Navajo Skinwalkers – Witches of the Southwest


Skinwalker, a Navajo Witch

Skinwalker, a Navajo Witch

In the Navajo culture, a skinwalker is a type of harmful witch who has the ability to turn into, possess, or disguise themselves as an animal.

This witch is called “yee naaldlooshii” by the Navajo, which translates to “with it, he goes on all fours.” It is just one of several types of Navajo witches and is considered the most volatile and dangerous.

For the Navajo people, witchcraft is just another part of their spirituality and one of the “ways” of their lives. As such, witchcraft has long been part of their culture, history, and traditions. Witches exist alongside humans and are not supernaturals.

The Navajo believe there are places where the powers of both good and evil are present and that those powers can be harnessed for either. Medicine men utilize these powers to heal and aid members of their communities, while those who practice Navajo witchcraft, seek to direct the spiritual forces to cause harm or misfortune to others. This type of Navajo witchcraft is known as the “Witchery Way,” which uses human corpses in various ways such as tools from the bones, and concoctions that are used to curse, harm, or kill intended victims

The knowledge of these powers is passed down from the elders through the generations.

The Navajo are part of a larger culture area that also includes the Pueblo people, Apache, Hopi, Ute, and other groups that also have their own versions of the Skinwalker, but each includes a malevolent witch capable of transforming itself into an animal.

Among these tribes, a number of stories and descriptions have been told throughout the years about the Skinwalkers.

Hastobiga, Navaho Medicine Man, by Edward S. Curtis, 1904

Hastobiga, Navaho Medicine Man, by Edward S. Curtis, 1904

Sometimes, these witches evolved from living their lives as respected healers or spiritual guides, who later chose to use their powers for evil. Though they can be either male or female, they are more often male. They walk freely among the tribe during the day and secretly transform under the cover of night.

In order to become a Skinwalker, he or she must be initiated by a secret society that requires the evilest of deeds – the killing of a close family member, most often a sibling. After this task has been completed, the individual then acquires supernatural powers, which gives them the ability to shape-shift into animals. Most often, they are seen in the form of coyotes, wolves, foxes, cougars, dogs, and bears, but can take the shape of any animal. They then wear the skins of the animals they transform into, hence, the name Skinwalker. Sometimes, they also wore animal skulls or antlers atop their heads, which brought them more power. They choose what animal they wanted to turn into, depending on the abilities needed for a particular task, such as speed, strength, endurance, stealth, claws, and teeth, etc. They may transform again if trying to escape from pursuers.

Because of this, the Navajo consider it taboo for its members to wear the pelt of any predatory animal. However, sheepskin, leather, and buckskin are acceptable.

Changing Skinwalker

Changing Skinwalker

The skinwalkers are also able to take possession of the bodies of human victims if a person locks eyes with them. After taking control, the witch can make its victims do and say things that they wouldn’t otherwise.

Once they were shape-shifted, one way that others could tell that they were not a real animal is that their eyes are very different than those of the animal. Instead, their eyes are very human, and when lights are shined on them, they turn bright red. Alternatively, when they are in human form, their eyes look more like animals.

The evil society of the witches gather in dark caves or secluded places for several purposes – to initiate new members, plot their activities, harm people from a distance with black magic, and perform dark ceremonial rites. These ceremonies are similar to other tribal affairs, including dancing, feasts, rituals, and sand-painting, but were “corrupted” with dark connotations. The evildoers are also said to engage in necrophilia with female corpses, commit cannibalism, incest, and grave robberies. During these gatherings, the Skinwalkers shape-shift into their animal forms or go about naked, wearing only beaded jewelry and ceremonial paint. The leader of the Skinwalkers is usually an old man, who is a very powerful and long-lived Skinwalker.

Black Magic

Black Magic

Skinwalkers also have other powers including reading others’ minds, controlling their thoughts and behavior, causing disease and illness, destroying property, and even death.

Those who have talked of their encounters with these evil beings describe a number of ways to know if a skinwalker is near. They make sounds around homes, such as knocking on windows, banging on walls, and scraping noises on the roof. On some occasions, they have been spied peering through windows. More often, they appear in front of vehicles in hopes of causing a serious accident.

It is said that, in addition to being able to shapeshift, the Skinwalker is also able to control the creatures of the night, such as wolves and owls, and to make them do its bidding. Some are able to call up the spirits of the dead and reanimate the corpses to attack their enemies. Because of this, the Indians rarely ventured out alone.



Its supernatural powers are uncanny, as they are said to run faster than a car and have the ability to jump high cliffs. They are extremely fast, agile, impossible to catch and leave tracks that are larger than those of any animal. When they have been seen, they have been described as not quite human and not fully animal. They are usually naked, but some have reported seeing the creature wearing tattered shirts or jeans.

The Skinwalker kills out of greed, anger, envy, spite, or revenge. It also robs graves for personal wealth and to collect much-needed ingredients for use in black magic. These witches live on the unexpired lives of their victims and they must continually kill or perish themselves.

Skinwalkers and other witches have long been blamed for all manner of unexpected struggles and tragedies through the years, including sickness, drought, poor crops, and sudden deaths. Even smaller or individual problems such as windstorms during dances, alienation of affection by mates, the death of livestock, and reversal of fortune, were often believed to be the work of a witch.

Navajo Prisoners taking the "Long Walk"

Navajo Prisoners taking the “Long Walk”

This was most apparent with the Navajo Witch Purge of 1878, which initially evolved from a cultural response to so many people moving across and onto their lands. After a series of wars with the U.S. Army, the Navajo were expelled from their land and forced to march to the Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner) in New Mexico in what is known as the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864.

There, the people suffered from bad water, failed crops, illness, and death, reducing their numbers dramatically. After four years, the government finally admitted they had made a mistake and the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland in the Four Corners area.

4 thoughts on “Navajo Skinwalkers – Witches of the Southwest”

  1. so, I heard about the seven witches of Navajo culture? is it true that they believe in seven witches? But all I know is about the skinwalker is it possible that you know about the other six witches? please if you do, contact me.

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