One of the yearly autumnal rituals we’ve established is the watching of Escanaba in da Moonlight. It is a silly, crude, and profound movie that revolves around Native American lore—namely, the creature known as the bearwalk. Despite the high level of interest in monsters on the internet, the bearwalk continues to be elusive. Robert C. Wilson wrote a novel, Crooked Tree, about this Ojibwa legend, but academics have seldom explored it. The few resources I found pointed me to the wendigo. Wendigos are frightening spirits of the forest, sometimes presented as skinwalkers, or shape-shifters, who prey on unwary human beings. Some writers call them werewolves, but this isn’t exactly correct. Frustrated at finding no solid information, I picked up a copy of Basil Johnston’s The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. Johnston, who is Anishinaabe, writes to preserve the heritage of his people.
Manitous don’t have a direct equivalent in English. Some have been inclined to designate them as gods or spirits, but they inhabit that strange realm that overlaps with humans as well. The Ojibwa viewed the world as more animate than western science allows. People were part of this larger universe, but were not the sole end of intelligent life. The tales in this book map out an unseen territory where manitous may be found in lakes and streams, in the hearts of trees, in the early prototypes of humankind, and yes, in the wendigo. The wendigo (also spelled windigo or weendigo) is a representation of excessive acquisitiveness. They often begin life as humans, but become cannibals. As they eat other people their hunger grows, along with their bodies, and they cannot be satisfied. The more they eat the more their hunger remains. They are, therefore, extremely destructive, roaming the woods seeking human victims.
Throughout The Manitous, Johnston gives little in the way of editorial comment. One of his stories is a parable for the coming of Europeans and their subsequent treatment of Native Americans, but most of the tales are of the natural world. The wendigo occupies the last chapter of his book. Before putting the matter to rest, however, Johnston makes a poignant and valid point. Although the Ojibwa no longer believe in a literal wendigo, the treatment of the earth by corporations has taken its place. Always hungry, excessively greedy for more to be taken from the earth, industrialists have made the wendigo look as if it were an amateur slaughterer. Living lightly on the land, the Native Americans tried to take only what they needed. Europeans, on the other hand, created new things in order to keep the hunger going. And those who constantly create new needs grow wealthier and wealthier. Instead of naming this inherently destructive system the wendigo, we call it progress and happily invite it to live among us.