never whistle at night. Talking about them causes some kind of energy magnet; merely talking about them can attract them. They have crazy strength and speed to the point where it can’t be real. I heard full grown pine trees toppling; at least 20 maybe more in a matter of seconds. I’ve stood on a mountain trail in the dead of night and listened to something topple full grown trees like weeds and made a noise I’ve never heard before or since. They feed off of fear; like a vampire almost. Here it sounds crazy.. more crazy, but somehow faith in jesus christ causes them to leave. I’ve heard of priests on native land who hunted them and “their faith in god” prevented them from being harmed. Their feet don’t touch the ground — I once saw a pack of deer sized wolves run a quarter mile in seconds in the dead of night in the snow and not one foot print. When they are near everything goes silent — no birds, no animals, dead silence.

    This is just some of what I know from personal experience. I have other tales given to me second hand. Such as if you know the person who is a shapeshifter and you say their name it kills them.