Two men who call themselves ‘paranormal’ researchers were in Slave Lake recently looking into a local legend. Chad Lewis and Kevin Nelson, from southern Wisconsin, also visited Wabasca and Athabasca to investigate several historic ‘wihtikow’ or windigo tales. They plan to publish a book, Wendigo: Monster, Myth, and Madness on the subject.
There are various pronunciations and spellings of the Cree word wihtikow. In this area, it is pronounced /wihtikow/, sometimes written as ‘whetigo’. In English, it is commonly rendered windigo or wendigo.
Creedictionary.com defines wihtikow as a “Wihtikow, Windigo; cannibal, a giant man-eating monster” and “a greedy person. In legend, a cursed grotesque super-human figure who was also a cannibal.”
Stories of windigo are prevalent anywhere there are Cree or Ojibwe people, say Lewis and Nelson. It is a northern woods legend distinctive to North America.
“There are some cases in our home state of Wisconsin,” says Nelson, also Minnesota.
This will be Lewis and Nelson’s 25th or 26th book on the paranormal. They’ve written on things as varied as haunted places, to Irish banshees and sea serpents, like the Loch Ness monster. They have written chapters in other books on the topic, but the goal of this book is to be comprehensive. However, it likely won’t have a lot of answers in it.
Lewis’ background is in psychology. He is especially interested in the European invention of ‘windigo psychosis’ to explain the stories.
Nelson’s background is in technology. He’s very interested in researching folklore, magic, occult and paranormal. The two teamed up around 25 years ago.
Nelson and Lewis have been researching this book off and on for the last decade or so. They even spent some time camping on a deserted island in Lake Windigo, in Minnesota, which is rumoured to get its name from a windigo incident.
This will likely be the duo’s largest book, says Nelson. It covers a good 300 years of reports written down by missionaries and fur traders. It also includes more recent sightings, which tend to be influenced by windigo depictions in popular culture.
In some areas, First Nations people never speak about windigo, say Nelson and Lewis. In others, they can only be spoken of in the winter.
Some First Nations view windigos as positive, says Nelson. A youth in northern Minnesota thought he saw a windigo; his elders told him that the sighting was a growing moment.
Windigo folklore is complex, with the description of the windigo varying by region, says Nelson. One nation in Manitoba describes the windigo as something akin to a white bigfoot.
Other places it is closer to demon possession.
Wihtikow stories from around Lesser Slave Lake are on the possession end of the spectrum.
In a January 8, 1992 Spotlight article, entitled “The legend of Eating Creek,” Joe McWilliams interviewed two local Mitsue residents William and Leo Giroux. They are Indigenous. Their parents passed down stories of the wihtikow.
“In the Cree culture of the time, belief in spirit possession was common,” says the article. “It happened often and could be bad or good. In the case of the whetigo, it was very bad.”
“Someone who had become a whetigo would inevitably turn to cannibalism,” the article continues. “If the process was caught early enough, it could be cured, but only by the art of a medicine man.”
“But once he eats somebody it’s too late (for a cure),” says William, in the article.
“The only thing to do was to kill the whetigo, and only the medicine man could do that, too,” says the article.
The whetigo would dream of an animal and receive the strength of the animal, says the article. The cannibalism was a result of seeing other people as animals. He or she could kill an entire camp. They would often chew their lips off, which made their teeth exposed.
Mitsue Creek, Lake, and Eating Creek were named after an instance, or at least the legend, of a wihtikow killing and eating people, says the article.
However, this wasn’t the wihtikow recorded in the historic written record which brought Nelson and Lewis to the area. They were researching the 1886 killing of a wihtikow by the mouth of the Lesser Slave River, and other reports recorded in RCMP and other records.
In 1886, Michel Courtorielle’s wife, Marie, thought she was becoming a wihtikow, say Lewis and Nelson, based on their research. Michel and his son Cecil Courtorielle tried to cure her for 20 days. She escaped. They killed her, burned her body, and buried her. This was before Treaty 8 was signed, so when the RCMP arrived, the two men willingly went with them for the investigation. They were sentenced to six years each for murder.
Another instance is of two women from Whitefish Lake being brought to the RCMP to be saved from becoming wihtikow, say the researchers. A justice of the peace sent them to the Catholic Mission on Lesser Slave Lake.
This likely refers to the Catholic Mission in Grouard.
On the western end of Lesser Slave Lake, the Lesser Slave Lake trading post was establish in 1801 in the area which is now Grouard, says the South Peace Historic Society website. Catholic missionaries arrived in 1845 and built a permanent Catholic Mission in Grouard around 1871.
Lewis and Nelson also visited Wabasca because of several of reports in the historic record that the whole community refused to leave their homes because of reports that a wihtikow was present. They wouldn’t go outside to hunt, even though they were running out of food.
The windigo is unique in the “overwhelming terror” it instilled in people, says Lewis. Once word of a windigo got out, people wouldn’t go into the area. The Hudson Bay Company had a lot of trouble. They’d set up a trading post. If a windigo rumour started, there would be no trapping for miles.
Another incident in the historic record involves actual cannibalism, like the legend of Eating Creek.
In 1879, Swift Runner became a windigo and killed and ate his entire family at his winter camp south of Athabasca, say the researchers. He refused to lead the RCMP to the bodies until they drugged him with tobacco mixed in alcohol. He was the first person hung by the authorities in this area.
The goal of Nelson and Lewis’ trip was to get a feel for the land mentioned in the historic record, take pictures, and make connections with anyone who might know more. People interested in speaking to the researchers can call them at 715-271-1831, email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message through one of their websites including backroadslore.com.
Nelson and Lewis plan to release Wendigo: Monster, Myth, and Madness late this winter.