What is a Skin-Walker?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A skin-walker is a legendary creature in certain Native American cultures that is somewhat analogous to the European werewolf. Like the werewolf, it is a shape-shifter, human at times, and at other times taking on the aspect of an animal, usually at night. In its animal form, the creature may be virtually anything, including a wolf, coyote, fox, bear, owl, or crow. Although skin-walkers may have a favorite form that they customarily use, they have the power to become anything they wish. While the creature is known mainly from Navajo folklore, analogies exist in the mythology of other tribes, including the Mohawk, Hopi, and Aztecs.

In Native American legend, a skin-walker may take on the form of a fox or other animal.
In Native American legend, a skin-walker may take on the form of a fox or other animal.

In the Navajo tradition, the skin-walker or yee naaldlooshii is a human who has gained his or her powers through witchcraft. They are frightening, dangerous, and difficult to kill. Witches earn their power through violating a taboo and generally use it to harm others, so they are considered a sort of monster.

Juniper berries are said to protect humans from skin-walkers.
Juniper berries are said to protect humans from skin-walkers.

In animal form, a skin-walker is very fast and impossible to catch. It sometimes transform itself into animals simply for the purpose of traversing great distances quickly. These creatures may also transform in order to wreak havoc on others, as their identity will be hidden and they will be able to escape quickly if necessary. Both humans and animals can easily tell a skin-walker from a real animal, as it is unable to move completely naturally in animal form.

A skin-walker typically wears the pelt of the animal he or she will transform into, usually with no other clothing. Because of their association with such creatures, wild animal hides are taboo in Navajo culture and rarely seen. A skin-walker can only be defeated if one can discover his or her human identity. This is possible if it is tracked back to his or her home, or, in some stories, if one is wounded and the same injury is later noted on a human.

While it is virtually impossible to kill a skin-walker in human form, there are magical ways to protect oneself and even to kill it. Traditional faith healers can perform ceremonies to protect people from the danger of the creature, or a person going out at night can cover his or her body with corn pollen, cedar ash, or juniper berries. If a person discovers the creature's human identity, he or she can kill the witch by saying, "[Name], you are a skin-walker."

Some skin-walkers take the form of owls.
Some skin-walkers take the form of owls.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


A skin walker was more than likely just a term the English made to label Indians when they first made contact, seeing as how they wore animal skins/furs, then just like many other things it grew into a myth/legend.


I'm writing an argumentative essay on how witchcraft shapes New Mexico. Skin walkers are one of my support facts. My question is, is there a difference in skin walkers? Do different cultures or tribes impact the skin walker's characteristics or motive? Anything helps.


I was always told that a skinwalker in animal form would never reflect light in its eyes like most animals do.


I am called the blacktiger. I'm a warrior who wishes to understand more about my culture. I've read your comments and wish to learn to be able to shapesift. My teacher had to leave for a while and I only see her in the dreamwave. Can any of you help me by starting me on my journey. I wish to take the trials. I feel I'm supposed to be guided by one of you wise and powerful spirits. I would be very thankful.


I've been seeing a shadow every night and it shows itself to me more each time. one time it choked me. the next it reached in me and said i hold your heart with my hand. made of shadow, what is it? Please help.


My father-in-law and I got into a pretty heated argument about this tonight. I am want to know if in the Navajo beliefs there is a difference between Skin-walkers and Shapeshifters? He says that a medicine man in Northern NM says they are two totally different things. But I also grew up in the area and I was taught skinwalkers are shapeshifters. Is there a difference? I know it is a very sacred thing, and I don't mean to be disrespectful. I would just like to know, please.


Are they common in Arizona? My classmate told me they were demons who stole other people's skins and wore them. He even told me of the time he saw one at the peaks up North (I don't know, according to number 10 they're in Prescott? Which is the location of our cabin..) and that it was an old woman, crawling up the side of the mountain at inhuman speeds on her elbows, as she had no legs.

Also, if they won't harm us or talk to us, how are we supposed to feel? Just stand there and be afraid? Knowing these things are so much more powerful than us?

And if we'll never get to interact with them, why should we even care or bother to?

It's a disappointment, being told that you're not good enough, etc.


I want to now if it's possible for someone to be a skin walker, without having chief's blood and being white.


This term is being used loosely. There are different outcomes and results depending on who and where you are taught and what you are using it for.

Shape shifting is not evil, and does not require the death of a loved one. To become a skin walker on the Hopi reservation does. In other parts of the world you become one by eating cursed human meat.

I come from a long line of medicine people, red and white, and I have had experiences with these things. The din`e (Navajo)and Apache who are sort of cousins and the Hopi all deal with the same problems concerning witchcraft plaguing their tribes.

I can S.S. and I am not evil nor do I do things things that are bad to others. Could I? Sure, however we as humans are far more dangerous. How many died in Hiroshima?

I will say this: unless you know what you are doing don't play around this phenomena. It is very real and dangerous. Even though they don't get along with each other, the Hopi and Navajo are beautiful people and much can be learned from their cultures.


Any Skinwalkers in NY? I have never seen them there, that I know of.


i am not a skinwalker but i think that in being one you experience both a spiritual and emotional journey. it would be a life changing experience in seeing one in person.


I witnessed one the night of July 24h in Prescott, Arizona. It was in the shape of a white wolf. It disappeared in a split second.


We feel that we are evil and have to make up for it by doing good. we protect those we love the most.

in human form, I make people nervous, but to my loved one, I am warm and comfortable to be around. I guess it depends on if you want to welcome us or fear us. Number 8: you are right, I feel bad, but I'm told I'm good; its just how you interpret our actions. Thanks for understanding.


I'm navajo. You know some skinwalkers are good and evil, right?


I come from a long line of skin walkers. I know that I am not evil, but some walkers do practice in evil ways. You do not need to be evil to be a walker; that is a fallacy.

My people do not see skin walkers as evil, we are simply gifted. And number three, are you a descendant of a walker? Do you have chief's blood? What tribe are you from? These would be reasons for one to follow. A white wolf is rare and the only one I know of is very strong and determined gentleman. There would be no reason to fear him. He will not speak to you. It would be against the rules, I guess you could say.


to be honest skinwalkers are evil and to me incredibly scary. skinwalkers are, as the ute indians say, "pure evil." Oh, and number four up there at the top, read the book "the hunt for the skinwalker" for info.


i'm doing a report on skin walkers. if any one can help give me more detail please leave a comment to thanks!


I have been followed by a skinwalker my whole life. It always seemed to protect me, both in human and white wolf form. I always see him when something bad is about to happen. I have seen it a lot. Can anyone tell me why? He won't or can't speak to me. I am american indian.


I know a skinwalker.


there are many tribes in the US that use the term "skin walker" different than you are using it.

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