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Skinwalkers and the Witchery Way

Skinwalkers and the Witchery Way

By Christopher O’Brien

In August 2008, WEX head explorer David Hatcher Childress suggested that I should “…write a book about skinwalkers…” telling, me “crypto-creatures are big right now.” I remember responding that it would be virtually impossible because very little has been written on the subject of skinwalkers and that it would be a challenge to attempt to write an in-depth magazine article on the subject—forget about a full-length book. But he did get me thinking. Why not use the skinwalker as a boilerplate to examine his ancient uncles—the tricksters? So, what follows is an expanded examination of these legendary adepts adapted from my book Stalking the Tricksters.  

One important element that seems to correlate tricksters forms trans-culturally is the ability to shapeshift and this ability is allegedly found among skinwalkers and other black adepts as we will see. When you start researching anything bizarre, especially phenomena way outside of the box—like skinwalkers or other indigenous dark adepts, for example—you start at the base, at the very beginning of the existing history of interpretation. It’s always been obvious to me that the oral tradition of most indigenous cultures contains many clues to explain the high strange—including a unique brand of insightful wisdom—and it seemed to me that there was a good likelihood that Native American interpretations might provide important insight. So, in 1993, I began documenting unexplained reports and researching the belief systems of the most local of the 13 tribes from three regional groups of Indians that visited the San Luis Valley, where I lived. I concentrated on the Ute, Tewa, Diné (Navajo/Apache) and Pueblo Indians. I wanted to know: are there traditional interpretations that could help explain the region’s UFO-type activity, for instance, or provide insight into the occult, or explain the strange mysterious unusual cattle deaths? Over the years I have amassed quite a list of attributional information as it relates generally to witches, sorcerers, witchcraft and the occult in general and most of the apparent cultural bias seemed unique to south-central Colorado/north-central New Mexico where most of the reports I researched and investigated were generated. This region of the continent is located just beyond the extreme northern extent of the earliest incursion into North America by Europeans. It is a place where indigenous belief has blended and melded with a unique brand of Catholic fundamentalism. Due to its isolation for generations, the 500 years of subcultural programming has slowly developed a blend of indigenous and western interpretation that give this subculture a unique set of superstitions and beliefs. This region is a superb sociological Petri dish/melting pot of belief. This holds true especially around traditions of Native adepts who are said to be able to manipulate reality around the power of their will, for good or for evil purposes or for amoral trickery.

Pueblo Indian Beliefs

Skinwalkers are by literal definition a Dine’ tradition. Before we dive into the perilous world of the skinwalker, lets look at the concept of witchcraft in the Pueblo Indian’s traditions where much of Dine’ knowledge and beliefs have been, borrowed and culturally adapted since their arrival in the Southwest United States in the 12th and 13th Century.

I recently borrowed a rather hard-to-find 1989 book from a Zuni Elder titled Witchcraft and Sorcery of Native American Peoples edited by Deward E. Walker, Jr. It is a collection of academic papers that have been published on the subject that extend back into the early 19th Century. It makes for fascinating reading as it is filled with little known facts and peculiar beliefs of Indian peoples as it relates to their secretive world of witches, sorcerers and their practices:

Pueblo witches are thought to cause windstorms during dances, alienate the affections of mates by offering one the power for new conquests, and destroy crops by bringing grasshoppers or other plagues. More important, illness (including madness) and death, except for the very old, are believed to result from one’s wrongdoing or from the work of a witch…Frank Hamilton Cushing was the first Anglo to spend time at the Zuni Pueblo and he observed that witchcraft and cowardice in battle were the only offenses in Zuni society that could bring the death penalty, a statement [that can be] made for all the pueblos…

When it comes to witchcraft and witches, Pueblo Indians are still today highly suspicious of their neighboring pueblos. Belief in witchcraft is widespread and there are variations between tribal traditions that appear to exacerbate these suspicions. Generally, witches practice their craft secretly within their own pueblo, however the fear of witches from outside Pueblos is very real. I’ve have learned that a secret trial involving witchcraft within two pueblos is currently underway and this suggests that this “taboo” topic is still very much alive in modern pueblo society. Anthropologist Florence Ellis notes in her chapter on Pueblo Witchcraft in Witchcraft and Sorcery of Native American Peoples:

 Zuni and Acoma say that the Santa Domingo is the most witch-ridden pueblo. Santa Domingo makes the same comment about Acoma and Zuni. The Lagunas, one year, [in the 1930s] would not buy woman’s woven woolen dresses from Zuni, because it was rumored that Zuni witches were peddling dresses stolen from corpses.

