“I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around” – James Beard

Getting in touch with your inner Wendigo.
Getting in touch with your inner Wendigo.

Most people aren’t aware that metaphorically, psychology and medical anthropology got together and decided that monsters don’t exist.  This came as a rude shock to monsters, who rightly pointed to thousands of years of oral and written documentation asserting the contrary, before retreating to the fringes of civilization to lick their wounds.  Or your wounds.  Depends whether you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Certainly, physicians as far back as Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.) mused about the possibility that mental disorders were manifestations of an organic ailment, rather than some sort of divine retribution, but by the time the professional “alienists” (the far cooler Victorian term for psychiatrists and psychologists) started mucking around in our brains and conducting scientific “experiments” with prodigious amounts of cocaine, they had largely concluded that monsters were purely a projection of our fears.  Those few creatures who fell into their clutches, and had the lack of foresight to maintain their monsterhood were condescendingly patted on the head like housepets and given appellations that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on insurance forms such as Clinical Lycanthropy (the belief that you periodically transform into an animal), Cotard’s Delusion (the belief that one is a walking corpse), or Wendigo Psychosis (intense craving for human flesh).  While handing your average preternatural critter over to a doctor is no doubt a vast improvement over handing them to the Inquisition for burning or local shaman for a sound trepanning, it is also awfully convenient for us selfish humans in so far as it encapsulates the monster in human laws and human limitations.  Unfortunately, when psychology crashes into folklore, its inductive reasoning abstrusely fails the classic “Duck Test”, so eloquently expressed by poet James Whitcomb Riley – “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck”. In our idiom, that is to say, if somebody behaves like a Wendigo, it’s probably safest to assume, should you wish to avoid being eaten, that they are a Wendigo.  Case in point, the 1879 execution of a Cree Indian named Kakisikutchin in Alberta, Canada, a man widely regarded to have been a Wendigo, given his rather atrocious behavior.

The quick and dirty on the Wendigo is that he is a monster associated with Algonquin-speaking Native Americans (like the Cree) who have extremely strong taboos against any kind of cannibalism, despite the fact that in the frigidity of the Far North, famine and starvation were very real possibilities, so indeed sometimes your only option might be the other guy who just died of hunger.  Algonquin culture still considers this bad manners, and suggests it is better to resign oneself to death, rather than munch on a buddy.  Thus, the traditional Cree Wendigo, generally thought to be the result of sampling one’s own species, are puzzlingly said to be both gigantic and emaciated (they swell with each person they eat, thus are immediately stretched out and never satisfied).  So the wendigo wanders the cold North woods looking desperately for another snack.  Of course, in the case of Kakisikutchin (Cree for “Swift Runner”), once a pillar of the Cree community, he didn’t have to go far for his next meal.  It unwisely came to him.

Swift Runner was the head man of his band in that district; and when the police came into that part of the country in 1875, he was recommended by the Hudson Bay officers as a trustworthy and intelligent guide. His contact with white men, however, ruined him. Although whisky is debarred the Territories, large quantities, nevertheless, find their way in, in bottles disguised as patent medicines. Swift Runner became inordinately fond of it, and when half-drunk he was the terror of the whole region. He was six feet three in height, and of extraordinary strength, and when on a spree, he was an ugly customer to meet with. He was drunk for three months at a stretch, and turned the Cree camps into little hells. His family consisting of his wife, his mother, and seven children, remained with the band; but on his promising to behave himself they went to the hills to live with him (Seymour, 1882, p45).

In 1879, all the hip protestors in North America were talking about “temperance” or the dangers of drunken excess (Luckily, “Prohibition” in the United States only lasted from 1920-1933, sidestepping what would have no doubt been an “American Dark Age”), but the contemporary anti-alcohol crusaders seized on the Kakisikutchin case as a prime example of the evils of alcohol, attributing his aggravated cannibalism to overindulgence in spirits.  Now, I’ve had a cocktail or six in my time, and it has never once inspired ravenous bloodlust or even a mild desire to fry up a human spleen.  Okay, there was one time in Minneapolis.  I don’t like to talk about it.  At any rate, the formerly reliable Kakisikutchin started to manifest some off-putting personality changes, going on full blown drinking benders, starting fights, and generally terrifying everyone around him.  By some accounts, the local Cree kicked him out of his village and sent him off into the hills to live alone for a while.  Kakisikutchin was an ace hunter, and he had no trouble amassing enough provisions for the winter, which made subsequent events all the more puzzling.

On the 18th January 1879, a Cree hunter brought word to the Fort that Swift Runner had murdered his entire family, and was living on their carcasses. A squad of police was sent after him, but could not find him, and several attempts during the summer to arrest him were also unsuccessful. At last, on the 25th October, three of the police overtook him, about fifty miles north of Fort Saskatchewan, and carried him to the Fort. He admitted the crime charged to him, and conducted the police to the place where the remains were. He said that whiskey had demoralized him, and made him feel like a wolf; and that one night he had killed the whole family while they were asleep; had burled their bodies in the snow, and had boiled and eaten them as he wanted them (Morgan, 1879, p261).

