In the American Southwest, the Navajo, Hopi, Utes, and other tribes believe in the existence of the skinwalker – a malevolent witch capable of transforming itself into a wolf, coyote, bear, bird, or any other animal. The witch might wear the hide or skin of the animal identity it wants to assume, and when the transformation is complete, the human witch inherits the speed, strength, or cunning of the animal whose shape it has taken.
“The Navajo skinwalkers use mind control to make their victims do things to hurt themselves and even end their lives,” writes Doug Hickman, a New Mexico educator. “The skinwalker is a very powerful witch. They can run faster than a car and can jump mesa cliffs without any effort at all.”
According to University of Nevada-Las Vegas anthropologist Dan Benyshek, who specializes in the study of Native Americans of the Southwest,
“Skinwalkers are purely evil in intent. … skinwalkers do all sorts of terrible things – they make people sick, they commit murders. They are graverobbers and necrophiliacs. They are greedy and evil people who must kill a sibling or other relative to be initiated as a skinwalker. They supposedly can turn into were-animals and can travel in supernatural ways.”
Practitioners of adishgash, or witchcraft, are considered to be a very real presence in the Navajo world. Few Navajo want to cross paths with naagloshii (or yee naaldooshi), otherwise known as a skinwalker. The cautious Navajo will not speak openly about skinwalkers, especially with strangers, because to do so might invite the attention of an evil witch.