A democracy of species
Tunes & Words for a Monday Morning

The Windigo

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I'd like to end the week with one last passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass -- this time dipping into the myth of the Windigo. I was planning to illustrate this post with Windigo illustrations, but I found them all too scary! So instead: the Devon hills, misty and mysterious in the early morning light, and a furry black protector to scare off any monsters in lurking in the bracken.

"The Windigo is the legendary monster of our Anishinaabe people," writes Kimmerer, "the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the north woods. You can feel it lurking behind you, a being in the shape of an outsized man, ten feet tall, with frost-white hair hanging from its shaking body. With arms like tree trunks, feet as big as snow-shoes, it travels easily through the blizzards of the hungry time, stalking us. The hideous stench of its carrion breath poisons the clean scent of snow as it pants behind us. Yellow fangs hang from its mouth that is raw where it has chewed off its lips from hunger. Most telling of all, its heart is made of ice....This monster is no bear or howling wolf, no natural beast. Windigos are not born, they are made. The Windigo is a human being who has become a cannibal monster. Its bite will transform victims into cannibals too....It is said that the Windigo will never enter the spirit world but will suffer the eternal pain of need, its essence a hunger that will never be sated. The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes. Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind."

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"Traditional upbringing was designed to strengthen self-discipline, to build resistance against the insidious germ of taking too much. The old teachings recognized that Windigo nature is in each of us, so the monster was created in stories, that we might learn why we should recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. This is why Anishinaabe elders like Stewart King remind us always to acknowledge the two faces -- the light and the dark side of life -- in order to understand ourselves. See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.

"The beast has been called an evil spirit that devours mankind. The very word, Windigo, according to Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, can be derived from roots meaning 'fat excess' or 'thinking only of oneself.' Writer Steve Pitt states 'a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point where satisfaction is no longer possible.'

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"No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices -- addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, technology, and more -- as a sign than Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, 'any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.' And just as Windigo's bite is infectious, we know all too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims -- in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

"The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth's resources 'not for need but for greed.' The footprints are all around us if you know what to look for."

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"We are all complicit," notes Kimmerer. "We've allowed the 'market' to define what we value so that the redefined common good seems to depend on profligate lifestyles that enrich the sellers while impoverishing the soul and the earth. Cautionary Windigo tales arose in a commons-based society where sharing was essential to survival and greed in any individual a danger to the whole. In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counseled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished. The Windigo myth may have arisen from the remembrance of the banished, doomed to wander hungry and alone, wreaking vengence on those who spurned them. It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.

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"I remember walking a street in Manhattan, where the warm light of a lavish home spilled out onto the sidewalk on a man picking through the garbage for his dinner. Maybe we've all been banished to lonely corners by our obsession with private property. We've accepted banishment even from ourselves when we spend our beautiful, singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that will feed but never satisfy. It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave. On a grander scale, too, we seem to be living in an era of Windigo economics of fabricated demand and compulsive overconsumption. What Native peoples once sought to rein in, we are now asked to unleash in a systematic policy of sanctioned greed.

"The fear for me is far greater than just acknowledging the Windigo within. The fear for me is that the world has been turned inside out, the dark side made to seem light. Indulgent self-interest that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success. We are asked to admire what our people once viewed as unforgiveable. The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as 'quality of life' but eats us from within. It is as if we've been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that nourishes only emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster."

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Later in her book, Kimmerer discusses how to defeat the Windigo in our midst through the "economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified. Properly managed, the commons approach maintains abundance, not scarcity. These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the indigenous world view in which the earth exists not as private property, but as a commons to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all.

"And yet, while creating an alternative to destructive economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policy that we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance.

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"Each of us comes from people who were once indigenous. We can reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationship with the living earth. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Windigo psychosis. A deep awareness of the gifts of the earth and of each other is medicine. The practice of gratitude lets us hear the badgering of marketers as the stomach grumblings of a Windigo. It celebrates cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood to be having enough to share and riches are counted in mutual beneficial relationships. Besides, it makes us happy."


Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall KimmererThe text above is from Braiding Sweetgrass by Potawatomi author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend reading in full. The poem in the picture captions is from Jacklight by Ojibwe poet & novelist Louise Erdrich (Flamingo, 1996), which I also recommend. All rights reserved by the authors.


I came to catch up on this week's Myth & Moor and was so pleased to find a Saturday post as well! These selections from Braiding Sweetgrass are very moving and important to me, and as soon as I leave here I'm going to order the book through our local bookstore and encourage them to carry it as well.


"As even as the bones of the herring on either side of the spine."--old Scottish saying

I wish you the even of night,
when the stars belong to all of us,
and no one, pointing, can say I own that.

I wish you the even of midnight,
when the moon is a circle of light,
no side longer than the other.

I wish you the even of dawn
when the chorus of small birds
braid a tune that each can hear.

I wish you herring of a life,
where along the spine,
the even bones spell out your destiny.

You have ears to listen, eyes to see,
mouth to tell the story of it,
to share the poem of what is even.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Oh, my. That is gorgeous, Jane.