As I mentioned, shapeshifting seems to be a common thread that is found throughout most, if not all, Southwestern Native American traditions relating to witches legendary abilities. These adepts allegedly are able to transform into a variety of animal forms. They can also allegedly use various animal’s body parts to transform some aspect of their humanness into that of a desired animal. Some accounts in the Northern Rio Grande pueblos mention the ability to change into fire-balls, or “flaming bowls” when they need to travel somewhere extremely fast. I have received reports from terrified locals claiming to have seen fireballs that they report to me as “witches.” Where are they going and what is their agenda? According to legend, these adepts are said to meet regularly in enclaves in caves or by large, isolated rock formations. In the San Luis Valley there is a legend that witches have been meeting for hundreds of years at the “witch rocks” southwest of Sanford, Colorado, north of State Highway 42—about two miles up County Road U. For decades, strange lights have been reported in the area. Florence Ellis relates what was commonly thought about pueblo witch society enclaves in the early 20th Century.

Witch society meetings are thought to be held in the dead of night in a cave at some distance from the pueblo. The witches arise, slip outside quietly, and change themselves into animals, coyotes, toads, dogs, crows, hawks, or other birds, to travel to the meeting in the cave. One tale relates the plight of a wife who left her human eyes in a cup in the house and used owl eyes, but when she returned in the early morning the human eyes had been found by her husband and dunked in urine, which made them forever unusable…Details of what goes on in the cave are few because witches are not informants, and persons who do not belong to a ceremonial society never know proceedings of a society…According to Isletans, the secret witch meetings are held…on a black mesa known as Shemtua, about five miles northeast of the pueblo, near the Los Padillas boundry line. The cave in which the Sandia witches meet is in the Sandias [mountains]. The Hopi speak openly of witches meeting at a cluster of large rocks in the valley northeast of the villages…[There is] a cliff in the lower portion of the Cañada de Cochiti where, the Cochitis believe, witches go in the shape of the animals and birds named above for a meeting each Friday night. Crows and coyotes are favorite forms. At a proper signal the cliff opens to show a lighted cavern. In the cavern they change again to their human forms. They discuss witch plans until they must assume their disguises again to hurry home before dawn. The general witch headquarters are said to be in Mexico, possible the reason why “the south” is mentioned in connection with various things in the witch stories.


Navajo and Apache Witchcraft

Beside the little-known information about Diné witchcraft and skinwalkers I have found in obscure self-published books from Navajo authors and from academic compilations, there are a few fleeting references to these black magician shapeshifters on the Internet. Here is a thumbnail sketch from theunexplainedmysteries.com that pretty much encapsulates the extent of my knowledge when I initially began researching the subject for Stalking the Tricksters:

Although [a skinwalker] is most frequently seen as a coyote, wolf, owl, fox, or crow, the yeenaaldlooshii is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on what kind of abilities they need. Witches use the form for expedient travel, especially to the Navajo equivalent of the ‘Black Mass‘, a perverted song (and the central rite of the Witchery Way) used to curse instead of to heal. They also may transform to escape from pursuers. Some Navajo also believe that skinwalker have the ability to steal the “skin” or body of a person. The Navajo believe that if you lock eyes with a skinwalker they can absorb themselves into your body. It is also said that skinwalker avoid the light and that their eyes glow like an animal’s when in human form and when in animal form their eyes do not glow as an animal’s would.

Researching Native American witchcraft and other traditional knowledge as it relates to a modern definition of the paranormal is an extremely difficult subject to tackle—especially for me; a nosy white boy, wearing a black cowboy hat. During my 13-year field-investigation/research project in the San Luis Valley (SLV) in south-central Colorado/north-central New Mexico that resulted in my Mysterious Valley book series, I gathered information from indigenous people about the strange goings-on that have apparently always blistered the magical four-corners region. Slowly over time I have been able to compile an intriguing number of legends, myths and stories that reveal a rich tradition of beliefs as it relates to witchcraft and the occult. Over the years I’ve noticed witnesses’ personal bias and what appear to be subcultural preconceptions around these subjects. For instance, this bias included sub-cultural references to “witches” and “skinwalkers” when interpreting their sightings of “balls of light,” orbs or unusual individuals in their environment. Because of the claims “high-strange” quality, and a predictable lack of specific data points, most of these reports did not make it into my SLV Event Log of documented unexplained events that contains almost one thousand entries. However, whenever someone reported something weird and used traditional interpretations to explain the phenomenon they observed, I took extra notice. If the event had a date to log, even better, I could include it in my database.

