Picture credit: Elle Wild took this photo of the Indigenous graveyard in British Columbia, Canada during the 2020 wildfires. Used with permission. I wonder if the second totem pole from the left has an image of Dzunukwa, the Basket Ogress, on the base?
Every year I cover some aspect of the supernatural around Halloween. This year I want to talk about video by Hammerson Peters, a Western Canadian author who has a YouTube channel covering that country’s legends. These videos are well-produced and draw on historical sources. I love folklore, and have written my own book about an evil spirit in Algonquian belief called the windigo. So, of course, I enjoy viewing his channel, including one recent video: Nakani: The Wildman of the North.
In this video he Peters draws on careful research to document Indigenous belief in a being similar to the Sasquatch or Bigfoot in the Northwest Territories and Alaska. He also touches on similar tales from other areas, such as Labrador. His use of the records of 19th century explorers deepens the sense of veracity in this narrative.
The video makes wonderful viewing on a windy, fall night, and I recommend it. But the curse of having done work on mythology and folklore is that I have some context regarding some of the sources that he uses. For example, Hammerson Peters refers to one case documented by a French Oblate Missionary, Émile Petitot (1838-1916). When considering information the first step is always to evaluate the source. There are question marks surrounding Petitot: “Beginning in 1868 Petitot began to have short bouts of insanity in the winter; he hallucinated, ran half naked in -40 degree weather, and attempted to kill Father Séguin” (For Petitot’s mental health issues see the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio.php?id_nbr=7649). The priest also had a public relationship with a young male servant, followed by a marriage to a local Métis woman, Marguerite Valetta, in 1881; the Catholic Church then forcibly placed him in a mental asylum in Montreal in 1882.
To be fair, the deeply disturbed Petitot also was a linguist who created a Dene dictionary, and documented the mythologies of a half-dozen Indigenous peoples. Ralph Maud (1982), an expert on Indigenous mythology, has used Petitot’s work as an example of the accurate documentation of myth. He was also an explorer, whose work filled in the map of a region that was poorly documented in the Euro-Canadian world.
When writing my own book I myself had to decide what to make of Petitot’s description of his conversation in November 1878 with a man named Jacob Klo-be’-tpa, also known as “Father of Grass,” who was a famous windigo (an evil spirit, which could transform people into cannibals) at the Providence Mission by Great Slave Lake (Teicher, 1960, pp. 83-85). According to Petitot (1891), Father of Grass had dug up and eaten his wife’s body during a severe famine. He had found that he liked eating human flesh, and had gone on to kill and eat seven other people. Petitot even claimed that this man, upon arriving at a trading post, would go to the cemetery to dig up and consume the dead, which were preserved in frozen soil. Petitot met the old man when his twenty-year old son brought his father to the missionary to receive the last sacraments. In the end, I chose not to include this case in my book Dangerous Spirits.
There were a lot of accounts like this to consider when I was writing my book (and these cases were completely unrelated to Peters’ video). For example, the missionary Henri Faraud (Teicher, 1960) allegedly described an encounter with a man haunted by a desire to eat his children. But this tale comes from his cousin’s biography, which so angered Faraud that he said that it would have been better if the book had been burned (Michel). I have also omitted this case in my own work. Many nineteenth century and early twentieth century missionaries and HBC employees wrote memoirs that were designed to create a mythologized version of the north to attract readers. They never expected that the local people would be able to comment on their work.
One other person that Peters drew upon was that of Phillip Godsell. I also used Godsell as a source. He was a fascinating man, and a wonderful raconteur. He also would sometimes change his tales, in part to protect the guilty. For example, according to Godsell, in one instance “at Wapisca” an ill man was perceived by his community to be a windigo. Some men then walked to the local HBC post to meet with Tisdale, the factor. Tisdale was married to an Indigenous wife, and shared a belief in the windigo. He loaned the men guns, powder and ball and told the men to “clean up on him” (Godsell, 1938, 179). According to Godsell, the men shot the windigo multiple times, staked him to the ground, and then burned the cabin.
In this case I believe it may have been that Godsell was referring to a famous windigo case at Trout Lake, Alberta, Canada (Carlson, 2009). But Godsell may have changed the HBC employee’s name (Beatton) to Tisdale. Despite differences in the stories (the murdered man, Napanin/Auger, was killed with an axe, rather than shot) they both took place at Wabasca and involved a local HBC trader married to an Indigenous woman.
One reason that I believe that Godsell was referring to the same case is because of a specific detail. According to Godsell, he asked the Scot who told him this story whether the factor didn’t get in trouble over this: “`Sure he did!’ replied Donald, puffing savagely at his pipe. `The Mounted Police went in there an’ there was hell to pay- but, ye see, he wus a Hudson’s Bay mon- an’ that made the difference. They jist moved him up tae Fort St. John and that wus the end o’ it” (Godsell, 1938, 179-180). In fact, the HBC did move Beatton (Tisdale?) to Fort St. John, British Columbia. Godsell is a useful source, but sometimes details are changed, and he was always a story-teller first. And what’s often missing in these nineteenth century accounts is the voice of the local peoples themselves, or any discussion of colonialism.
