Witches, Ghosts, and Monsters in 18th and Early-19th Century Native American Culture
“Spooky Season” ("spook" is a Dutch word for spirit or ghost) is once again upon us. As a result, although this blog usually only deals in “provable” history, we thought that it might be fun, and a pleasant change of pace, to survey some of the supernatural beliefs of the several cultures that made up Colonial America and the Early United States. So, sit back, take whatever precautions you feel you need to protect yourself from the supernatural, and let us begin.
Native American Supernatural Beings
Imagine, it is some 300 years ago, in Puritan New England or the Virginia colony. As a colonist, you believe that the wilderness was the natural habitat of the devil and, since Native Americans belong to this wilderness, their familiarity with the ways of the devil seems obvious to you. The peoples of seventeenth-century New England, both Europeans and Natives, lived in an enchanted universe, full of wonders and terrors. Because of this, Native Americans saw their world as peopled with extraordinary beings and marked by supernatural phenomena including witchcraft, ghosts, and monsters. Let us talk about a few of these.
Witches appear in the myths of cultures all around the world — including Native American folklore. David Zeisberger a Moravian missionary among the Native Americans in the Ohio country (the Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, Ottawa, and the Wyandot), wrote of the Native American belief that witches brought misfortune, sickness, or death to the villages or to individuals. These long-established beliefs persisted well into the nineteenth century. The people who acted as doctors or healers were divided into two groups. The first were those who sought cures through magic or supernatural rites (witches), while the second were those who treated wounds and diseases with reasonable skill and medicines (traditional healers).
One such witch is Pukjinskwes – found in Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Malecite, and Abenaki folklore. Pukjinskwes is a notorious witch who appears in many Wabanaki legends and folktales. Her name means "jug woman" or "pitcher woman." Pukjinskwes appeared most often in Wabanaki folklore as a sort of bogeywoman who steals Native American babies and raises them as her own. Pukjinskwes was usually depicted as a squat, ugly human woman in Wabanaki legends, although like most characters of the mythic age, she could shape-shift (in particular, she was noted for sometimes appearing as a man.)
Among the Wampanoag, Mohegan, and Pequot tribes there was a witch known as Squannit. In some Algonquian legends of Massachusetts and Connecticut, Squannit was the wife of the culture hero Moshup. Although Moshup was usually portrayed as a giant, Squannit was considered one of the Little People (makiawisug.) Stories about Squannit vary widely from community to community, but she usually had magical powers and was often associated with the sea and with storms. According to some legends, severe storms were caused by Squannit's arguments with her husband. Squannit was typically described as a tiny woman no more than two or three feet tall, with long hair and small feet; her footprints were often confused for a rabbit's. She was usually portrayed as an old woman and sometimes referred to as “Granny Squannit.”
Further south, among the Cherokee we also have the “Little People or Yunwi Tsunsdi. The little people of Cherokee folklore were capable of doing good deeds for people who treated them with respect. However, to look upon one was bad luck, potentially resulting in premature death. Such was the case with people lost in the woods who were rescued by these mystical beings. After finding their way home, if they told of their strange encounters then they died. Usually, those who meet the little people were warned by them not to tell others. It was also considered bad luck to even speak of the little people. Instead, they were more safely referred to as a “skill’li,” which means witch or ghost. Similar tales of “little people” with supernatural powers, such as the Jo-ga-oh in Iroquois folklore, exist in the traditions of tribes across North America.
Finally, among the Cherokee, the most dreaded of Cherokee witches was Kalona Ayeliski, the Raven Mocker, who robs the dying of their life. A Raven Mocker could be of either sex, as a result, there is no tangible way to recognize one. They usually looked old and withered because they had added so many lives to their own. During the night when someone was sick or dying, the Raven Mocker went there to take the life. It flew with arms outstretched like wings and there would be a wild wind noise around it, and sparks trailing from behind. Occasionally, it would dive, and make a sound like a raven’s cry.
All those who heard it were afraid because they knew that someone’s life would end soon. When the Raven Mocker made it to the dying person’s house, he often found others of his kind there. Unless there is an Indian Doctor who knew how to drive them off, watching out for them, they would all go inside (they are invisible) and frighten and torment the sick person until they killed him. After the witches took the life, they took out his heart and ate it, and by doing this, they added to their own lives as many days or years as they had taken from his. Nobody who was attending the sick could see them, and there was no scar where they have removed the heart, but upon closer examination, they would find that there was no heart left in the body.
Ghosts, Vampires, Monsters, etc.
