The tradition of the Medicine Man adopting the guise of an animal is believed to have started with the Great Plains Native Indians who used the skins of wolves as camouflage when hunting buffalo.
The Skinwalker - Native American Culture & Belief Systems
The culture and beliefs of Native American Indians were based on the doctrines of Animism, Ritualism, Fetishism and Shamanism. Taking these beliefs into consideration it made complete sense for Medicine Men, or Shamans, to include the guise of a Skinwalker to enhance the effect of Medicine Man's presence and power during rituals and ceremonies relating to Spiritual Healing, furthering the existing beliefs of the tribe.
- Animism is a belief based on the spiritual idea that the universe, and all natural objects within the universe, have souls or spirits. It is believed that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals - refer to Animal Totems and Power Animals
- Fetishism is a subordinate branch of animism encompassing the doctrine of spirits embodied, attached or conveying influence through, certain animals or material objects
- Shamanism encompasses a range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world in which a religious leader, like a Shaman or Medicine Man, enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community including sickness. His role as a healer was an important element of the role of the Medicine Man and enhanced by his mysterious regalia including the Skinwalker costume
The Skinwalker depicted by George Catlin
The amazing picture of the Medicine Man Skinwalker performing his mysteries over a dying man was painted by George Catlin in 1832. The Medicine Man, or Shaman, belonged to the Blackfoot tribe. The dominant impression of the Skinwalker is the bear skin that covers his body. However, this Skinwalker regalia contained many, many other items and these were described by George Catlin in his book entitled 'Letter and Notes on the Manners, Customs and conditions of North American Indians'. His description provides an insight into the rituals adopted by the Medicine Man Skinwalker and an idea of the effect he would have had on onlookers.
The Skinwalker Story
To set the scene of the Skinwalker story, belligerent Cree and Blackfoot Indians had gone to a fort in order to trade goods, staying in encampments outside the fort. As trading grew to a close a Cree Indian shot a Blackfoot chief - two musket bullets went through the center of his body. There was a skirmish, the Cree fled and the Blackfoot chief was lying on the ground in the agonies of death. The Blackfoot Medicine Man was called to perform a medicine or mystery ritual.
- Several hundred Indians and traders were assembled near and around the dying man
- An announcement was made that the Skinwalker Medicine Man was coming
- Spectators were required to form a circle around the dying man leaving a space 30 feet in diameter around the man and free room for the Skinwalker to pass without touching anyone
- His arrival was announced and a deathly hush fell over the spectators, nothing could be heard except the tinkling of the rattles on the Skinwalkers magical costume as he slowly moved through the avenue left for him
- The Medicine Man Skinwalker entered the ring with his body in a crouching position imitating the stride of a bear making grunting and growling noises
- His body was entirely covered with the skin of a yellow bear - his own head was inside the head of the bear which served as a mask
- The huge claws of the bear dangled from his wrists and ankles
- In one hand the Skinwalker shook a frightful rattle
- In his other hand he brandished his medicine spear or magic wand
- He made a rattling din and discord and made wild, startling jumps and leaps
- To this the Skinwalker added the appalling grunts, growls and snarls of the grizzly bear and made guttural incantations to the Good and Bad spirits on behalf of the dying man who was rolling and groaning on the ground
- As the dying man was moving around in agony the Skinwalker was dancing around him, jumping over him, pawing him and rolling him around in every direction
- This ritual continued for over half an hour when the man died
- The Skinwalker Medicine Man returned to his tepee and packed away his Skinwalker regalia
- The Medicine Man was always paid for his ministries to the sick. If the patient died it was the will of the Great Spirit. If a person lived the Medicine Man Skinwalker gained the estimation of the tribe and great celebrity
The Costume of the Skinwalker
The Skinwalker costume is one of the greatest curiosities. A strange, mystical medley and mixture of gruesome objects from the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Have a closer look at the Large Skinwalker Picture...
- Attached to the grizzly bear skin of the Skinwalker costume are the skins of many other animals - some had deformities which made them great medicine
- There are skins of frogs, bats and snakes
- Beaks, toes and tails of birds
- Hoofs of deer and goats
- Tips and tails of almost everything that flies, swims or runs