Along with my fascination for all things magical and wondrous, and having obtained knowledge studying the Western Esoteric tradition over the years, naturally I was intrigued by hints of information held by the local natives. So, I started digging. The term witchcraft doesn’t accurately apply because this form Navajo spirituality has little to do with the practices and beliefs of a European style, or form of witchcraft. In fact, Navajo “witchcraft,” is simply another aspect or set of “ways” within the existing Navajo spiritual culture. There seems to be a strict taboo around speaking of those who practice the Witchery Way, and very few, if any Navajo will acknowledge the subject to outsiders. The paranormal.lovetoknow.com website has a very informative page on Navajo witchcraft, they state:

The four basic “ways” of Navajo witchcraft are, “Witchery, Sorcery, Wizardry and Frenzy.” None of the four are actually witchcraft in the European sense of the word. They are simply additional parts of the vast spirituality of the Navajo people. [W]itchcraft is not separate from Navajo spirituality, it is simply another set of “Ways” within the Navajo religion. The Navajo believe that people must live in harmony with Mother Earth, and that there are two classes of beings, Earth People who are mortals, and the Holy People who are unseen spiritual beings. They believe these beings have the ability to either help or harm mortals. The Navajo believe that illness and life problems are “disorder” within one’s life that can be remedied with herbs, prayer, songs, medicine men and ceremonies. However, while medicine men learn the Navajo Ways to heal and aid those who are afflicted, there are others who practice Navajo witchcraft and seek to direct spiritual forces to cause harm or misfortune to others.

Most forms of this Witchery way are apparently focused on corpses and death and the Navajo have a fervent avoidance of death.


Who is Stalking Whom?

In late 1998, a prominent member of the Crestone, Colorado community where I lived approached me. She casually asked what I knew about “Indian witchcraft.” The request was out of character and I instantly sensed something unusual was behind her low-key request. I related to her basic information pertaining to rituals of intent and protection, the use of power talismans and the like and she interrupted me, took me aside and told me about a strange adorned animal spine and skull bundle that had been found hanging on a creek behind her house. It seems she had recently experienced a falling out with a visiting Native American “medicine man” and then, some time later, this scary-looking bundle turned up near her house. She had a mystery on her hands, and naturally, she thought of the two events as being linked somehow. Did I know what the bundle was or what it was used for? She claimed it had immediately been disposed of and hadn’t been saved, but it was obvious that she was concerned enough about the artifact to ask me for my opinion. Without seeing the bundle and studying it—making note of the objects and how they were arranged, it was difficult for me to translate or interpret, but I offered to conduct a cleansing and blessing at the spot where the scary-looking artifact was discovered. Several months went by and everything seemed normal. She never mentioned the event again, nor did I ever ask her for an update on the peculiar situation; some questions are better left unasked, and this was one of them.

Some months later, I had moved out into the valley to a sentry-like, two-story house with a majestic view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains three miles to the east. The house was completely surrounded by lush elk meadow with nary a tree or a neighbor within a quarter-mile. The house was feebly equipped with a 500-watt solar system that would barely power my computer on a sunny day.

One evening, Wednesday November 10, 1999, at 6:20 PM, I was taking a shower in the attached greenhouse. Looking out the west-facing plate glass windows that made up the western side of the greenhouse, I noticed, with a start, what could only be described as a antler-adorned, six-foot tall, bi-pedal creature gliding across the front of the windows, from left-to-right. The being was in the shadow just out of the thin light projected out to the yard, but I was able to easily discern its distinctive shape. When I first noticed movement, I was facing sideways to the window and only had a peripheral view of the apparition but, as I turned, I distinctly witnessed something the likes of which I’ve never seen before or since. Looking back at the event today, I’m surprised I wasn’t completely freaked seeing this apparition, as I was standing naked, all soaped up. But looking at my notes I am reminded that the weirdness didn’t end there. Later that evening, at 11:30 PM, I was with my friend Amber, we observed what appeared to be a “prairie-dragon like form” travel from the porch through the dog door, into the living room. Amber and I simultaneously saw a transparent “beige-colored form” enter through the dog door, which was only two feet away from us. We both heard what sounded like a dog “whine.”

I learned later that what I witnessed while taking a shower is eerily similar to Diné accounts of a skinwalker lurking about. They are sometimes depicted wearing antlers and whatever it was I witnessed definitely had an impressive rack! The coyote-like form my friend Amber and I witnessed later that evening put an exclamation point on the day. But, reviewing my event log I am reminded of another weird incident that occurred the prior late summer/early fall. I had been sitting downstairs alone watching TV in the living room, when a rapid succession of rapping sounds circled the house around the walls of the second story above. The five or six raps banged in a clockwise circle around the house’s upper story and I bolted outside with a flashlight to see whatever it was. Nothing. I made note of it but I’m still puzzled today—years later—what it could have been. While researching this chapter, I found that rapping sounds going around your house are attributed by some Diné as being a skinwalker attempting to get your attention! OK… 

What is a Skinwalker?

That blustery fall in the SLV, was I being watched (or haunted?) by a skinwalker? Probably not, but the curious synchronicities are worthy of mention. Skinwalkers are said to be evil sorcerers that exist alongside and among the Diné people. They are said to practice the “Witchery Way,” be able to transform themselves into a variety of animal forms, and practice a particularly feared form of black magic. The actual term “skinwalker” comes from the Diné description “with it, he goes on all fours” or yeenaaldlooshii. This term refers to the skinwalker’s alleged ability to change into a four-legged animal such as a coyote, wolf, fox or sometimes a bear. As a result of this belief, it is taboo to wear the skins of these carnivores. Sheepskin and calfskin are acceptable, but carnivore skin used for clothing is extremely frowned upon. In the Diné tradition, there are several different types of witches, but skinwalkers (most often male) are said to be the most powerful and deeply feared by the Navajo and Apache people. There is much superstition around the belief in these dark adepts and it is rare to get a Diné person to open up and address the subject. No matter how modern how modern our world, this traditional belief still exists today across the windswept high-deserts of the Southwestern United States that the Navajo and Apache call home.

