The shapeshifting Skinwalker of Native American legend takes on various forms across tribes, but most agree on what it looks like: a deformed, animalistic body, marred face, and blazing orange-red eyes.
The legend of the shapeshifting entity known as the Skinwalker has largely been relegated to hoax status. After all, it is difficult to believe that a humanoid figure has been transforming into a four-legged animal and terrorizing families in the American Southwest.
While unscientific, the Navajo Skinwalker does have deep roots in Native American lore.
The rest of America got its first real taste of the Navajo legend in 1996 when The Deseret News published an article titled “Frequent Fliers?”. The story chronicled a Utah family’s traumatizing experience with the supposed creature that included cattle mutilations and disappearances, UFO sightings, and the appearance of crop circles.
But the family’s most distressing encounter occurred one night just 18 months after moving onto the ranch. Terry Sherman, the father of the family, was walking his dogs around the ranch late at night when he encountered a wolf. But this was no ordinary wolf. It was perhaps three times bigger than a normal one, had glowing red eyes, and stood unfazed by three close-range shots Sherman blasted into its hide.
The Sherman family weren’t the only ones to be traumatized on the property. After they moved out, several new owners experienced eerily similar encounters with these creatures and today, the ranch has become a hub of paranormal research, aptly renamed Skinwalker Ranch.
While paranormal investigators probe the property with novel inventions, what they seek has a history that is centuries old.
This is the legend of the Navajo Skinwalker.
The Navajo Legend
So, what is a Skinwalker? As The Navajo-English Dictionary explains, the “Skinwalker” has been translated from the Navajo yee naaldlooshii. This literally means “by means of it, it goes on all fours” — and the yee naaldlooshii is merely one of many varieties of Skinwalkers, called ‘ánti’jhnii.
The Pueblo people, Apache, and Hopi also have their own legends involving the Skinwalker.
Some traditions believe that Skinwalkers are borne of a benevolent medicine man who abuses indigenous magic for evil. The medicine man is then given mythical powers of evil, that vary from tradition to tradition, but the power all traditions mention is the ability to turn into or possess an animal or person. Other traditions believe a man, woman, or child can become a Skinwalker should they commit any kind of deep-seated taboo.
The Skinwalkers are described as being mostly animalistic physically, even when they are in human form. They are reportedly near-impossible to kill except with a bullet or knife dipped in white ash.
Little more is known about the purported being, as the Navajo are staunchly reluctant to discuss it with outsiders — and often even amongst each other. Traditional belief portends that speaking about the malevolent beings is not only bad luck but makes their appearance all the more likely.
Native American writer and historian Adrienne Keene explained how J.K. Rowling’s use of similar entities in her Harry Potter series affected indigenous people who believed in the Skinwalker.
“What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions,” said Keene, “but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders.”
In 1996, a couple of outsiders were introduced to the legend after a series of inexplicable events occurred at their new ranch.
Terry and Gwen Sherman first observed UFOs of varying sizes hovering above their property, then seven of their cows died or disappeared. One was reportedly found with a hole cut into the center of its left eyeball. Another had its rectum carved out.
The cattle the Shermans did find dead were both surrounded by an odd, chemical smell. One was found dead in a clump of trees. The branches above appeared to have been cut off.
One of the cows that vanished had left tracks in the snow that suddenly stopped.
“If it’s snow, it’s hard for a 1,200- or 1,400-pound animal to just walk off without leaving tracks or to stop and walk backwards completely and never miss their tracks,” Terry Sherman said. “It was just gone. It was very bizarre.”
Perhaps most terrifying were the voices Terry Sherman heard while walking his dogs late one night. Sherman reported that the voices spoke in a language he didn’t recognize. He estimated that they came from about 25 feet away — but he couldn’t see a thing. His dogs went berserk, barked, and ran back hastily to the house.
After the Shermans sold their property, these incidents only continued.
Are Skinwalkers Real?
UFO enthusiast and Las Vegas realtor Robert Bigelow bought the ranch for $200,000 in 1996. He established the National Institute for Discovery Science on the grounds and put up substantial surveillance. The goal was to assess what exactly had been going on there.
On March 12, 1997, Bigelow’s employee biochemist Dr. Colm Kelleher spotted a large humanoid figure perched in a tree. Detailed in his book, Hunt for the Skinwalker, the creature was 20 feet off the ground and about 50 feet away. Kelleher wrote:
“The large creature that lay motionless, almost casually, in the tree. The only indication of the beast’s presence was the penetrating yellow light of the unblinking eyes as they stared fixedly back into the light.”
Kelleher fired at the supposed Skinwalker with a rifle but it fled. It left claw marks and imprints on the ground. Kelleher described the evidence as signs of a “bird of prey, maybe a raptor print, but huge and, from the depth of the print, from a very heavy creature.”
This was only a few days after another unnerving incident. The ranch manager and his wife had just tagged a calf before their dog began acting strangely.
“They went back to investigate 45 minutes later, and in the field in broad daylight found the calf and its body cavity empty,” said Kelleher. “Most people know if an 84 pound calf is killed there is blood spread around. It was as if all of the blood had been removed in a very thorough way.”
The distressing activity continued well into the summer.
“Three eyewitnesses saw a very large animal in a tree and also another large animal at the base of the tree,” continued Kelleher. “We had videotape equipment, night vision equipment. We started hunting around the tree for the carcass and there was no evidence whatsoever.”
Ultimately, Bigelow and his research team experienced over 100 incidents on the property — but couldn’t amass the kind of evidence that scientific publication would accept with credulity. Bigelow sold the ranch to a company called Adamantium Holdings for $4.5 million in 2016.
Nevertheless, the research on Skinwalker Ranch is more sophisticated and secretive than ever.
Skinwalker Stories: Shapeshifters In Pop Culture
There are many stories about Skinwalkers online in such forums as Reddit. These experiences commonly occur on Native American reservations and are allegedly only prevented by the blessings of medicine men.
While it’s difficult to discern just how truthful these accounts are, the descriptions are almost always the same: a four-legged beast with a disturbingly human, albeit marred face, and orange-red glowing eyes.
Those who claimed to have seen these Skinwalkers also said that they were fast and made hellish noise.
Skinwalkers have crept back into popular culture through television shows such as HBO’s The Outsider and the History Channel’s upcoming The Secret Of Skinwalker Ranch documentary series. For horror-centric programming, a virtually demonic being that roams the countryside is rather perfect.
Since taking over Skinwalker Ranch, Adamantium has installed equipment all over the property including cameras, alarm systems, infrared, and more. Most alarming, however, are the accounts from company employees.
According to VICE, employee Thomas Winterton was one of several who randomly experienced skin inflammation and nausea after working on the grounds. Some had to be hospitalized, with no clear medical diagnosis for their condition.
This, and the following account, parallel some of the inexplicable events featured in Sci-Fi shows like The Outsider. As Winterton reported:
“I take my truck up the road, and as I start to get closer, I start to get really scared. Just this feeling that takes over. Then I hear this voice, as clear as you and me talking right now, that says, ‘Stop, turn around.’ I lean out the window with my spotlight out and start searching around.”
Despite this dreadful experience, Winterton reported that he isn’t leaving Skinwalker Ranch anytime soon.
“It’s like the ranch calls to you, you know,” he said with a wry smile.
After learning about the legend of and stories about Skinwalkers, read about the surprising true story of another mythical creature, the Chupacabra. Then, learn about another horrifying Native American legend, the child-eating Wendigo.