Bridging the gap between witches and all the other supernatural creatures are the “ghost witches.” One such was the Skadegamutc (also called Skudakumooch).” Just as their name sounds, Skadegamutc were the evil spirits of Native American witches. These monsters were mentioned in the legends of the Wabanaki, a confederacy of tribes that occupied the lands of modern-day Maine. Skadegamutc were formed when an evil sorcerer died. Refusing to stay dead, this fearsome ghost instead wreaked havoc among the living — killing, eating, and cursing anyone who crossed its path. Despite their undead condition, the Skadegamut allegedly kept their powers of sorcery and could put curses on humans with its powerful magic.
The old native folklore of the Skadegamutc also alleges that some humans were more vulnerable to these ghost witches than others. Interestingly, there are characteristics of the Skadegamutc that are like other creatures in European culture. These undead witch monsters needed to feed on blood as vampires do, and they could only be killed with fire, a commonly known method to be effective on witches in European lore.
Among the Wyandot and the Haudenosaunee – the Iroquois confederacy (made up of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes) was the myth of Kanontsistóntie’s or Flying Heads. Flying Heads were described as ravenous spirits that were cursed with an insatiable hunger. The physical appearance of the Flying Head varies depending on the storyteller; however, it was described as resembling a human head with long dark hair, "terrible eyes", and a large mouth filled with razor sharp fangs. In some versions, the Flying Head had a pair of bat wings jutting from each side of its cheek and bird-like talons. Other versions replaced its bat wings with those of a bird. In all instances, they were described as larger in size than that of the tallest man and having a hide that no weapon could penetrate. Some stories claim that it came at night to the homes of widows and orphans, beat its wings on the walls of the houses, and issued terrifying cries in an unknown language. A few days after its visit death would claim one of the family.
Legend says that one evening after the people had been plagued a long time with fearful visitations, the Flying Head came to the door of a lodge occupied by a single female. She was sitting before the fire roasting acorns which, as they became cooked, she took from the fire and ate. Terrified by the power of the woman, who he thought was eating live coals, the Flying Head left and bothered them no more. An alternate version of this part of the legend says that, after seeing a woman eating acorns and thinking she was eating live coals, the Flying Head stole live coals from her and tried to eat them. The results of course were disastrous, and the Flying Head fled in agony, never to be seen again.
Another creature of Native American lore was the Owl Witch or Owl monster. In Choctaw mythology, the owl deity was known as Ishkitini or the horned owl, which was believed to hunt men and other prey at night. Its blood-curdling screeches were an omen of sudden death. In the tradition of the Seminole, found in present-day Florida, there are the Stikini, which are owl beasts that can shift between animal and human form. Stikinis were said to originally be human witches that grew more terrible and powerful the more evil they caused to people and the world. One of their most notable powers was the ability to transform into owl-like humanoids to terrorize local villages. It was said that by day the Stinkini looked like other Seminole people, but by night they changed completely. Unlike a vampire turning into a bat which seems a seamless transition, the Stikini had more of a werewolf-like transformation. Once the moon rose, they would vomit up their souls, internal organs, and blood and transform into undead owl-monsters that feasted upon human flesh. They would hang their souls, blood, and internal organs, up high in the treetops so they could not be reached by any man or animal. The Stikini was considered so terrifying that it was taboo to speak aloud of these monsters among the Seminole as it could attract their presence. The owl-humanoids had tremendous strength and power and could rip a grown man apart with ease. In addition to their habit of eating hearts, they also had on a banshee-like role. It was said the cry of a Stikini is very guttural and horrible. If you heard the cry of one, it was said to be an omen of coming death.
There were some ways to protect against the Stikini. For example, if you feared one was using your town as hunting grounds, you could venture into the forest and try to find where they hung their organs. Once found, you could destroy them leaving the Stikini unable to return to its human form. They, like vampires and other creatures of the night, since they no longer had the ability to retreat to their human form would be killed or grievously harmed in direct sunlight.
Across North America, from the east coast to the west coast and everywhere in between, various tribes had legends of a great horned serpent. In the eastern woodlands, among the Iroquois it was known as Djodi'kwado', a horned serpent who inhabited the depths of rivers and lakes. He could take on the form of a man and was known to seduce young women. Among the Abenaki and Penobscot, it was known as Gitaskog and lurked on lakes and eat humans. Among the Mikmaq, we had Jipijka'm (Chepechcalm, Tcipitckaam). In this version, it had only one horn and was sometimes called the “Unicorn Serpent” in English. Its horn was usually described as red and yellow and had powerful magical qualities. In Muscogee Creek traditions, the horned serpent was a type of underwater serpent covered with iridescent, crystalline scales and a single, large crystal in its forehead. Both the scales and crystals were prized for their powers of divination. The horns, called “chitto gab-by,” were used in medicine.