Popular New Mexico journalist/author Tony Hillerman wrote many novels about the Navajo reservation before his recent death in late 2008. I am a big fan and I was going to ask him for an interview for this book. In his many entertaining books he revealed a remarkable amount of information concerning the Diné lifestyle and belief. In his autobiography he mentions how he was able to befriend many Navajo and translate their candor into fiction—out in the field he had I what I call a superb “bedside manner.” In one novel, Skinwalkers, his protagonists (Navajo Policemen “Joe Leaphorn” and “Jim Chee”) attempt to get to the bottom of several murders thought by the locals to have been perpetrated by a skinwalker. Although Hillerman presented only a small amount of information about skinwalkers in the novel, the book does focus on the impact of the subject on The People. His characters ring true. Hillerman responded to questions about the subject in an interview before he passed:

Skinwalkers are tied up with the Navajo concept of good and evil. The Navajos believe that life is a kind of wind blowing through you. Some people have a dark wind, and they tend to be evil. How do you tell? People who have more money than they need and aren’t helping their kinfolk—that’s one symptom of it. Along with this tendency toward evil, if they’re initiated into a witchcraft cult, they get a lot of powers. Depending on the circumstances, they can turn into a dog; they can fly; they can disappear. There are many versions of a skinwalker, but that’s basically what it is. A lot of Navajos will tell me emphatically, especially when they don’t know me very well, that they don’t believe in all that stuff. And then when you get to be a friend, they’ll start telling you about the first time they ever saw one.

Traditionally, skinwalkers are able to change themselves into dogs, and traditionally they wear the skin of a dog over their shoulders or the skull of a dog as a cap. So I guess that’s the reason for the term. I’ve never had anyone explain it to me. Navajos just don’t like to talk about it much, even when you’ve known them a long time. It’s kind of obscene, you see. It’s something you don’t talk about in polite company. There’s a feeling that a skinwalker might be listening and might want to get even with you. You’re kind of uneasy about it …I know that [Hillerman’s book Skinwalkers] is one of the more popular books among Navajo young people. Maybe it’s a little bit like pornography to them. But I’ve had no objections to the book. It’s hard to judge, because Navajos are incredibly polite. They just do not like to offend people.

The few documented stories related to encounters with skinwalker often have a similar tone and most often these evil sorcerers are perceived lurking about a victim’s property and/or house and are often blamed for the unexplained death of a loved one, or a victim’s livestock. The phprs.com dictionary describes the skinwalker’s alleged abilities:

Sometimes the skinwalker will try to break into the house and attack the people inside, and will often bang on the walls of the house, knock on the windows, and climb onto the roofs. Sometimes, a strange, animal-like figure is seen standing outside the window, peering in. Other times, a skinwalker may attack a vehicle and cause a car accident. The skinwalker are described as being fast, agile, and impossible to catch. Though some attempts have been made to shoot or kill one, they are not usually successful. Sometimes a skinwalker will be tracked down, only to lead to the house of someone known to the tracker.

According to traditional knowledge, skinwalkers are able to read a victim’s thoughts. They are also thought to be able to mimic any human or animal sound. Diné believe that this ability is sometimes used to draw unwitting victims outside by calling out in the voice of a person known to them or using a familiar animal sound. The standard thinking is: don’t ever look into and/or lock eyes with a suspected skinwalker. This will enable his will to enter you and take over all your motor functions and make you do and say things that are completely beyond your control. If this is a real ability, imagine the horror of being taken over, fully alert, but a helpless witness to your body’s actions. If this is true, it kinda takes the voodoo zombie thing to a whole new level!

Hunt for the Skinwalker, by Colm Kelleher and George Knapp is a book about a peculiar “taboo” ranch in Utah’s Uintah Basin that is thought by some Utes to be “on the path of the skinwalker.” The newly arrived Anglo residents of the ranch experienced paranormal activity at a location where the Ute, for generations, have been forbidden to tread. Because of the book’s title, and the reputation of the ranch by the local Ute Indians, the book contains extensive research on the subject of skinwalkers. The fact that no actual skinwalkers are ever said to be involved in the events that unfolded is interesting to me. Well-researched, Hunt for the Skinwalker presented new insight into the subject of these shadowy adepts and their findings confirm what I have heard about the alleged use of a substance known as “corpse powder:

