Skin-walkers derive from Native American (specifically Navajo) folklore. A skin-walker is a human that has the ability to transform into any animal so long as they have the skin of the animal. They are described to be incredibly fast, and impossible to catch. Their physical appearance is usually large, lanky, gaunt and hairy (without animal skins).
The skins used by them are usually coyotes, bears, wolves, and cougars, and as such, they are considered taboo. In some Navajo beliefs, the skin-walker can also steal a person’s face. If you lock eyes with a skin-walker, it can absorb itself into your body, and while looking upon the creature, the fear instilled will be used as the skin-walkers energy. It is also believed a skin-walker can read a human’s thoughts, and imitate any animal or human noise to lure victims into their homes.
They are believed to break into homes and kill those that reside inside, or creep about the outside, tapping and peeking into windows, banging on walls and doors, and climbing the roof. To kill a skin-walker, according to Navajo belief, you must shoot or stab it with a bullet/dagger dipped in white ash. Other beliefs include a silver bullet, or saying the real name of the skin-walker and proceeding to shoot them in the face, or making it transform into something small, such as a mouse or rat, and throwing it into a fire to burn it alive.
Corrections to: JK Rowling and Magic in North America
In order to help your case re: Native American representation, I feel very compelled to respectfully correct a few things in your post. Since in text I do not have the benefit of tone of voice please understand this as in the best of intentions.
J.K. Rowling has recently expanded her North American magical universe. While most fans are excited she continues to expand her worldbuilding because of how near and dear Harry Potter is to their hearts, she has committed a deeply hurtful act against Native Americans, and the Navajo in particular.She has claimed part the Navajo religion, applied it to all Native Americans, then said there was no such thing as actual Skinwalkers in “her” world; the “stories” were simply meant to demonize wizards.This is incorrect. Skinwalkers are a central part of Navajo belief, one they will now be even more closed off in sharing than they were before. They do not exist for her world. They exist for the Navajo, and only the Navajo.
“They exist for the Navajo, and only the Navajo” is simply not true because they exist for the Navajo, Ute, and Hopi, and in addition to that, originate from Mexico and occur in many, many Mesoamerican cultural belief systems.
The Navajo do have unique beliefs about them, yes, please be assured I am not saying “they shouldn’t be offended,” but please also do not drop the fact that they actually are not unique to the Navajo, as theyre also part of several other Indigenous belief systems.
With this in mind (that it ISN’T unique to the Navajo), I want to mention that the beliefs that are indeed unique to the Navajo did not occur until the 1800s (the most stark difference in their beliefs were a product of the Long Walk, it is complicated but I don’t want to talk your ear off).
J.K. Rowling’s writing is covering the 1300s to the 1600s.
This is what makes me so confused as to whether the people who are upset are upset or are just kind of echoing other people…?
Yes, Skinwalkers are googleable. You can find information about them, scary stories, sensationalist articles. You might argue that this means they are fair game. That they have been integrated into local culture, popular culture, and have the same weight as vampires when it comes to ‘creatures that go bump in the night.
This is a false equivalence. Native American religions were banned from being practiced until 1978, and that’s assuming people didn’t ignore the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and continued dissuading practice and/or stonewalling people from their sacred grounds.
Cultural appropriation was not recognized as an issue by the UN until 2007, which should give you some idea how little changed in 30 years (especially since the countries with the highest Native populations voted against the prevision: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA).
The Religious Freedom Act doesn’t help Navajo (or Ute, or Hopi, etc.) out with this particular context because Belief in this doesn’t require access to sacred grounds, access to peyote, or access eagle feathers and eagle bones, and these are largely what the The American Indian Religious Freedom Act concerns. These are irrelevant, and I am afraid people may miss your point and start needling you over a straw man.
Vampires are Christian. They were written about by Christians, for Christians, and used to teach Christian lessons. Most of those meanings have indeed been lost and changed, but vampires still remain in predominantly Christian hands today. Christianity is the dominant religion in the Western world (yes, I know they are persecuted in other parts of the world, why I specified Western), and most people who write vampires are writing their own religion. Even if they’re atheist, Christianity is usually what they became atheist from because it is the culturally dominant culture. This means they have whatever agency they want to change it.
Natives have been denied this agency time and time again. We are still being continually denied the ability to tell our own stories. J.K. Rowling is just the latest in a long, painful history where Native voices are rewritten to accommodate white writers’ plots. WWC has said, multiple times, cultures are not your playthings. This is what treating culture as a plaything looks like.
