“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win” – Stephen King
Monster hunting is a risky business. First of all, you have the monsters. They have a proclivity for ripping and tearing, when they’re not acting glittery, soulful, and misunderstood in Hollywood. Then you have the folks second-guessing your tactical decisions in hindsight. I didn’t see you out there in the dark forest with nothing but a stake and a clove of garlic. While your course of action may have been prudent should you wish to avoid death at the hands of something supernatural, somebody’s got to pick up the slack. You see, Canada has a Wendigo problem. What? They don’t? Well, you should probably find a traditional Cree shaman and give him a big, wet kiss. Sadly, it might be hard to find a good old fashioned Wendigo-hunting Cree shaman, as there is a long history of the Canadian authorities tracking them down and prosecuting them for their Wendigo eradication programs. A notable instance of this was the 1907 arrest of Anishinaabe Indian Jack Fiddler, also known as Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow (meaning “He who stands in the southern sky”), a famed Sucker Clan shaman who reportedly chalked up an impressive fourteen Wendigo kills in the course of his career.
At the end of the 20th Century, the Sucker people of northwestern Ontario, living in the boreal forests of the upper Severn River, were one of the last aboriginal groups in North America living in a traditional manner with no Canadian government interference in legal or religious matters. This was largely because Canadian fur traders had depleted the region of animals, the fur trade was on the wane, and settlers had become much more interested in the Canadian West as the new land of opportunity. As long as nobody wants your land, you’re usually pretty safe from de facto colonization. Still, this relative independence stuck in the craw of the authorities. They’re lucky they weren’t in the United States, who would probably have just sent the cavalry in to knock some heads a lot earlier. Canada is much more polite. They wanted to introduce Canadian law to the far North, and just needed a palatable reason. In early 1907, two Mounties (of the North-West Mounted Police) were sent in to arrest brothers Jack and Joseph Fiddler (also called Pesequan) for the murder of Wahsakapeequay, Joseph’s daughter-in-law, the year before. Wahsakapeequay had been in terminally ill and in incredible pain, which apparently had some linkage with eventually turning into a Wendigo, and Jack and Joseph, as respected clan shamans were usually the ones charged with euthanizing those who were in danger of becoming Wendigos, dealing with Wendigos sent by enemy shamans, honoring the requests of those who felt they were about to become Wendigos to kill them, and basically handling instances where a person had developed an insatiable desire to eat human flesh. Good guys to have around if you find yourself knee deep in Wendigos. The cops did not agree.
For those of you unfamiliar with Wendigo mythology, the Wendigo (also windigo, weendigo, windago, waindigo, windiga, witiko, wihtikow) appears in the mythology of the Algonquin peoples of North America. Algonquin is a language family group rather than a specific tribal affiliation, but includes tribes such as New England’s Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuck, Pennacook, Passamaquoddy, and Quinnipiac, and the Canadian and Upper Midwestern Ojibwe/Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Cree, suggesting a widespread common belief throughout the colder northern reaches of North America. The core monstrosity of the Wendigo is his consumption of human flesh, but various folktales differ on whether he is purely a supernatural horror doomed to wander the earth with an insatiable appetite for Homo sapiens, a human possessed by a ravenous evil spirit, or the inevitable result of a human resorting to cannibalism (and some legends suggest that the simply greedy can become a Wendigo, which seems a rather inequitable sort of retribution). The Wendigo is variously described as a walking corpse, a giant that grows in proportion to each human he eats so that his gluttonous craving for human flesh is never satisfied, and sometimes indistinguishable from other people, except for his unfortunate tendency to regard everyone around him/her (gender and age neutral – the Wendigo is an equal opportunity monster) as a tasty treat. Basically, the Wendigo considers you an entrée, thus you want to dispatch them as quickly as possible, and this was the Fiddler family business. More of a calling really. Since Canadian authorities maintained that the Wendigo did not actually exist, the Fiddler’s ran afoul of the law (a law which of course, had not yet been imposed on the Sucker Clan). The Fiddler brothers were hauled in to jail at Norway House, Manitoba, a population center at the time and long the center of the Hudson Bay Company’s operations, held on the charge of murder.