They curse people and cause great suffering and death,” one Navajo writer explained. “At night, their eyes glow red like hot coals. It is said that if you see the face of a Naagloshii [skinwalker], they have to kill you. If you see one and know who it is, they will die. If you see them and you don’t know them, they have to kill you to keep you from finding out who they are. They use a mixture that some call corpse powder, which they blow into your face. Your tongue turns black and you go into convulsions and you eventually die. They are known to use evil spirits in their ceremoniesA skinwalker doesn’t necessarily have to be around to victimize you. He can come back later and gather magical samples to use to enact his willful agenda. Like the Betsileo people of Madagascar who believe in the vampiric entity Ramanga’s ability to use a victim’s hair, spittle and fingernail clippings for black-magic, some Diné (in a curious correlation) believe that skinwalker can also use the spit, hair and nail clippings to make curses. For this reason, many Navajo will never spit on the ground or even leave their shoes outside the door. They also take great care to see that any hair or nail clippings are burned or disposed of properly because a skinwalker could in theory come back and steal genetic material to be used in a nefarious manner. Some Navajo say that “when they urinate outside [they] make sure to kick dirt over the spot so that a skinwalker cannot use it to make a curse against them.

Knapp and Kelleher interviewed University of Nevada-Las Vegas anthropologist Dan Benyshek, who specializes in the study of Native Americans of the Southwest. He suggested:

Skinwalkers are purely evil in intent. I’m no expert on it, but the general view is that skinwalker do all sorts of terrible things—they make people sick, they commit murders. They are graverobbers and necrophiliacs. They are greedy and evil people who must kill a sibling or other relative to be initiated as a skinwalker. They supposedly can turn into were-animals and can travel in supernatural ways.

As in turning into a fiery orb and shooting across the prairie as some of my San Luis Valley witnesses have claimed? Or how about running alongside a car at 70mph? In Arizona, skinwalker have also been reported by motorists who happen to be traveling late at night through the “the rez” (as the reservation is called by the locals). I located this anonymously filed, alleged first hand account from the June 2002 archive at paranormal.about.com:

Like most Navajo’s in Northeastern Arizona, I have seen many strange things. It is not good to talk about them because we can get witched, but I will share a story with you about my experiences with skinwalkers. When I was younger, my friends and I used to do a thing called “shadow hunting” in which we [would] try and seek out the “lairs” of skinwalkers. My cousin and I have “night vision” and extra sensory perception in which case we tried to test our abilities. So we drive out to the isolated desert on a full moon, until we find a good-looking hot spot. To our surprise we came upon a meeting of skinwalkers, and before we knew it they had surrounded us. I have seen and felt them before, but just not as many and not as powerful. I saw first hand on how fast they are—they left streaks of color behind them as they passed. They were running circles around us, which of course was frightening, but I looked up on the ridge of the mountain I saw the biggest humanoid figure looking down at us and obviously pissed off. With that, my cuz shifted the truck and we took off.  

Several days later, we were “visited” by something we have felt before. My cousin started calling “it” Yeti because it was too big and frightening. Every time it came over, me and my cousin would wake up and instinctively know which side it was on. From then on my cousin and I would get random visits from them, even after moving to a city far away from that place. I believe that they sent me monitors or something to watch me, because sometimes I feel a presence when I’m out there and I see things.

Knapp and Kelleher were told some interesting accounts by reservation law enforcement that have a similar feel to the aforementioned account. These nocturnal road encounters all have a similar feel and probably make up a majority of skinwalker encounters by non-Native people:

Although skinwalkers are generally believed to prey only on Native Americans, there are recent reports from Anglos claiming they had encountered skinwalker while driving on or near tribal lands. One New Mexico Highway Patrol officer told us that while patrolling a stretch of highway south of Gallup, New Mexico, he had had two separate encounters with a ghastly creature that seemingly attached itself to the door of his vehicle. During the first encounter, the veteran law enforcement officer said the unearthly being appeared to be wearing a ghostly mask as it kept pace with his patrol car. To his horror, he realized that the ghoulish specter wasn’t attached to his door after all. Instead, he said, it was running alongside his vehicle as he cruised down the highway at a high rate of speed… [The] officer… still patrols the same stretch of highway and that he says is petrified every time he enters the area

One Caucasian family still speaks in hushed tones about its encounter with a skinwalker, even though it happened in 1983. While driving at night along Route 163 through the massive Navajo Reservation, the four members of the family felt that someone was following them. As their truck slowed down to round a sharp bend, the atmosphere changed, and time itself seemed to slow down. Then something leaped out of a roadside ditch at the vehicle.

“It was black and hairy and was eye level with the cab,” one of the witnesses recalled. “Whatever this thing was, it wore a man’s clothes. It had on a white and blue checked shirt and long pants. Its arms were raised over its head, almost touching the top of the cab. It looked like a hairy man or a hairy animal in man’s clothing, but it didn’t look like an ape or anything like that. Its eyes were yellow and its mouth was open.”

