Navajo wolf

Encyclopedia Article


In Navajo, another word for "wolf" is "mai-coh," meaning witch. The Navajo fear of wolves derives not from the nature of the animal but rather from the potential for monstrous behavior from humans. Both the Navajo and the Hopi believe that human witches use or possibly abuse the wolf's powers to influence other people. While Europeans warned of a wolf in sheep's clothing, some Native American tribal beliefs cautioned against a human in wolf's clothing. Literally, the Navajo wolf, or witch, can also be referred to as a skinwalker. Not all Navajo witches are skinwalkers, but all skinwalkers are witches.

In some Native American myths, a skinwalker is a person with the supernatural ability to turn into any animal he or she desires. To affect this transformation, legends suggest that skin-walkers need to wear a pelt of the animals they desire to metamorphose into, though this is not always considered necessary. In addition to transforming into animals, the skinwalker has other powers. He or she can read others' minds, control people’s thoughts and behavior, bring forth disease, destroy homes, and even cause death. Trained in both physical medicine for the body and spiritual medicine for the spirit, skinwalkers braid the two practices tightly together, as most skinwalkers at one time served in the position of healer and spiritual guide for their communities. Initiation into the deviant life of a skinwalker mandates breaking the killing taboo and taking the life of a member of the skinwalker's immediate family, usually a sibling.

Photo Credit: 

Dust jacket for first hardback edition of The Blessing Way, published in 1970. Jacket design is by Moselle Thompson. Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico.

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