Reports had been received from Hudson’s Bay Co.’s officials that murders had been committed by Indians amongst themselves near Sandy Lake, which is situated about 100 miles east of Lake Winnipeg in the Northwest Territories. On March 11, Constables O’Neill and Cashman started from Norway House on a patrol with dog sleds to investigate, they did not reach Sandy Lake until May 13, after a long, tedious and severe trip. They found two bands of Cree Indians occupied that part of the country, the Cranes and the Suckers. Upon arrival at Sandy Lake Constable O’Neill in his report says:—’Men, women and children came to shake hands with us, a large number never having seen a white man before, one of them said to our interpreter: ‘I am satisfied now that I have seen a white man.” Carrying out investigations, and waiting until the Indians came in from their different camps occupied the party until June 10, when they started for Red Deer Lake where other Indians of the same bands were located. Reaching this place on June 13, Constable O’Neill completed his inquiries and arrested Jack and Joseph Fiddler for the murder of an Indian woman on or about the first, week of September. The principal evidence was given by an Indian called Owl Rae and his brother, so they were ordered to accompany the party back to Norway House as witnesses. Although well on into the summer the ice was only then moving out of the rivers and lakes, and the return journey to Norway House was commenced in a York boat on June 7th. They reached their destination on July 11th. The following day Inspector Pelletier, J.P., held the preliminary inquiry and committed both prisoners for trial. The Commissioner of the R.N.W.M. Police was the only stipendiary magistrate in the whole of the Northwest Territories, and he being away on a prolonged inspection trip along the Peace River and the northern part of British Columbia, the trial, unfortunately, had to be postponed until October 7. Our small detachment at Norway House had no proper place to guard prisoners, especially Indians imbued with superstition, and who could form no idea of the white man’s law or what was likely to happen. The detachment was surrounded by heavy bush. On September 30, eight days before the trial, Jack Fiddler the elder of the two prisoners, during the temporary inattention of his guard, managed to get into the bush. Once there, although immediately pursued, it was easy to keep out of sight long enough to commit suicide by strangulation, evidently his approved method of “shuffling off this mortal coil” (North West Mounted Police, 1907, p39).
Jack Fiddler managed to escape and committed suicide before he could be tried. Joseph Fiddler actually stood trial, was convicted, and was sentenced to death by Aylesworth Bowen Perry, the sixth Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Further appeals had the sentence commuted (as he was operating from “ignorance” of Canadian law and in accordance with traditional norms), but sadly the news arrived there days after Joseph’s 1909 execution. Shortly thereafter, the Sucker Clan was forced to sign treaties that brought them under the auspices of the Canadian government. These days, Wendigo claims are considered by psychologists to be a pathological “culture-bound syndrome”, which roughly translates into “Hey, they believe it, but in our enlightened state of self-satisfaction, we know better”.
We actually have the entire verbatim transcript of the Joseph Fiddler trial, as it was republished as a government document in the Sessional Papers of the Legislature of the Province of Ontario in 1908. The Anishinaabe witnesses that were called to testify for the prosecution were truly puzzled by the questioning as exemplified by the transcript of the deposition of Owl Rae.
Q: Did you hear any one raise any objection to putting this woman to death?
Q: Do you know of any others of that tribe in that vicinity having
been put to death in the same way?
A: I heard of them doing that.
Q: Do you know why they do it?
A: They were scared that when they are sick that they will turn out to be cannibals, man-eaters, and will destroy them. That is what they do it for.
Q: What class of sick people do they put to death in that way?
A: I do not know.
Q: How do they decide when it is necessary to put a person to death on account of illness?
A: I do not know how it is decided.
Q: Why did you not object to them putting her to death when you saw them strangling her?
A: I might have said something—I do not know what the law is.
Q: Was this a law of the band that was being carried out?
A: That is the law from what I heard.
Q: From whom did you hear it?
A: I don’t know—everybody said it.
Q: It is a matter of general conversation amongst the tribes?
Q: Do you know anything about the white man’s laws?
Q: Have you ever been taught to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong?
A: No, I have never been taught.
Q: Have you ever seen a white man before this time of coming out to Norway House?
A: I have seen a white man come down sometimes to Island Lake.
