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Have We Become the Windigo?

Jul. 18, 2023 at 1:06PM

A howling winter wind rips across the frigid shores of Lake Michigan. The once green and bountiful is now gray and desiccated. The fleeting sun provides little respite from the frozen landscape.

Plants withered and died months ago. Animals are rife with desperation for sparse food. 

The brutal winter is quiet and lonely. But not completely quiet—an ethereal moan echoes in the snow-covered woods. The animals aren’t alone in their desperation. 

Pangs of hunger rip through the wigwams and longhouses of the Algonquian peoples of the Great Lakes. But hunger is not the only danger of the long winter. Another evil lurks in the night—the windigo. It searches for its next victim as it embodies the highest order of greed, selfishness, and destruction.

“It was a large creature, as tall as a tree, with a lipless mouth and jagged teeth. Its breath was a strange hiss, its footprints full of blood, and it ate any man, woman, or child who ventured into its territory. And those were the lucky ones. Sometimes, the Wendigo chose to possess a person instead, and then the luckless individual became a Wendigo himself, hunting down those he had once loved and feasting upon their flesh.”Basil Johnston, Ojibwe teacher and scholar, Ontario, Canada.

Ripe with the stench of death and decay, the windigo is consumed with the pain and torment of ever-growing hunger. Swelling in size and after it consumes each of its victims, its emptiness grows perpetually. Already desperate and crazed, it gnaws its own lips off in a perverse attempt to satiate its hunger.

Men, women, and children shudder with fear as the freezing winds carry the beast's perverse howls for human flesh. As the windigo lurks in the night, another chill goes through the people's hearts—this beast was once one of their own.

The Origins of the Windigo

Today, bastardizations of the story of the windigo are common in modern culture. Modern portrayals of the windigo often diminish its potent nature as an antidote for greed and selfishness.

The windigo of pop culture often gets most everything about the windigo wrong, including the depictions of Native Americans and First Nations communities. Brady DeSanti, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Nebraska

Its origins are as a cautionary tale in Algonquin cultures. In the long winter—or Hunger Moon—starvation could often become a reality. And with starvation comes the grim temptation of cannabilism. 

In indigenous storytelling, those who succumb to cannibalism are punished by becoming windigos. This curse is one of the most shameful punishments imaginable.

Starvation in winter was a reality for our people, particularly in the Little Ice Age when winters were especially hard and long. Some scholars suggest the Windigo mythology also spread quickly in the time of the fur trade, when overexploitation of game brought famine to the villages. The ever-present fear of winter famine is embodied in the icy hunger and gaping maw of the Windigo. — Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 304

The windigo is burdened with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. The malevolent force often destroys its former community—devouring the friends and family it once loved most. With each victim in its belly, the windigo's hunger grows—continually preying on the weak and socially disconnected—all while its eternal suffering grows perpetually.

Becoming a windigo is not only a curse for those who submit to the depraved urges of cannibalism, but those who take more than they need. In turn, their greed endangers the entire community when resources are most sparse.

In communal, native cultures, the tale of the windigo arose where sharing was essential, and greed was a threat to survival. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer—a prominent proponent of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)—in ancestral times, individuals who put the community in danger by taking too much were first counseled, then ostracized, and eventually banished from the community—a punishment of the highest order. 

The windigo represents those whose greed leads to their banishment from the community of shared supports. 

The lesson of the windigo does not just apply to ourselves as individuals; it also represents the icy-all consuming heart of modern society.

The Ever-Consuming Beast of Modern Society

Greed and consumerism are sold to us as the fundamental tenets in our pursuit of fulfillment in happiness. 

The myth of self-actualizing through consumption and absolutist individualism is perpetuated while our lifestyles fuel a system that is burning our planet. We reduce mountains to rubble in pursuit of carbon-based fuels—the very fuels that doom much of the life on Earth. Oceans, rivers, and lakes have been polluted beyond recognition. 

We’ve overfished to the point that over a third of the fish stock in the world is in danger of collapse. 

We are cutting down forests home to countless species. These forests are not just home to the flora and fauna vital to a diverse ecosystem; they are essential to our own survival. Trees consume about 30% of the carbon emissions we pump into the atmosphere. 

We act as if humans sit alone on top of the global ecosystem rather than with plants and animals. 

Smokestacks and automobiles belch smoke and contaminate our atmosphere. Rivers and lakes are drying up in front of our eyes.

Yet, the beast must be fed. It grows hungrier by the day. 

We are indoctrinated with the dangerous idealogy that Greed is Good. For the beast of capitalism to survive–we must become the windigo! As we feed more, we need more. A little more is never enough. 

The corporate deity Jack Welch taught us that a company’s only concern is profit. And this profit must grow no matter the cost. 