In the case of the windigo, I found in my own work that you can’t discuss these beliefs without examining the history of colonialism, the residential schools, missionary work, and the use of the law and mental asylums to erase local cultures and traditions. Of course, for early records we need to rely on the records of outsiders, because that is often all we can find in the archives and libraries. But it’s worth remembering that Euro-Canadians often told these stories in part to justify colonialism, such as by depicting the local peoples as superstitious or backwards. These issues endure. The windigo has become a staple of fiction, movies, and video games. In some case, these tales are handled respectfully. In other cases, their use resembles cultural appropriation.
There are also many issues with using historical Indigenous beliefs to support modern Canadian or American legends. For anyone who is curious why, I recommend reading Wayne Suttles’ work examining whether older Indigenous traditions could be used as evidence for the existence of Sasquatch (Suttles, 1980). Wayne Suttles was an anthropology professor at Portland State University long before I began work there. Although I never met him, his knowledge of Northwest Indigenous culture was formidable. His take on the question in 1980 suggests why a lot of critical thinking is needed before simply drawing straight lines between Indigenous narratives and contemporary beliefs. There are inter-cultural barriers in these exchanges that pass beyond linguistic differences. The cultural understanding of “bigfoot” in an Indigenous community might be very different from that of outsiders who want to use these narratives as evidence for cryptids. What’s interesting is how Indigenous beliefs are chosen selectively (or ignored entirely) to support legends in Canada and the United States (see Boyd for some examples of this trend).
There’s also the issue of deliberate “fakelore,” in which Indigenous beliefs were entirely manufactured. For an example of this, see Sinn’s (2017, pp. 275-278) description of the Forbidden Plateau legend on Vancouver Island. In this case, a local man named Clinton Woods invented Indigenous legends about the place to attract tourists. It worked, and these stories have endured. This has not been the only such example of fake folklore, in which Indigenous myths were allegedly created for personal benefit. I came across an alleged example of this during my research on the windigo (Brightman; Nichols). So although they are wonderful reading, missionary accounts, explorer’s memoirs, and literary translations must be used cautiously. As anyone who has watched the documentary Sasquatch on HBO knows, fakelore is still being created in places as far from the Yukon as northern California. Over the last thirty years a plethora of Indigenous authors (see Bird’s work, for example, on Cree narratives) have created an Indigenous alternative to these older sources in Canada.
I didn’t write this blog post to undermine Hammerson Peters’ YouTube videos- quite the opposite. If you’re looking for some spooky viewing on a Halloween night, these videos skillfully document Canadian legends. Towards the end of the “Nakani” video, he also reports more recent Indigenous descriptions of these beings. I don’t doubt that these wildman traditions did exist in multiple Indigenous communities. Still, please take the old explorer’s and missionaries’ stories with a touch of salt, before you expect to find the wildman in Alaska, the Northwest Territories or Yukon. Now I’ll probably return to YouTube tonight and enjoy watch some more videos in his series. And if you are a writer interested in the Canadian north, you might consider doing a funded writing retreat at the Pierre Berton house in the Yukon.
Curious to learn more about Canadian mysteries and folklore? You might like to read my post on the (nearly) deserted ghost ship Baltimore. Or the lost atomic bomb on Canada’s west coast. If you are interested in true crime, I recommend the podcasts Missing in Alaska and Death in Ice Valley. And if you’d like to know how Indigenous peoples understood Sasquatch (and Ogopogo, a Canadian lake monster) please listen to this episode of “The Secret History of Canada.”
Bird, L. (2007). Spirit Lives in the Mind: Omushkego Stories, Lives, and Dreams (Vol. 9). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.
Boyd, C. E., & Thrush, C. P. (Eds.). (2011). Phantom past, indigenous presence: Native ghosts in North American culture and history. U of Nebraska Press.
Brightman, Robert. “Tricksters and ethnopoetics.” International Journal of American Linguistics 55, no. 2 (1989): 179-203.
Carlson, N. D. (2009). Reviving Witiko (Windigo): An ethnohistory of “cannibal monsters” in the Athabasca district of northern Alberta, 1878–1910. Ethnohistory, 56(3), 355-394.
Godsell, Philip H. Red Hunters of the Snows (Toronto: the Ryerson Press, 1938), pp. 179-180.
Maud, Ralph. A Guide to B.C. Myth and Legend (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1982), 12-13.
Michel, François Fortuné Fernand Eighteen Years among the Indians: The Travels and Missions of Henri Faraud, OMI, Translated by Father Murray Watson, St. Peter’s Seminary, London, Ontario in collaboration with Paul James (Private publication: 2000), iii.
Nichols, J. D. (1989). ” The Wishing Bone Cycle”: A Cree Ossian”? International Journal of American Linguistics, 55(2), 155-178.
Petitot, Émile Autor de Grand Lac de Esclaves (Paris: Nouvelle Librarie, 1891), 333-336.
Sinn, S. (2017). The Haunting of Vancouver Island. TouchWood Editions.
Suttles, Wayne. “Sasquatch, the Testimony of Tradition,” in Manlike Monsters on Trial: Early Records and Modern Evidence. Ed. Marjorie Halpin & Michael M. Ames. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980, 245-254.
Teicher, M. I. (1960). Windigo psychosis: a study of a relationship between belief and behavior among the Indians of Northeastern Canada. Seattle: WA: American Ethnological Society.