Among Cherokee people, the Horned Serpent was called an Uktena. Anthropologist James Mooney, in his Myths of the Cherokee, wrote:
Those who know say the Uktena is a great snake, as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright blazing crest like a diamond on its forehead, and scales glowing like sparks of fire. It has rings or spots of color along its whole length, and can not be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and its life. The blazing diamond is called Ulun'suti—"Transparent"—and he who can win it may become the greatest wonder worker of the tribe. But it is worth a man's life to attempt it, for whoever is seen by the Uktena is so dazed by the bright light that he runs toward the snake instead of trying to escape. As if this were not enough, the breath of the Uktena is so pestilential, that no living creature can survive should they inhale the tiniest bit of the foul air expelled by the Uktena. Even to see the Uktena asleep is death, not to the hunter himself, but to his family.
Another supernatural creature, Otneyarheh or Stone Coat, occurred among the legends of the Haudenosaunee and the Huron. Stone Coat was the name of a mythological rock giant of the Iroquois-speaking tribes. In some tribal traditions there is only one Stone Coat, while in others, there is a whole race of them. Stone Coats were described as about twice as tall as humans, with their bodies covered in rock-hard scales that repel all normal weapons. They are associated with winter and ice, and they hunt and eat humans.
Finally, let us talk about Vampires. In native mythology there are no creatures that specifically match up with all the characteristics of the European vampire: associated with bats, unable to withstand sunlight, killed by a stake through the heart, casting no shadow or reflection, weaknesses to garlic and running water, etc. However, as we have seen, there are many humanoid creatures that are believed to hunt and prey on humans, including some that rise from the dead, such as the Skadegamutc that we discussed earlier.
Another such creature is the Windigo. Windigos are cannibal ice giants of the Chippewa and other northern Algonquian Indian tribes. (They are also known as Chenoo in the Micmac language, Giwakwa in the Abenaki language, and a few other names in other tribes.) In most versions of the legend, Windigos were once humans who committed cannibalism, or some other terrible sin, causing their hearts to turn to ice. In other legends, people were turned into Windigos by evil wizards. Either way, the monsters were then doomed to wander the wilderness devouring every human they meet until they were killed. Their main similarities to vampire legends are that they used to be human, they prey on humans, they are immortal until finally killed, and they are associated with sin.
Another such creature is the Rolling Head. Rolling Heads are man-eating monsters from the legends of the Midwestern and Plains tribes. The Rolling Head appears as an undead, disembodied head with long, tangled hair, which rolls along the ground in pursuit of humans to kill and devour. Rolling Heads were created when victims of particularly violent murders rise from the dead to seek revenge. In most stories, this takes the form of an angry man who murders his unfaithful wife (although in some versions, the victim is killed for witchcraft or violating a taboo instead.) Sometimes the story was made more gruesome by the addition of forced cannibalism: the homicidal husband either fed his dead wife's flesh to their children, or else fed her dead lover's flesh to her before killing her. (Sometimes the husband was made even more unsympathetic by describing him as neglectful or a bad provider to begin with, or by having him try to kill the children or leave them to die.) Eventually this series of evil acts results in a Rolling Head rising from the victim's grave. The Rolling Head takes revenge upon the murderer, then proceeds to terrorize its own children and/or the neighboring people until someone finally manages to destroy it.
It was sometimes said that Rolling Heads could only be killed by drowning. In some Ojibwe and Cree folklore, a drowned Rolling Head turned into the first sturgeon. But in other stories, Rolling Heads were defeated through magical power or by causing them to fall off cliffs or into pits. Their main similarity to vampire legends is that they are undead creatures which used to be human, they prey on humans, they often can fly, and once again are associated with sin.
I am going to close out this post on Native American supernatural creatures with a Seneca story titled “The Vampire Skeleton.”
One year late in the fall, when the leaves were mostly down, a man and woman put their young daughter into her cradleboard and packing food and blankets, went into the woods to hunt. They journeyed to the hunting ground where a friendly, helpful old man lived, hosting hunters and other visitors. However, there was a problem at the old man’s lodge because some of the visitors disappeared or mysteriously died. Nonetheless, it was a warm, welcoming place to stay in this hunting ground. And so, the couple and child went there.
The snow fell early during their trip, and the swirling wind piled it up. The couple and child arrived at the old man’s lodge at night after struggling through drifts in the moonlight. The husband called for the old man, but there was no answer. Entering the lodge, they left the door open so the moon would light the interior. Their eyes became accustomed to the dim light and then they noticed a platform against the opposite wall. It had a long bark box on it. Crossing the floor and peering into the bark box, they found the old man. He had built the box to crawl into and die. Now he reposed like a man sleeping, but he had turned into a frightening skeleton!