Corporations internalize profits and externalize costs. The cost is our planet, happiness, and purpose.

“When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.” — Cree Prophecy

In our hearts, we can feel the sickness of our society. Disconnection is at an all-time high—with three in five adults experiencing loneliness and social isolation. 

We are told that consumption, status, and wealth provide the path to happiness. Upon this path, we spit on the homeless, starve the poor, and let children sleep on the streets. 

We salve our discomfort by uncomfortably mumbling, “get a job.” Even this rings empty in our minds—if it were this simple, why do over 40% of unhoused people have formal employment? 

We ignore root causes yet feel the pain of our separation from meaning, community, and the planet. Despite our status as the preeminent nation of wealth, life expectancy in the United States is falling on a yearly basis. 

Deaths of despair through suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism have risen for the past two decades, claiming hundreds of thousands of American lives each year. 

Our reliance on fossil fuels and global pillaging have caused the permanent loss of plant and animal species as part of what scientists dub the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history. Species are going extinct at a rate faster than we can ever discover their existence. 

A constant stream of advertisements and social pressure compel us to buy material things that bring contentment for mere fleeting moments.

Our consumption fills us only with hunger, despair, and isolation. 

It is easy to feel grim as heat waves scorch us, the glaciers melt, the tides rise, and our polluted air and water make us sick.

The Norfolk Southern Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has spilled more than 100,000 gallons of chemicals and pollutants into the air and water. Exposure to the chemicals, including vinyl chloride, is linked with higher rates of cancers, as well as neurological and cardiovascular issues. 

This all too painful example comes as the United States railroad industry is raking in record profits while sidestepping labor concerns and offloading safety concerns to the public. Real-life windigos walk amongst us.

Air pollution is quite literally killing us—exposure to air pollution is the cause of about 1 out of every 25 premature deaths in the United States.

We feel as if we are the windigo, moaning with pain, mutilating the planet and ourselves through our hunger—our hearts icy as we wander alone.

We all feel this. Yet, I am hopeful. 

We have a once-in-the-human history opportunity to save the planet—and ourselves. The path ahead is fraught, but it has been walked before. The people who walked with the planet and its inhabitants for generations—such as indigenous cultures—developed a meaningful relationship of reciprocity with nature. We can work towards a new healthier culture and society by heeding the wisdom of those who have learned the lessons of living with the planet.

Where Do We Windigos Go From Here?

In many ecological and environmental circles, the human is viewed as solely a creature of consumption and destruction—a windigo. 

However, this is only sometimes the truth. Throughout human history, many cultures have centered themselves as stewards of the planet, protecting its flora and fauna. In North America, indigenous peoples cultivated the land for at least 20,000 years before Columbus came. 

Even after centuries of colonialism and cultural genocide, indigenous people protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity, despite comprising 5% of the total population. It’s fair to say that the other 95% of us have done a lousy job of protecting the other 20%. 

The indigenous stewards of our planet reject over-consumption and scarcity. They practice sustainability through balance and symbioses with flora and fauna. Reciprocity with nature is our path away from the neverending scarcity and over-consumption that leaves our hearts empty and unfulfilled.

The Old and the New

Today, we see the budding spring of a new embrace of old knowledge and ways of life blended with modern science and technology. 

The LANDBACK movement aims to restore land dispossessed and stolen from indigenous peoples—such as the National Parks—to the tribes of America. I think this is a great start.

However, more than restoring land to indigenous peoples is needed to defeat the windigo. 

We need to heal ourselves. Embracing our shared purpose as the caretakers of Earth is our path not just to surviving but thriving.

We must embrace the knowledge that indigenous peoples have accumulated for centuries—ending the cultural genocide of indigenous people is an essential step forward. 

If we are to heal ourselves, we must realize that we are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Recognizing our place in the natural world restores our species into the interconnected web of life. 

Without community, we are just wandering alone, merely clinging to survival—devoid of a higher purpose.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and nature-based solutions restore our relationship with flora and fauna with reciprocity and sustainability.

When we take only what nature can provide without depleting its resources, these resources become more abundant. Sustainable fishing and hunting mean more fish and wildlife for both our survival and appreciation.

Cultivating urban ecosystems means cleaner air, more parks, a closely connected community, and happier, healthier people. 

Advances in solar, wind, and other sustainable technologies allow us to blend our modern, scientific understanding of the world with a culture of reciprocity and abundance. Reorientating our society, not on what we can take but what we can give, leaves more for all of us. 

We are at the fork in the road of human history. One path leads us toward death, despair, and destruction.

The other leads us to a world of abundance, clear waters, public parks, community, and collective meaning.

And remember … don’t eat your neighbors—you’ll just end up hungry anyways.

Featured photo by Paul LaRocque, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Alexander Nikolai

Making Milwaukee weirder one day at a time.