In some Native American legends, a skin-walker is a person with the natural ability to turn into any animal he or she desires. To be able to transform, legend sometimes requires that the skin-walker wears a pelt of the animal. In most cases, this pelt is not used in modern times because it is an obvious sign of them being skin-walkers.
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 it."