What Is a Skinwalker? And Are They Real?

What is a Skinwalker

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

This being that can disguise themselves as an animal is deeply unsettling to many indigenous people who consider them malevolent forces. 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.

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.

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

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. 

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. 

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.


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