Witches practice their evil for purely mercenary purposes. Most Navajo would have nothing to do with them and stay well away, but there are some desperate people who are brave enough to approach a skinwalker to hire them to perpetrate some evil deed. Navajo traditional law is very straightforward and direct when it comes to witchcraft: a witch, someone who has been identified by the community as a witch and had their status as human withdrawn, can be killed. And this law undoubtedly applies to elusive skinwalker as well.

In Australia there is the tradition of Kadaicha Man who, like a benevolent skinwalker, is both shaman and an enforcer/executioner. Kadaicha Man was thought to be responsible for dealing harshly with those in the tribal society who broke taboos. There are several striking examples of direct correlations between Kadaicha Man and their counterparts. For example, they are said to be able to use their magic to embody specific animal skills necessary for stalking and pursuing their victims. The following comment is posted at abovetopsecret.com. It is taken from a discussion about skinwalkers:

Kadaicha Man would infuse a kangaroo bone with powerful magic and would then point the bone at whomever had broken the taboo. The bone would magically and invisibly fly through the air and kill the person in a matter of days. To me, these two stories, the Kadaicha Man’s bone and the bone pellet of the Skinwalker mythos, share similar traits. Perhaps if we understood better the rituals of the Skinwalker, we might see a link between the adoption of certain animalistic traits and the enforcement of cultural taboos or other specific tasks in which the Skinwalker might need to adopt those traits … [T]he mystery and aura of foreboding surrounding the Skinwalker mythos is probably deliberate, as it is with the Kadaicha Man, to prevent unwanted disclosure of the Skinwalker’s secrets and a subsequent dilution of the legend and therefore their power.

Skinwalkers also are said to be able in enlist the help of animals such as, wolves, owls, and other creatures of the night, and venturing out into the night alone is generally avoided by many Navajo. Skinwalkers or witches that are in contact with ghosts can supposedly cast spells on people and, as a result of this belief, Diné tradition forbids physical contact with a dead person for fear of attracting their ghost or leaving one’s self open to skinwalker magic. The Navajo superstitions involving death as such that, if a person dies in a hogan, the dwelling generally is purified and then abandoned. In HFTS the authors found that Navajo belief is nuanced and that the People may have developed proactive traditions to counter witchcraft within their culture:

In the Navajo world, where witchcraft is important, where daily behavior is patterned to avoid it, prevent it, and cure it, there are as many words for its various forms as there are words for various kinds of snow among the Eskimos… The Diné have learned ways to protect themselves against this evil and one has to always be on guard.”

The Ranch From Hell

The Sherman Ranch case is one of the most compelling stories of an ongoing series of paranormal events ever investigated by modern science. It has it all: magic, legends, crypto-creatures, UFOs, aliens, cattle mutilations, portal phenomena, possible abductions, government intrigue and the fact that it is centered around what the Utes call: “the path of the skinwalker,” in my mind makes it even more compelling. Too bad after 13 years the scientists scratching their heads haven’t published. I wonder, are those skinwalkers, humans, meta-humans or aliens lurking about the ranch? Is it a manifestation of your tax dollars at work and play? A doorway to somewhere else? Some of the claims put forth by Sherman were straight out of someone’s worst nightmare, I’m glad I don’t live there.

The end of June 1996, I received a call from reporter Zack Van Ecke of the Deseret News. He introduced himself, told me he was familiar with my work and told me he was going to publish a sensational story about paranormal events occurring on a Utah ranch. He wanted my take on the story, so he gave me a cliff note version. Zack told me the rancher needed help as he had asked him who he could talk to. Zack knew of my work with ranchers in the San Luis Valley and called me to see if I could help. I agreed this were amazing claims and re-organized my schedule so that I could head into the blistering basin cauldron.

Brendon my brother, Art Troil (who drove and supplied security) and Kado the intrepid Pyrenees cattle-mute site investigator, hot-footed it up the 400+ miles to the ranch—located just south of Fort Duschane, UT. Early in the afternoon, sitting with Terry under wilting cottonwoods in the brutal 104-degree heat, I noticed the cicadas and crickets seemed too hot to buzz and chirp and Terry’s dogs seemed on edge. Terry seemed relaxed, but there was an underlying grim, determined tension in his matter-of-fact demeanor. He seemed grateful we’d made the long trip and invited me over to sit over under the trees near his front porch. I spoke with him at length about his family’s experiences and noted his genuine appearence. Here was a salt of the earth who appeared truly baffled, excited, yet in a place of fear for his family. I sensed he wasn’t telling me everything.