You now can find Skinwalkers: The Navajo Mysteries on Netflix (Which I am excited about because we’re talking a show with an all Native cast!) and things like Teen Wolf using Skinwalkers in collaboration with a Navajo consultant.
These two examples do not wave a magic wand and undo everything of course but it is food for thought as to what the situation is with Navajo agency. It appears that now Native voices may indeed be finding agency in the discussion of what Skin walkers are and are not these days and that is good news to me personally, I hope it is good news to you too.
Please, in your own work, be respectful of appropriation and colonization. Understand that even if something is used everywhere, it might not be yours for the taking. That it might’ve been stolen so much nobody even thinks to ask if it’s somebody’s instead of the world’s. Talk to the groups in question and ask if you can use it.
You might get a no.
If you do, change your plot.
Let us have our own voices.
Thank you. Sorry for mistaking what tribes had Skinwalkers in their religions, I will make note of those tribes.
It is nice to know that Skinwalkers have been respectfully used, and this is a very important note for those who want to use Native religions!
Although the new insights into the universe of Harry Potter were welcomed by many, the author was strongly criticised online by a number of voices from Native American communities, particularly over her writing about skinwalkers, which in Navajo legend are said to be evil witches or wizards who can take on the form of animals.
Rowling writes that the myth “has its basis in fact … A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.”
Responding to a question on Twitter, Rowling said that “in my wizarding world, there were no skinwalkers”, with the legend created by those without magic “to demonise wizards”.
But campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene told Rowling on Twitter that “it’s not ‘your’ world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skinwalker stories have context, roots, and reality … You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people. That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”
The academic also took issue with Rowling’s use of the phrase “the Native American community”, saying that “one of the largest fights in the world of representations is to recognise Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another.”
This is clearly not legwork @jk_rowling did with this writing. Native communities use reciprocity, respect, and relationships as benchmarks.
“There is no such thing as one ‘Native American’ anything. Even in a fictional wizarding world,” wrote Keene on her blog, Native Appropriations. She continued: “Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive, practised, and protected … we fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors”
Navajo writer Brian Young wrote on Twitter that he was “broken hearted” about the new piece of writing. “JK Rowling, my beliefs are not fantasy. If ever there was a need for diversity in YA lit it is bullsh!t like this,” said Young. “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”
Johnnie Jae, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, described herself as a Potterhead who had “often thought of what it would be like if Natives were represented in this world”, but that the reality was “so disrespectfully done”.
Jae wrote: “This isn’t us saying that Native people can’t be wizards or magical beings, but that @jk_rowling’s attempt is unacceptable & disrespectful because @jk_rowling has based her ‘native wizards’ off the same racist stereotypes & miseducation that JM Barrie used in Peter Pan.”
We’re saying that there is problem when non-natives continue to use outdated & racist stereotypes as the basis for their native characters
After she spoke out on Twitter, Keene said that she had been deluged with responses, “with the typical accusations of my oversensitivity and asking if I understand that Harry Potter is fictional, and more directed hate telling me my doctorate is being misused and I’m an idiot.
“Also worthy of note is that Rowling is known for responding directly to fan questions on Twitter, and overall being accessible to her fanbase. Despite thousands of tweets directed at her about these concerns, she has not addressed it at all. The silence is noted, and it’s deafening,” wrote Keene.
Rowling’s representatives have yet to respond to a request for comment.
The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure. –History of Magic in North America by J.K. Rowling.
I was right–but I wish I hadn’t been.
Damn it, Rowling, you had one job! You did not have to decide that skinwalker equals Animagus, especially since you evidently did the research and found out what you have to do to become a Navajo witch (the most famous kind of skinwalker). This should have told you that European and European-American witchcraft are not the same fucking thing as Native American witchcraft!
This is not an ancient superstition. This is part of a religion that is still being practiced. There are different paths to spiritual power in Navajo (or Diné) teaching; the path dubbed “witch” in English is one that deliberately causes suffering, pain and death to others to gain power. By saying that skinwalkers “assumed animal forms to hunt for the tribe”–well, you might as well proclaim Lord Voldemort to be St. Francis of Assisi!
two recent commission pieces, a Badger Skinwalker and a Raven Skinwalker, these wounded sisters are each 11" by 14", done in ballpoint pen, watercolor and colored pencil on Strathmore cold press watercolor paper.