While I might agree that whiskey is a reasonable explanation for a lot of misbehavior even up to “feeling like a wolf”, this is not inclusive of culinary cannibalism over a long period of time.  Okay, not really over a short period of time either.  The local Cree were fairly certain that Kakisikutchin was a Wendigo, and let the Canadian authorities know that if they didn’t shuffle him off this mortal coil with all haste, the Cree would be happy to take care of the problem with extreme prejudice.

An eyewitness of the execution of the cannibal, the first that had taken place in the North-West, I will here relate the story of his most horrible crime, his arrest, treatment, confession, and execution.  Kakisikutchin (a Cree word signifying “swift runner”) was the name of the cannibal. In the autumn of 1878, with his wife and children, he repaired to the left bank of Sturgeon Creek that he might hunt in that neighborhood during the winter. His efforts were successful, and therefore there was no real cause for his crime. The only way we can account for it is this: Acts of cannibalism are said to be of frequent occurrence in the Polar Regions. When game cannot be found, the Indians are first driven to it by want, and after having once tasted human flesh, an irresistible; desire follows to eat it again—Probably Kakisikutchin was one of this class, for with abundance of provisions in the wigwam, and without provocation, he first slew and ate his youngest child, then the rest of his children in turn, and finally his wife met the same fate. In the spring of 1879, he returned to his tribe at Egg Lake, and, surprised at seeing him return alone, he was asked what had become of his wife and children. From his evasive answers they concluded a crime must have been committed, and they imparted their fears to Inspector Jarvis who caused him to be arrested and imprisoned at Fort Saskatchewan. An inquest was instituted, and the remains of the victims discovered. Though the Indian had at first denied his guilt, when confronted with their remains, he confessed. His crime so exasperated the Indians that they resolved to destroy the murderer, if he succeeded in escaping justice at the hand of the law. On the 8th of August a competent jury declared Kakisikutchin guilty, and Lieut.-Colonel Richardson, a stipendiary magistrate, sentenced him to be hung on the 20th of December. The prisoner, who heard his sentence with apparent indifference, having declared himself a Roman Catholic, a priest was sent for who, by his constant and assiduous attention, succeeded in bringing about a great change in the mind of the condemned (Artigue, 1882, p129-131).

Kakisikutchin obviously confessed his crimes, as most monsters are fairly proud of their nefarious accomplishments.  The more gruesome the act, the more it is a badge of honor in malevolent monsterdom.  Interestingly, there does seem to be some dispute over whether the doomed Wendigo converted to Roman Catholicism at the end (the obvious appeal of eating the “body of Christ” during Communion might attract a sly, but committed Wendigo).  Other sources suggest that when solicited for conversion Kakisikutchin replied, “the white men had ruined him, and therefore he didn’t think their God could amount to much” (Primitive Methodist Church, 1891, p541).  One might ascribe the entire story of Kakisikutchin to tall tales told around the hearth while the blizzard swirled outside, excepting the fact that the official annual record of the Canadian Parliament actually detailed the cost of prosecuting and executing him.

“Edouard Richard, Sherriff – Expenses in connection with the execution of Ka-ki-se-kut-chum (Swift Runner)…$512.00.  George Verey, M.D. – Professional services in the case of The Queen vs. Ka-ki-se-kut-chum, an Indian convicted of murder in November, 1879” (Canadian Parliament, 1881, p87).

Ultimately, the question is what makes a man a monster?  Or perhaps, what makes a monster a man?  Attributing monstrosity to insanity can be cold comfort, for while it temporarily tames the monster, it also opens up the possibility that monsters live inside us all, watching and waiting for the opportunity to dine and dash.  While we may take solace in the imagined angels of our higher nature, does that not also require us to acknowledge the demons lurking in our depths?  Psychological jargon helps us sleep better at night, ignoring the equally frightening possibilities that (a) monsters are real, or (b) we are the monsters, but as Nick Cave so aptly remarked, “if you’re gonna dine with them cannibals, sooner or later, darling, you’re gonna get eaten…”.

Artigue, Jean d’. Six Years In the Canadian North-west. Toronto: Hunter Rose and Co., 1882.
Seymour, James Cooke, 1839-1902. The Temperance Battlefield, And How to Gain the Day: a Book for the Young of All Ages Full of Humorous And Pathetic Stories. Toronto: W. Briggs, 1882.
Morgan, Henry J. ed. “Remarkable Occurences”.  The Dominion Annual Register And Review. Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1879.
Canadian Parliament. “Sessional Papers (No. 1).  Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada. [Ottawa: s.n.], 1881.
Primitive Methodist Church (England). “The Liquor Traffic: It’s Mischievous Influence”. The Primitive Methodist Magazine. Leicester [etc.]: The Conference Offices [etc.],1891.