Wednesday, 22 October 2008

How do you go from this tranquility to that violence?

Did I ever tell you about the “Curse of the Wendigo”?

In the Spring of 1879 the Roman Catholic Mission Station at St. Albert, Alberta, Canada were surprised by the arrival of a 200 lb Native American Cree named Swift Runner. Swift Runner had approached the station after spending months in the woods north of Fort Edmonton. Throwing himself at the mercy of the priests there, Swift Runner recounted a tale of terrible woe and strife. In the months previously Swift Runner had taken his family, which consisted of his brother, his mother, his wife and six children, in to the woods for the annual winter hunt. The hunting was the worst Swift Runner had ever experienced, and as a result no kills were made in the first two months. Eventually their initial stock of provisions ran out and they were forced to kill and feed off rodents. When that supply ran out, Swift Runner instructed that strips be cut from their tent and boiled in an effort to gain sustenance.

Swift Runner's youngest child was the first to die of starvation. In a desperate attempt to save the rest of the family his mother and brother, both weak from the lack of food, ventured off further in to the woods in order to find some game. It was the last Swift Runner saw of them. With no food to be found and the harsh winter setting in they started to succumb one by one. His wife, unable to deal with the heartbreak of losing so many of her offspring all at the same time took her own life in grief. By the winter's end only Swift Runner had survived, left to bury his wife and six children.

Immediately the priests showed compassion and sympathy towards Swift Runner, giving him new clothing, food, and a place to stay. A cheerful soul by nature Swift Runner soon became a much loved part of the community, entertaining the children at the station with stories from the wars between the Cree and the Blackfoot. At night however Swift Runner would be plagued by screaming fits in his sleep. Upon waking up he would tell the priests that he was being pursued by the Wendigo, an evil spirit of the Algonquian people who could both posses humans and shift shape in to human form. The priests mostly agreed that such a dramatic loss of his loved ones must have left Swift Runner psychology scarred, and that it was manifesting itself in his subconscious dreams. They hoped that in time the wounds would heal and that Swift Runner would be able to put the past behind him.

Father Kemus, however, couldn't quite shake the feeling that something was wrong with this whole scenario. For a start all the other hunters who had travelled past the Mission Station that winter had reported good hunting in the area that Swift Runner had claimed to be unable to find game. Also Swift Runner's body looked strong and healthy, and his body weight showed no indication of a man who had spent the winter months close to starving to death. And, most importantly, Swift Runner's family had been stationed only 25 miles away from an emergency relief station that would have supplied the family with extra provisions. And so when in May a group of children asked for Father Kemus's permission to join Swift Runner on a hunt in the woods, Kemus went to Fort Saskatchewan, and reported his concerns to the North West Mounted Police.


The North West Mounted Police sent Sargent Richard Steele (Gee Note: Who sounds like he should be the main character in an '80's cop show. “Criminals beware. Richard Steele is on the scene”. Cue electric guitar and the slow motion shot of a Ferrari driving through some cardboard boxes.) to interview Swift Runner. Unable to get a coherent detailed description of what happened in the woods, Steele arrested Swift Runner and took him back to Saskatchewan.

At the police station Sub-inspector Severe Gagnon made the decision to visit Swift Runner's camp site. And so, with Swift Runner in tow, Gagnon and his men headed in to the woods on June 4th.

It was there that they discovered the true horror of what actually happened.

At the camp site the police discovered eight human skulls, and littered around them were clumps of human hair and skin. Swift Runner calmly surmised that bears must have got to the bodies and picked them clean. However, what was to follow would show that to be a lie. First a tea pot on the outskirts of the camp was found, it's insides lined with fat. The tent that Swift Runner had claimed to have torn strips from remained untouched. And then a pair of babies stockings were discovered, stuffed inside one of the skulls eye sockets. Presented with this Swift Runner broke down and confessed all.

Claiming to be under the influence of the demon Wendigo, Swift Runner said that he was overtaken by an uncontrollable urge to feed on human flesh. He had killed his family one by one, stripped the carcasses of their meat, and survived in the woods by cannibalising their bodies. He then begged to be killed, not able to live with the monster he had become. He was duly tried and convicted of his crimes.

And on December 20th 1879 Katist-chen, aka Swift Runner, was executed.

Fast forward 28 years later. Jack Fiddler was a shaman and chief of the Sucker clan. He was known to be an expert when it came to Wendigos. Fiddler was believed to have defeated 14 Wendigos that had threatened the clan and dealt with countless members of the tribe that had been possessed by the demon. This sometimes led to Fiddler taking the life of those believed to be possessed, often at the afflicted person's request. Their head would then be severed from the rest of the body to prevent the Wendigo raising from the dead.

In early 1907 two members of the North West Mounted Police arrived in Island Lake, home of the Sucker clan, having heard of Fiddler's prowess in defeating Wendigos. A year earlier Wahsakapeequay, a relative of Fiddler's, had been possessed by a Wendigo. She had begged to be killed before she was unable to control herself, and Fiddler and his brother Joseph adhered to the customs and traditions of their people and performed the act of assisting Wahsakapeequay's death.