David Perkins’ article “The Ranch from Hell,” and later the book Kelleher/Knapp book Hunt for the Skinwalker proved my hunch correct as other amazing Sherman Ranch stories surfaced. I never asked to see his videotape of close encountered UFO craft—hoping he would volunteer to show it to me—but he didn’t, instead he showed me where 40 to 50 foot-tall cottonwood trees had their tops sheared off. And he showed the odd triangular arrayed landing pod indentations in the field right in front of his house. I never had to ask him a question—I figured he knew why I was there. Madly scribbling notes, he volunteered everything—it was like he really needed someone to talk to that didn’t think he was crazy. Then he asked me if I knew anyone that would buy the ranch and study what was going on there. I told him only two people that I could think of: Laurance Rockefeller and Robert Bigelow. I promised to call him with their phone numbers as soon as I returned to Colorado. I didn’t get a call back from Laurance’s office and Bigelow beat me to the punch—he must be psychic. Well, the rest is history. The day after returning from the Sherman ranch I called David Perkins and related the details of our eventful trip—another series of weird events occurred on the return trip trying to get over Baxter Pass. But I won’t digress too far at this point. David then called Sherman and managed to obtain the last (and most in-depth) public interview with Terry before the Robert Bigelow/National Institute of Discovery Sciences’ “non-disclosure agreement” cut him off. Soon after wrote an in-depth Spirit Magazine piece aptly naming it “The Ranch from Hell” which featured Terry Sherman’ last on-the-record interview. Here is an excerpt:

The first sign that something was “different” about the place were the large, circular impressions which the Shermans kept finding in their pastures. One configuration formed a 30-foot triangle.  Other circles were found measuring roughly three feet wide and one to two feet deep. The soil inside the holes was firmly impacted. About this time, Terry began having trouble with his prize breeding herd of cattle. Cows were dying under unexplained circumstances …

In April of 1995, the weirdness dramatically escalated. While checking his cattle one evening, Terry saw a silent glowing object pass over a 50 foot tall stand of poplar trees that fringed one of their fields. A few days later, Gwen saw [another] unexplained flying object: It looked like head lights but they were a little ways away from the craft, it just lit the whole side of the mountain up like it was broad daylight.’ Terry started examining his odd cattle deaths more closely. The first cow found dead (shortly after a UFO sighting) showed only a hole in the center of its left eyeball. Predators had not touched the carcass and Sherman noted a chemical smell in the vicinity. A short time later, a second cow was found dead with the same hole in the left eyeball. With both these animals, Terry had taken a wire and inserted it into the hole to gauge its depth. In both cases ‘‘the wire slipped in easily to the center of the brain.

In addition to the strange aerial craft sightings, there were sightings of huge, impossibly large animals that included an encounter with a giant four-to-five foot tall wolf that showed up and attacked a penned calf through the fence. Sherman tried to beat it away with a bat but was unsuccessful. This all supposedly occurred within feet of his wife and their son. Terry then shot it four times with his .357 magnum before the seemingly unfazed wolf loped off into “a dense group of Cottonwood trees where its tracked inexplicably vanished in soft ground. Perkins also noted in his article:

A local Indian shaman friend of Terry’s told him that there were tribal songs about the “spirits and spooks” of the ranch area “going back ten generations.” The shaman said the area was considered “unholy ground” and was “on the path of the skinwalkers.”

 In an extremely rare occurrence the Shermans’ son found a mutilated cow within five minutes of its death. The young man had seen the “gentle” Angus eating peacefully and returned moments later to find it dead. The cow’s rectum had been ‘‘cored out’’ with a six-inch wide hole that was eight-inches deep. Hunt for the Skinwalker takes it from here:

The Shermans spent their last day on ranch rounding up cattle. By late evening they were “bone-tired,” They locked all the doors and saw their children to bed. Gwen and Terry took hot showers and then fell into a deep sleep. The next morning they awoke to find their bedding covered with blood. They both had a one eighth inch deep “scoop mark” in the same place on their right thumbs. The ranch from hell had managed to tick them one last time.

Retired teacher and UFO researcher Junior Hicks says his friends in the Ute tribe believe the skinwalker presence in the Uinta Basin extends back at least 15 generations. The Utes, described by historians as a fierce and warlike people … abducted Navajos and other Indians and sold them in New Mexico slave markets. Later, during the American Civil War, some Ute bands took orders from Kit Carson in a military campaign against the Navajo. According to Hicks, the Utes believe the Navajo put a curse on their tribe in retribution for many perceived transgressions. And ever since that time, Hicks was told, the skinwalker has plagued the Ute people.

The ranch property has been declared as off-limits to tribal members because it supposedly “lies in the path of the skinwalker.” Even today, Utes refuse to set foot on what they see as accursed land. But the tribe doesn’t necessarily believe that the skinwalker lives on the ranch. Hicks says the Utes told him that the skinwalker lives in a place called Dark Canyon, which is not far from the ranch. In the early 1980’s, Hicks sought permission from tribal elders to explore the canyon. He’s been told there are centuries-old petroglyphs in Dark Canyon, some of which depict the skinwalker. But the tribal council denied his request to explore the canyon. One member later confided to Hicks that the tribe denied the request because it did not want to disturb the skinwalker for fear that it might “create problems.” As noted in HFTS, the tribe’s advice to Hicks: “Leave it alone.”

