They are accounts of nighttime drives on the lonely road between Farmington, NM and The Four Corners when, in the distance ahead, a coyote appears on the roadway, its eyes glowing in the headlights. Except that they are not coyote eyes, they are something else, something almost human, and when the car speeds past the waiting coyote the coyote bolts and begins speeding along with it, running at 60 miles per hour, its eyes still aglow in the headlights. The driver looks away and presses pedal to metal, and when he looks back suddenly it is no longer a coyote running at pace next to the vehicle, but a man. A man with the yellow eyes of a coyote fixed on the driver, one hand banging on the hood.
Or another story from the desert town of Tuba City, Arizona near Monument Valley, where a building contractor is doing repairs on an old ranch home. Thinking himself alone, the man is surprised to hear laughter coming from somewhere off in the sheep pens. Following the noise, the man turns a corner to the edge of the sheep pen where before him the entire flock is huddled shivering into one end of the pen while on the other a lone ram stands separated. He is standing upright, his two front hooves across his chest and his horned head thrown back in gleeful, maniacal laughter that is unmistakably human. Watching this, the man jumps and suddenly the ram spots him. For a fleeting moment the two lock eyes and, just like the laughter, the ram’s eyes are familiar and anything but animal. The ram falls back down to all fours and mills along as if nothing had ever happened.
They are stories of shape-shifting creatures across Navajo Nation, the 24k-plus reservation land encompassing most of northeastern Arizona and the adjacent corner sections of New Mexico and Utah. Skinwalkers are to many believers a taboo subject and seldom discussed out loud. The Navajo Skinwalker legend is not unlike that of the European werewolf: A once-ordinary human discovers the ability to shift into animal form. Unlike the werewolf, however, the Skinwalker curse is desired and acquired, that is, Skinwalkers do not have the bad luck to be “bitten” and forced into the curse. Rather, they want it and are willing to perform extraordinary rites of evil in order to achieve it.
There are multiple legends behind the origin of the Navajo Skinwalker. One claims the Navajos mastered shapeshifting in order to escape persecution and relocation — the Kit Carson-led cornering of the tribe deep in Canyon de Chelly and later their forced and disastrous relocation to Bosque de Redondo. Another version relates to the Navajo belief in the Anasazi curse — that the Anasazi were responsible for the prevailing witchcraft in the Navajo tribes — and that Navajo Skinwalkers used the off-limit Anasazi ruins and grave sites to gain certain powers.
The most prominent history of the Skinwalker tells of a particular form of Navajo witch, or an ’ánt’įįhnii, called ayee naaldlooshii, translated to mean “with it, he goes on all fours.” The yee naaldlooshii is usually a medicine man or high-ranking priest who has obtained supernatural powers through breaking a cultural taboo, including murder, seduction, or the corrupting of a family member.
Upon accepting this deep and consuming level of witchcraft, Skinwalkers are banished forever from a tribe (but considering the foreknowledge of this as well the despicable acts required for the transformation, the aspiring Skinwalker surely possessed an early, pre-seated hate for the tribe). Prowling alone in the desert, a Skinwalker (and also unlike the werewolf) has the ability to shape-shift into any animal they wish, although most commonly the animal is a coyote, wolf, cougar, fox, owl, or crow — a reason why pelts of these animals are widely restricted among the Navajo.
In animal form the eyes of a Skinwalker are distinctly human, while in human form this is reversed. Varying versions of the legend attribute Skinwalkers the ability to “body-snatch”, to take possession of another person’s body if that person locks eyes long enough with the Skinwalker. It is also said Skinwalkers, through this same eye-locking method, have the power to read human thoughts or even mimic perfectly the voice of that person, a ploy used to lure relatives. Skinwalkers are also said to use voodoo-like tactics to manipulate their victims, such as collecting a target’s hair, wrapping it around a pottery shard, then burying it in a tarantula hole.
Outcasts and pariahs, Skinwalkers assume begrudged and hate-driven existences, their spirits in constant search of revenge or else mindless harm. The more modest accounts of Skinwalker encounters portray them as mischievous, almost poltergeist-like. They will climb the roofs of sleeping families, bang on the walls and knock on the windows. More commonly though, Skinwalkers stories are far more malicious. In these accounts Skinwalkers climb roofs in order to seek ways into the house and attack the family, or else they assault cars driving through reservation land, causing wrecks.
They are described as fast and agile, ugly mutations that are not quite human and not fully animal. Usually they are naked but some sightings report a creature wearing tattered shirts or jeans. In some stories the Skinwalker is actually tracked down only to lead to the home of a relative of the tracker. Or, like the werewolf, the Skinwalker will be shot and the next day a Navajo will be found with the same exact wound, revealing him as the ánt’įįhnii. Certain Navajo myths insist that the only way to fully kill a Skinwalker is with a bullet dipped in white ash.