Upon hearing of this, the Mounties promptly arrested both brothers and charged them with murder. The story became a sensation across Canada, with blazing headlines across national newspapers telling of Satanic rituals and murder. Both the public and the police demanded a conviction.

Jack Fiddler was a clever man, and knew the writing was on wall. On September 30th he escaped from his holding cell at Norway House. He was found hanged nearby.

Joseph Fiddler still went to trail. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. A series of appeals secured his release, but too late. Three days before the order of release arrived, Joseph Fiddler died in jail. With their most prominent leaders dead the Sucker clan, one of the few in Canada who stuck to the old traditions and ways, had no choice but to except white rule.

Two stories about the Wendigo. One from a man perverted by its evil, one about an injustice carried out against those trying to keep their people safe from it. But what exactly is a Wendigo?

Well if you believe the Native Americans, it is a cannibalistic demon who would hide in the woods waiting to feed on any humans wandering through. It could, and often would, also possess humans by entering their dreams. While possessed the human would become violent and crave human flesh despite other food sources being in plentiful supply, before finally begging to be killed. Most people consider the Wendigo to be a mythical creation, born out of the need to maintain social order and reinforce the taboo of cannibalism even during famines. Those suffering from “possessions” may have been suffering from a mental illness, commonly known as “Wendigo Psychosis”.

But could Wendigos really exist? And if so did they die out when Native Americans became more accustomed to Western Ideologies and customs? If they didn't, if they exist today, would they just prey on Native Americans?

Tim McLean was a 22 year old man who was fatally stabbed on July 30th 2008. He had been heading back to his home town of Winnipeg from Edmonton by way of a Greyhound bus. He did not know his attacker, nor did he provoke him in anyway. Instead the man accused of the crime, Vince Weiguang Li, was a 44 year old delivery man who got on the bus at Erickson, Manitoba about 7 hours after McLean had first taken his seat. By 8.30 police had been called to Portage La Prairie where they found Li still on the bus with McLean's decapitated head in his hands.

Li was described by his local pastor as quiet and shy but completely harmless. His boss at the delivery company he worked for said he would was unassuming but a hard worker. So the question must be asked what would cause an normally reserved person such as Li to kill someone he doesn't know and then proceed to eat parts of the body, which was apparently witnessed by more than one police officer at the scene?

Li was eventually taken alive after trying to smash through a window of the bus (Gee Note: They tend not to shoot people in Canada it appears) and arrested. At his appearance in Court on August 5th Li, upon hearing the list of charges against him, said the words “Please kill me”.

I don't know about you, but that sounds awfully close to the work of a Wendigo to me.

Either that or the human mind really is the darkest place known to man.

7 comments:

Naveed said...

I often wonder about the reality of spirits, possession, and similar things. Sometimes it seems completely possible, other times it just seems like someone has gone nuts. Although you mentioned a couple posts back "the power of suggestion". I wonder if it's something similar.

I've seen/heard people act like they are possessed in the middle of pentecostal church services before. They start screaming/talking like heavy metal singers and writhe around, but I tell you it's all because they believe it. The same I assume, would go for other religious beliefs as well.

The wendigo phenomenon is probably a result of strong belief in Native American tradition.

Plus if it wasn't the result belief, then we have a major possession problem with all them metal singers out there. \m/

Rob said...

Is it so wrong that I saw 'Wendigo' and went 'X-Men'?

Gee said...

Intersting side note Naveed. As part of Li's job he delivered newspapers, including the Edmonton Sun. 10 days before the killings the Sun ran an interview with Nathan Carlson talking about, of all things, Wendigos. Li was a Chinese immigrant and so this may have been the first time he'd have heard of the myth. That is of course if he read the article.

I don't know though, you can look for coincidences everywhere if you try hard enough. I'm sure Wendigos don't exist. But the truth is a lot of people died believing they did. That alone is enough to raise the question "What if?".

Gee said...

Rob: I'm impressed, you usually know bugger all about Marvel comics. You'll be glad to know, I came very close to naming the title of this post "Hulk Smash Cannibal". Had it not been for a quote from Miami Vice, and when you think about it Miami Vice in general, then the world could be a completely different place.

By the way the follow up line to the "How do you go from this tranquility to that violence" is "I usually take the Ferrari". Yes I've been trying to use that in real life for about the past five years. And no, I haven't found a way to do it yet.

Scumbag Sam said...

Ah the Wendigo. To me, a Wendigo has always been a kind of Werewolf creature... but thats just from what I learnt from TV (my very own encyclopedia).

The stories are very close. Would you have to know what a wendigo is to get the Wendigo Psychosis - or is it possible to have this and not know of its history amoung native americans etc?

On a side note, I am pretty sure one of my friends, who is in Canada at the moment, was on that same bus with the guy who took the other guys head off with, I believe, a pen knife.. or something equally as blunt. scary.

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Gee said...

I'm afraid Long Beard, you are on your own with that one. Unless of course you tell your prospective wife that you have discovered a new form of smoked Austrian cheese that you'll need to market and sell in order to make a pretty profit and in doing so will have to move the wedding reception to somewhere with a plentiful supply of milk. That could work.

By the way, there was a dread pirate who used to terrorize the Menai Straits named Longbeard Mennell. Are you, by any chance, realted?