Travel Advent Dec. 4: Skinwalkers

I have an irrational fear of skin walkers. What’s a skin walker, Carter? Sit your mamby pampy pampers down and find out.

Skin walkers are ancient spirits or sorcerers that inhabit the bodies the souls of those they steal. They can shape shift, and kind of work in a zombie kind of fashion — as in, they multiply by stealing souls and inhabiting those meat suits. If I get any Navajo or Hopi readers, please go ahead and correct me because I’m certainly bastardizing the tale of these beings.

Anyway, I was privileged enough to go on a trip lead by my former English teacher, who had taught at a boarding school for indigenous children and made lifelong friends out of his pupils. He was a fit man, covered in turquoise jewelry his former students had crafted for him, in his mid sixties but with agelessly handsome features, and had the fiercest composure I’ve ever seen in a man. He was like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and the Drill Sergeant from Full Metal Jacket all in one.

He always took a select group of his pupils on a 10 day expedition through the Southwest, to explore ancient and still off the beaten path ruins that the Ancient Ones have left behind. Along the way, we would stay in the homes and lands of his former students, both Navajo and Hopi, and take part in the mysterious Hopi Harvest Festival: an experience so steeped in mystery and unwritten customs that few outsiders are allowed to view.

One of the former students we were fortunate enough to stay with was also a shaman. On his land was a ceremonial hogan, a round building used for ceremonies and for housing guests. The space is blessed, and kept as a safe place from bad spirits and skin walkers. I’ll talk a bit about skin walkers, because they have their own rules. They can not break in to someones home. They must lure you out of your comfort zone, and then they can prey on you. There are countless tales of hikers in the Southwest hearing screaming babies or whimpering animals lingering outside their tents. But rest assured, there are no screaming babies outside the tent — it’s simply a demon trying to lure you out of your tent.

On this particular night we spent in the hogan, I remember vividly being woken by the sound of a dog fight. Our host housed many dogs, so this was not necessarily a shock, although it was certainly odd. Dogs are seen as a guide and protector against skin walkers, and can easily tell when a skin walker is around and will ward it away from its human companions. The dog fight woke me, and I realized I had to pee. As I stood up, I looked out into the cold night and saw the two eyes of our hosts Snoopy like dog, looking at me with floppy hears listening and a long snout sniffing at the air. I greeted him, and asked if he would like to join me to the outhouse. This was a bit of a walk, into an uncertain forest with a flashlight. I would be in the forest, but I did not want to insult our host.

I got tot he outhouse, and the dog followed with me the entire way. He waited, and walked me back to the hogan, not leaving until he saw me get back into my sleeping bag safely. I didn’t think much of it, until the next morning our teacher’s daughter told us about her night. She woke up inside her tent, a bit before I did, to the sound of a whimpering howling dog. She shrugged it off, but still believed it strange that a whimpering dog would be outside.

“Let’s check on it!” said her tent mate, an old woman who we think was dating my teacher, who did not know about skin walkers. She began to cry, as her mind woke up and realized that what sat outside the tent whimpering was indeed a skin walker, trying to lure her out. As she sat whimpering, begging her older tent mate not to leave the tent, the snoopy like dog appeared and entangled in a vicious fight with the whimpering dog. Howling and screeching that woke me up, and soon saw the snoopy dog, victorious, staring back at me from the entrance of the hogan.

I like to think the snoopy dog was there to protect me, at least from some wild dog that wasn’t hanging around to be snuggled. I’m still superstitious to this day about skin walkers, and even in Denmark I’m rarely caught without wearing a necklace made of juniper berries, given to me by the shaman to protect me from these wandering, hungry demons.

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