The man and woman were cold and hungry, and decided to build a fire in the lodge, eat, and sleep before leaving in the morning. After supper, the fire died low while the man and woman slept on two sides of the fireplace. The baby cuddled with her mother. In this haunted atmosphere the woman had fitful dreams of ghosts and witches. Waking from her troubled sleep, the woman thought she heard a sound, like an owl crunching a mouse. She looked around. The firelight was low, but she could see a figure crouched near her husband. It was the old man’s skeleton chewing her husband’s neck and face!
The woman was terrified, but quickly planned her escape. Pretending to speak to her husband she said “Our daughter is thirsty. I will take her down to the stream and get her a little drink.” And she gathered the girl in a blanket and quickly went out the door. The woman fled through the woods, holding the little girl close. Soon she heard a loud howl from the lodge. The vampire skeleton cried “The woman has deceived me!” and she could hear its running feet stomping through the snow and cracking dead wood.
The vampire skeleton yelled “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” and the woman could hear it getting closer. She wrapped the blanket on a broken tree trunk so that it looked like a person. This slowed the vampire skeleton down. It ripped through the blanket. It tore the blanket to pieces, looking for blood. It looked for the woman’s body but didn’t find it. Then the woman heard the vampire skeleton yell “The woman has deceived me!” followed by the sound of the monster once again crashing through the woods in pursuit.
The vampire skeleton shouted “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo” and closed the distance. The woman was terrified but still fought to escape. She tore off her robe and hung it to look like a person. And then she ran on as fast as she could. Again, the vampire skeleton stopped, tore up the garment looking for blood, searched for the bodies, and cried “The woman has deceived me!” She heard it call “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” and break branches as it ran through the woods.
The woman and daughter were almost caught, but dawn lightened the sky and the woman saw that there was a village stockade straight ahead. She burst into the clearing calling loudly for help. The men of the village came out of the stockade with their clubs, saved the woman and baby, wrapped them in warm blankets, and told them that they were brave. The vampire skeleton, blood on its teeth, glowered from the forest’s edge with burning-red eye sockets. Then it turned and left, following its bony footprints through the snow.
After hearing the woman’s story, the chief said that people were wrong about the helpful old man in the forest lodge. He had been an evil wizard, and dying, had become the vampire skeleton. This was a great threat that they needed to end. The chief instructed the men to dance to keep the evil away, so they danced from morning until dusk. When night fell, they gathered their clubs and followed the winding, moonlit forest path to the house of the vampire skeleton. They entered the lodge and found the vampire skeleton asleep in the bark box.
They lit a fire in the hearth. Then the chief addressed the vampire skeleton formally: “We have come to discuss with you the problem that evil is overcoming good in this world. We need to act to restore the proper balance.” Then some of the men closed the box with a great sheet of bark and tied it shut. The men piled firewood around the bark box and set it afire. They stood outside the lodge while the fire blazed, soon enflaming the entire structure. The fire and smoke grew higher. The men could hear the vampire skeleton crash the box to the floor and shout in excitement “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!”, “Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!” The flames roared and towered and after a while, the lodge began to collapse as the fire died down. The men felt joy that they had stopped the threat of the vampire skeleton. Then, as the timbers and bark of the lodge parted with a loud whoosh, and a great owl flew out and disappeared into the woods. Forever after this the Seneca refused to put the dead in boxes above ground but buried them in the earth to keep them from rising and bothering the living.
Thank you for joining us for today’s Halloween themed post on Native American Supernatural Creatures. Hopefully, you found this an entertaining and fun look at some of the supernatural beliefs of North America’s original cultures. Please join us again in two weeks for our next post when we will return to our “normal” historical postings.
While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.
Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.
Barbeau, C. M. (1915). Huron and Wyandot Mythology. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.
Bruchac, J. (1985). Iroquois Stories: Heroes and Heroines, Monsters and Magic. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.
Erdoes, R., & Ortiz, A. (1984). American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books.
Lelean, C. G. (1884). The Algonquin Legends of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company.
Mooney, J. (1902). Myths of the Cherokee. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Native Languages of the Americas. (1998-2020). Native American Figures of Myth and Legend. Retrieved from Native Languages of the Americas: http://www.native-languages.org/legends-figures.htm
Smith, E. A. (1883). Myths of the Iroquois. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Spence, L. (1914). The Myths of the North American Indians. London: George G. Harrap & Company.
Swanton, J. R. (1920). Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.