Q: Did any white men ever speak to you about right and wrong, or did they have it translated to you?
A: No, I never spoke to them at all.
Q: Did you ever speak to them about anything else?
Q: Did you ever hear a missionary or speak to one.
A: I saw a missionary at Sandy Lake once.
Q: Did you hear him speak or hear what he said?
Q: Was it to the Sucker or Crane band that he was speaking?
A: I cannot remember that. I saw a missionary but I do not know which band he was speaking to.
Q: You do not know who were there?
A: There were lots of people there.
Q: Was the prisoner or the chief of the Sucker band there?
A: I do not know. I hardly remember. I cannot tell who were there. I do not know whether they were there or not.
COMMISSIONER Q: You stated that the chief and the prisoner Joseph were present at the strangling. Did the prisoner say anything while he was doing the strangling, either to the chief or to the woman?
A: After they strangled the woman the prisoner and the chief were talking, saying that they would do the right thing by the woman and would bury her right.
Q: Did they say anything else?
Q: Did they say anything before they strangled her?
A: I did not hear them say anything.
Q: Did they say anything to her while they were strangling her
(Ontario Provincial Museum,1907, p97)
Of course, here we see the obvious prosecutorial strategy of attempting to demonstrate that the Fiddlers understood what they were doing, and thus were legally culpable for their crimes, but alas it was the early 20th century and there was little notion of cultural relativism. Or perhaps there was. Note that an important line of questioning was whether there had been much contact with the white man in which there was discourse about “right and wrong”, not right and wrong as a function of Canadian law, but rather some sort of universal morality presumed to hold sway that had been ignored, which of course made absolutely no sense in the context, unless you 100% confident that a Wendigo cannot exist and that nobody can reasonably make a professional career of handling them. This was exemplified by the magistrate’s ultimate ruling that unabashedly stated, “What the law forbids, no pagan belief can justify”. Clearly it was considered a minor detail that at the time the Sucker Clan was not subject to Canadian law.
Monster hunting is a thankless job and you’re essentially damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s a reason we associate monsters with liminality i.e. things beyond the pale. We identify that which we do not want to become as monstrous. When the monsters creep ever closer to the campfire they have to be dealt with, but tragically, this makes the monster hunter equally liminal, or as author Jonathan Maberry said, “If you battle monsters, you don’t always become a monster. But you aren’t entirely human anymore, either”.
Dictionary of Canadian Biography v12. Toronto [etc.]: University of Toronto Press [etc.], 1966.
Haydon, A. L. 1872-1964. The Riders of the Plains: Adventures and Romance With the Northwest Mounted Police, 1873-1910. Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1910.
North West Mounted Police (Canada). Report of the North-West Mounted Police. Ottawa: Printed by S.E. Dawson, Printer to the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1907.
“Anthropological Notes”. The Athenaeum v2. London: [British Periodicals Ltd., [etc.], 1908.
Ontario Provincial Museum and Ontario. Dept. of Education. “The killing of Wa-sak-apee-Quay by Pesequan and Others”. Annual Archaeological Report. Toronto: L.K. Cameron, 1907.
The wendigo has been largely ignored in the academic study of monsters. It’s still hard to find good sources–thanks for sharing this one.
Season 2 of Sleepy Hollow actually had a wendigo episode. Sweet!
Another brilliant article by EsoterX!
You are too kind, Sir!
Excellent article. Considering the treatment of the criminally insane and harmless insane by “white” society at that time, the First Nation’s approach to a potential Hannibal Lecter seems reasonable.
Back in the late 80s, during a teaching conference I heard a First Nation gentleman from Manitoulin Island mentioning that a community there had to deal with a Wendigo, though he did not indicate they used such an extreme approach. Sometimes the Wendigo seems to be a type of possession or Shamanism that has gone over to the Dark side . Rituals/counselling can be used as treatment. Mind you, I’ve been told by Native and non-native that Manitoulin Island has quite a bit of High Strangeness – little people/invisible walkers, ghost lights and burning phantom ships.
Thanks for the insights. I think so often receive information through cultural filters, and presume a certain “misunderstanding” on the part of informants, when in fact we are making an a priori assumption about what can or cannot be.