In reply to Mom, how beautiful, how moving inside of me....your words are a prayer that smooth down my rough edges and soothe me. Thank you.
And one look at Tilly, especially the third frame up from the bottom, says "jaunty". This takes the heaviness of this post and turns it into a joyful one! Blessings to all of you from Memphis way.

Thank you, A'vonne. That was precisely my intent in deciding to use these pictures instead of the rather frightening Windigo/Wendigo illustrations. Tilly is indeed a jaunty and joyful soul.

Returning to our indigenous roots reminds me of the practices of the Pacific Northwest Natives. Within their traditions was that of the Potlatch. The Potlatch was a planned celebration in which one tribal chief would invite the neighboring tribes to a massive feast and then proceed to gift away his collected wealth. If he gave enough with a good spirit, he would recoup his losses by being invited back to many other Potlatches. These tribes, I might add, were well fed, having the Pacific Ocean, many fish filled rivers, berries, Camas root, and other easily harvetable delights: deer, elk, rabbit, wild turkey, etc. They were a sea faring and river traveling people, trading widely with tribes up and down the Pacific coast. I wonder if they too had stories of a Winigo/Wendigo spirit?

Thank whatever is holy for the blogosphere, where I get insight into thoughts that I may have missed in my life. This thankfulness is for those who provide and creation itself. I read these words and realize there is much to meditate upon and maturity to be gained. Way cool.

...And it just went on the studio door.

Hm - I was thinking about 'hearts of ice' this week and ended up looping around to the zombie phenomenon that continues to stay strong in pop-culture. The windigo has a lot in common with zombies and might explain why so much of popular culture is expressing itself right now in terms of zombie metaphor. Interestingly, the most recent zombie stories emerging are about trying to find, see, revive the humanity in the zombie - to prove that the person they once was isn't lost forever... there is a definite trend of exploring this idea through eating other people's brains and experiencing/seeing that person saw and felt - those memories and real feelings (walking in another persons shoes) are the glimmers of humanity that begins to bring the zombie back to being human.

So beautiful. I'm reading my four-year-old daughter a set of children's chapter books by Louise Erdrich, and someone tells a story of a windigo. I skipped over a few words in the description to avoid nightmares! What a powerful metaphor for the destructive nature of greed. Thanks for sharing these excerpts by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

You have made your point of light, bright on a Saturday, the day of Saturn ... father of time. With such a powerful message from RWK it makes me full on the power of naming. Gratitude the antidote to Greed.

Thank you Terri. And @ Jane: your poem evened me.

Hi Terri,

This brilliant and introspective piece on "The Windigo" really hits home here in the desert. Facing a historical drought, I think of how some facilities ( for profit) and the privileged balk at conserving water and feel they are entitled to more because they can pay the higher prices. They are aghast at the concept of rationing and feel their rights would be violated if the California government were to enact such legislation. In their own way, they have become windigos wanting to consume a resource that must be preserved and shared as a human necessity, as an act of humanity. I truly loved this piece for its truth and powerful writing. The photos are stunningly beautiful and complement this essay perfectly. Tilly adds to the beauty with her canine grace and surveillance, an animal guide that takes us into a world that enriches us with its terrain and mystical sense of being, its spirit of place.

I was very drawn to Robin Kimmener's quote about gratitude and how "scarcity and plenty" are very much part of our cognitive perception as well as the tangible state of the economy. Below are some of my personal thoughts ( and a poem) about the lack of something precious and vital.

During times of personal or physical dearth, we must remember what is missing. We must be grateful for its existence even at a distance. We must embrace its presence, dream ourselves into its soul, hear its voice, feel its heartbeat, become its essence. In that way, we evolve to a higher perception of its spiritual gift and content. We fill the void with an appreciation for what it is and how we can replenish through prayer and balance,
humility and kinship.


Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit
as they are of the economy.
Robin Kimmerer

I dream of you at night
spreading blue wings over the field
and soaking the feet of trees
in your coolness.

I hear your voice pouring
operatic into the canyon --
aqua santa, aqua santa
catching on weed and vine,
their chords so dry -- they rasp fire.

I feel your presence flooding
river and stream. My spine
becomes the spine of fish
chimed with rain song, a rippling current --
a rippling prayer.

I breathe and breathe again
through gills that expand into wings --
your wings spread even, spanning
coast and countryside. The stillness parted.

The moon white and feathered
through the mist. A gull that does not cry
as you turn my blood to water. My spirit
into one of your own.

Again, thank you for this!
My Best

Stunning, Wendy. Thank you. I needed your poem this morning.

And thank you to everyone else who commented here too, for helping to keep the spirit of co-operation and gratitude alive in our trouble world.

Thank you Terri!!

I am glad you enjoyed it and could relate. I wish the global community would read things like "Braiding Sweetgrass" and other perspectives like Ms Kimmerer's. We need more awareness of climate change and the need to cherish and respect the earth and its species that are non-human.

Take care

Another wonderful post. I'd never heard of the Windigo before. Terrifying.

When the Chill Comes: Traditional Tales of the Windigo, collected by Howard Norman

Howard Norman is highly respect by his Cree and First Nation friends.
I recommend his other books, such as The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese.

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