[Bureau of Indian Affairs officer “Brandan”—pseudo name] Ware said that skinwalker sightings among the Utes are not uncommon. He told us of an encounter with two shapeshifters near the Gorman ranch. The figures he described are so unusual, so far outside our own concept of reality as to be almost comical, like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. One local who saw them in the road in Fort Duchesne described them as humans with dog heads smoking cigarettes … For him, and for many others [Native Americans], skinwalkers are as real as the morning sun or the evening moon. They are a part of everyday life, and they most certainly are integral to the story of the [Sherman] ranch.


Bigelow’s National Institute of Discovery Science (NIDS) bought the ranch, gagged Sherman and immediately posted guards and had the place wired with all manner of high-tech sensing equipment. Staffed by a crack team of field investigators and scientists, the ranch soon became a sensation within the UFO and paranormal investigative fields. After a frustrating eight-year investigation NIDS, with little apparent success, officially closed up shop. As it turned out, the “activity” appeared to have turned the tables and tricksters were apparently stalking the investigators—anticipating their countermoves, and countering attempts at surveillance. NIDS apparently still maintains guards at the ranch, so don’t go try and visit unannounced, but it seems to me (and others) that the skinwalker prevailed against the best that modern, privately-funded science could throw at them. Knapp and Kelleher insightfully observe that the ancient tricksterish force at work there (and in other places) may more complex and mercurial than we (until now?) could ever imagine.

Could the Utes have used the skinwalker curse as an all-encompassing explanation for their assorted tribal misfortunes … Or are they relying on the legend as an umbrella explanation for the wide range of paranormal events that have been reported in the vicinity of their lands for generations—in particular, in the vicinity of the ranch?   …If a skinwalker really is a shapeshifter, capable of mind control and other trickery, might it also have the ability to conjure up nightmarish visions of Bigfoot or UFOs? Could it steal and mutilate cattle, incinerate dogs, generate images of monsters, unknown creatures, or extinct species, and could it also frighten hapless residents with poltergeist-like activity? At the very least, the skinwalker legend might be a convenient way for the Utes to grasp a vast menu of otherwise inexplicable events, the same sort of events that might stymie and confuse a team of modern scientists.

Regardless of success or failure, this scientific effort was (and probably still is) groundbreaking. I highly recommend Hunt for the Skinwalker for those of you interested in researching outbreaks in locales where we find this hot-spot grouping of phenomena. In the meantime, I helped develop a story about the case for Hollywood, we’ll see how far this project progresses…

The skinwalker’s legendary ability to change forms and shapeshift into a variety of animal or energy forms is not exclusive to the American Southwest. The following account comes from Africa and is highly suggestive of a skinwalker-like being. The following story was told to me by David Hatcher Childress, who has crisscrossed the world for almost 30 years. Over the course of his travels he has heard many intriguing stories. One such story was told to him in Tanzania in the mid 1980s. He related the strange tale as we were driving north toward Monument Valley in November 2008:

I was just coming up to the Serengeti. I had been in working in the Sudan and then traveled through war-torn Uganda with my Swedish girlfriend. We came around from the Ugandan side of Lake Victoria into Tanzania, and one night I was sitting in one of the small restaurants there and a guy told me a strange story. In a town nearby, a little village, there was a butcher shop, and they hung meat there overnight at a place in the market that was kind of protected. Something was coming and stealing the meat and taking it. So they began to watch over the slaughtered meat there at night to see who was stealing it. They found that a hyena was coming into the village to the meat shop and taking the meat. He’d come in every few days, or so. So now that they knew what was happening, they decided to set a trap for this hyena. Some nights later, the hyena showed up and they killed it. Then about a week later, this woman came into the village and she said that the people in the village would have to now give her meat every week. They’d have to send her meat. They asked her ‘why?’ And she said, ‘because you killed my son who was the hyena.’ The hyena was some kind of skinwalker—a changeling. He was changing into a hyena. The people were afraid, so they so they sent her some meat every week in order to pay for the killing of her son.

So, are skinwalkers lurking the canyons and arroyos of the 21st Century haunted southwest? Do they still force eye-contact and absorb themselves into terrified victims and make them go places and do unspeakable things? Are they just a fading cultural myth that has amassed great and lasting power over superstitious people that still adhere to the belief that these black magicians are real and to be feared? Are they able to run beside cars at fantastic speed or shoot bone pellets into unfortunate victims? Only the indigenous natives of the southwestern United States can definitively answer this question by producing irrefutable evidence that these supernatural beings are indeed real. Thankfully, I’ve never encountered a skinwalker that has made its presence known in an unequivocal manner. Or have I?

Here is an interview I gave about the Sherman (“Skinwalker”) Ranch in Utah: