10 Native American Mythical Creatures, from Thunderbirds to Skinwalkers
By Karen Harris
From the Sphinx of ancient Egypt to the dragons of China and the Minotaur of ancient Greece, one thing all cultures’ myths have in common are fantastical creatures and monsters.
Legends of strange beasts and paranormal creatures come from all corners of the Earth’s folklore, and Native American cultures are no exception. In fact, their mythologies are rich in powerful and fearsome animals that permeate their legends and oral traditions.
“By and large, Native Americans transmit culture, history, values, hopes, and dreams through what they say and do,” wrote Sam D. Gill and Irene F. Sullivan in Dictionary of Native American Mythology. “The mythology and ritual are the heart, the lifeblood, of every Native American culture.”
Here are ten of the most well-known and intriguing mythical creatures and monsters from Native American cultures and folklore.
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10 Native American Creatures & Monsters
For the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest and the Great Plains, the Thunderbird was a mythical creature that embodied strength and power. The Thunderbird is a very large and powerful bird. It was said to be so large, in fact, that it could pluck an orca whale from the sea with as much ease as an eagle catching salmon in its talons.
As the name implies, Thunderbirds were associated with storms. The massive wings of the Thunderbird made the sound of thunder when they flapped, and according to some stories, the Thunderbird even shot lightning from its eyes. For peoples of the Great Plains, the Thunderbird was a harbinger of rain, which could be a welcomed sight or a destructive force, depending on the conditions.
In some cultures, Thunderbirds go to war with other forces of nature.
“To the Arapaho, Thunderbird is the summer bird who challenges White Owl Woman, the winter bird, to see whose powers are greater. Thunderbird stirs up great black clouds with tremendous noise and wind. White Owl Woman stirs up thick, fast-moving white clouds that blow a piercing wind.”Dictionary of Native American Mythology
The Thunderbird represented the power of nature and the violence of storms, but it was, for the most part, not a fearsome or malevolent creature. This mythical creature was revered as sacred. The tribes of the Pacific Northwest topped their totem poles with carved images of Thunderbirds. Drawings, artwork, songs, stories, and dances featuring the Thunderbird are common in the tribes of the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest.
While the Thunderbird falls squarely into the realm of mythology, there have been interesting sightings and encounters — even to present day — of enormous birds in North America. For some, the legends of the Thunderbirds are viewed as factual accounts and, to them, the Thunderbird could be an undiscovered animal akin to other cryptids, like Sasquatch.
Related read: 7 Remarkable Native American Women from Old West History
The Navajo (Diné) have myths and stories about a terrifying creature known as a Skinwalker, shapeshifters known as Yenaldlooshi. The Skinwalker is a mythical entity that has the ability to transform itself into any animal or human that it wants.
Many of the legends claim that the Skinwalker can only shapeshift if it wears the pelt or hide of the creature it is copying, but there are other stories that claim the Skinwalkers can use hair or fingernail clippings from humans to shapeshift into them.
The stories surrounding Yenaldlooshi are pretty gnarly: they’re always up to evil shenanigans and breaking Navajo taboos. “In their nefarious rituals they pervert every convention of Navajo tradition, including performing such unthinkable acts as creating sandpaintings only to spit, urinate and defecate on them,” claims the Dictionary of Native American Mythology. “They practice cannibalism, sitting in circles and eating piles or basketfuls of human flesh.”
Since the Navajo people believe Skinwalkers require animal hides to make their transformation, it is considered taboo to keep the pelts of wolves, bears, and cougars in their culture. This prohibits Skinwalkers from stealing hides and shapeshifting into these ferocious animals. The only hides that the Navajo people use are the hides of sheep and deer. It is not so scary to have the Skinwalker transform into a sheep as it is to become a bear in their culture.
Traditionally, the intent of Skinwalkers seems to be to harm humans. The Navajo people, in the past and into modern times, report that Skinwalkers will attack people walking alone, will try to break into houses, and will even attack moving cars.
These creatures are fast and agile. Their agility and ability to shapeshift makes them impossible to capture. They don’t leave behind footprints, so they cannot be tracked. According to Navajo stories, the only way to kill a Skinwalker is to dip a bullet into a white ash and shoot the creature with it.
Naturally, people want to look for rational explanations for the Skinwalker phenomenon. It could be that the Skinwalkers are nothing more than mangy dogs or coyotes, or that cougar or bear attacks are responsible.
There is a fringe theory, however, that claims the entity known as Skinwalkers is somehow able to use the DNA of animal hides or human hair to manipulate its own DNA into copying it. If this is the case, the Skinwalkers are much more advanced than we are.
And downright frightening.
Related read: The Fighting Men & Women of the Fetterman Massacre
3. The Wendigo and the Wechuge
“In northern Algonquian traditions, the windigo was the spirit of winter, which could transform a man, woman, or child into a cannibalistic being with a heart of ice,” writes Shawn C. Smallman in Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History. “In time, this being would grow into a giant.”
The Wendigo (or windigo, wee-tee-ko and other names), a mythical creature of several Algonquin tribes, and the Wechuge, a similar legend of the Athabaskan tribes of northwest Canada, were both magical creatures with a taste for human flesh.
The Wendigo and the Wechuge may best be compared to today’s modern zombies. They are described as being ghostly gaunt, with sunken gray skin, hollow eyes, and a shuffling gait. They reek of death and resemble walking corpses.
The Wechuge differs slightly from the Wendigo in that, according to Athabaskan stories, the creature was formed from glacial ice and brought to life. Its heart is frozen and thus, unfeeling. The Wendigo, on the other hand, was once a human that became a beast through cannibalism.
There are also Witiko, similar cannibalistic creatures in cultures of Northern Canada tribes. These dudes can be human or nonhuman, and whatever their powers are typically involves cannibalism to some degree. Not fun.
When a Wendigo or Wechuge feeds on one of its victims, that victim becomes another Wendigo or Wechuge. The creatures’ desire for human flesh is supposedly so strong that they are nearly insatiable. They are constantly prowling the forests where they live, looking for hapless humans to devour.
In this manner, stories of the Wendigo and Wechuge served as cautionary tales warning people against wandering the woods alone. According to some anthropologists, they may also have been used as a warning against resorting to cannibalism during the harsh winter months.
Still other historians view stories of the Wendigo and Wechuge through an allegorical lens: to them, tales of the Wendigo and Wechuge caution against excess greed and desire.
Related read: 7 Facts About Cheyenne Dog Soldiers & Their Warrior Legacies
Native American cultures, like communities around the world, include tales of half-human, half-fish beasts that inhabit waterways. The N-dam-keno-wet is the Algonquin version of the mermaid myth. Or, rather, it is a merman.
All the myths and legends of this mythical creature describe the N-dam-keno-wet as a male — a male who likes pretty, young women. The N-dam-keno-wet, as the stories go, lurks in lakes, rivers, and streams and accosts young women and girls when they remove their clothing to bathe.
Sometimes, it doesn’t even bother the women: it merely watches as a woman swims nude and washes herself. In other legends, the creature takes its voyeurism a step too far by swimming unseen beneath the surface to molest an unsuspecting bather. The merman does not try to kill the women, but he certainly lived up to his reputation as the “perverted merman.”
American Indian Myths and Legends
“This excellent collection of myths and legends in the “oral history” style – either from the mouths of storytellers, or from documents where their words were first captured – presents a wonderful insight into the American Indian spiritual philosophy.”
– Amazon review
The N-dam-keno-wet wasn’t unique in North American mythology; other mythical creatures stalked young women too, according to Native American stories. One of these more fearsome creatures was the Átahsaia, a “cannibal demon” described by the Zuni people of the Southwest as huge and demon-like. Much larger than a normal human, the Átahsaia covered in thick, knobby skin and long, gray hair. It is muscular and scaly with bulging, red eyes.
Numerous tales in the Zuni oral tradition describe the Átahsaia abducting and cannibalizing young women. As menacing as the Átahsaia was, however, most of the tales about this cannibalistic demon end in the creature’s defeat.
In one story, for example, the Átahsaia lured a couple of beautiful young girls back to his cave. He tried to trick the young maidens into sampling the soup he had been cooking: soup made from human children he had abducted.
When that didn’t work, he tried to convince the girls to comb his silver hair. In this story, the two girls were saved by the Zuni god of war who killed the demon and rescued the maidens.
6. The Teihiihan and the Nimerigar
Several Native American tribes include stories of races of little people, called the Teihiihan, the Nimerigar, and the Pukwudgies. According to legends, these weren’t cute, jolly, Disney-esque dwarves. Instead, they were strong, fierce, and brutally warlike. In some myths, the little people were magical forest gnomes, while in others, they were a fearsome foe.
Taking its name from the Arapaho word for “strong,” the Teihiihan were said to have made their homes on the plains of Wyoming and Colorado, where they could prey upon the Native American people also living there.
“In many stories, the Nimerigar are an evil group who live in the Wind River and in the Wyoming mountains,” writes Cynthia O’Brien in Fairy Myths. “The Shoshone avoided the Nimerigar whenever possible.”
The Nimerigar, whose name means “people eaters,” lived in the Pedro Mountains near the Wind River in Wyoming. Both groups of little people were described as being child-sized, incredibly aggressive, and cannibalistic.
The dwarves would kidnap and devour children, kill livestock animals, and attack adult warriors with ease. They were equally brutal to their own kind. As the stories say, the Nimerigar practiced a gruesome form of euthanasia by bashing in the skulls of their own members who had become injured, fallen ill, or grew too old to be useful.
Nearly all the myths surrounding these fierce little dwarves conclude with accounts of how Native American tribes banded together to wage an ancient battle against the Teihiihan. The little people were soundly defeated, and the entire race exterminated.
For other groups, like the Seminole, tribes of little people “can be seen only by children and medicine people,” says Dictionary of Native American Mythology.
Although tales of the Teihiihan and Nimerigar have long been considered as folktales, there may be some evidence that a race of little people did once inhabit parts of the American West. First, there are eyewitness accounts from European explorers, most notably Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, to corroborate the legends.
In 1932, the mummified remains of a fully grown adult, who was roughly 65 years old, was discovered in Wyoming. The remarkable thing about this mummy is that it is only about 14 inches tall. In addition, the person was killed by a sharp blow to the head.
The discovery of this mummy, dubbed the San Pedro Mountains Mummy, seemed to provide some proof of the existence of the little people from Native American folklore. Since the discovery of the San Pedro Mountains Mummy, the remains of other ancient little people have been found. Perhaps there really was a race of fierce dwarves roaming the Old West.
7. Ogopoga & the Flathead Lake Monster
The Loch Ness Monster gets all the attention, but according to Native American myths and folklore, there are strange, unidentified sea serpents living in some of the larger lakes of North America, too. Ogopoga in British Columbia and the Flathead Lake Monster in Montana are two such creatures.
The depths of Okanagan Lake in British Columbia are said to be home to a giant sea serpent-like monster that is more than 40 feet long. The indigenous people of the region have long told tales of the creature, which they have named Ogopoga, or “water demon.”
According to lore, the beast demands a blood sacrifice before it will allow anyone to cross the lake. Similarly, Flathead Lake just across the international border in Montana also supposedly has the same sort of sea monster.
Local indigenous groups believed the lake monster could whip up a terrible storm on Okanagan Lake and capsize boats unless it was given a sacrificial offering. To ensure safe passage, they would bring a chicken or rabbit or another small animal with them. They’d toss the poor chicken into the water to drown, thus appeasing the sea monster.
One of the early European settlers to the area, John MacDougall, once tried to cross Lake Okanagan with his team of horses when, inexplicitly, his boat began to be dragged under the waves.
MacDougall, his men, and his family were in danger of drowning. Suddenly, he remembered the warnings and stories from local Native Americans, cutting loose several of his horses. The animals were pulled under the water by the beast, allowing MacDougall and his group to escape.
The Kutenai Indians of Montana, who lived on the edges of Flathead Lake, blame the Flathead Lake Monster for flooding the surrounding land and killing as much as half the Kutenai tribe.
8. Piasa Bird
The Piasa Bird was a mythical creature that allegedly lived in the steep cliffs along the Mississippi River, according to Native American myths. The Piasa was quite different from the Thunderbird: it was depicted as a flying dragon in ancient paintings dating back as far as 1200 CE.
In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette wrote about the Piasa Bird in the journal he kept while traveling through the area. In it, he claimed the creature was as big as cattle, with blood-red eyes and antlers on its head. The body was covered in scales, yet it had a human-like face. It also had a long, thin, snake-like tail.
According to John William Gibbons’ History of the Piasa Bird, the Piasa was a particular menace for Mississippi River Valley people.
“Many years ago a huge and fearsome creature began to carry off members of that tribe of Indians called the Illinois. Whole villages were depopulated. One night Ouatoga, a brave chief of this tribe, had a dream. In this dream the Great Spirit gave him a plan by which he could kill the man-eating creature which the Indians called the Piasa.History of the Piasa Bird
When Ouatoga’s warriors eventually ambushed and killed the Piasa, they carved its image into a cliff face as a memorial.
According to legends, the Piasa Bird feasted on human flesh, but not fresh flesh. Rather, it circled around when Native American warriors battled enemy tribes. When the fighting ended, the Piasa Bird would swoop down to dine on the bodies of the fallen warriors.
The Penobscot Indians of the East Coast told stories of a giant, menacing mythical creature named the Katshituashku, or Stiff-Legged Bear. According to folklore, the monster was huge and roughly bear-shaped, but with a much larger head and thick, unyielding legs. The legends surrounding the Katshituashku claim it stalked, killed, and devoured humans.
Anthropologists researching the legends of the Penobscot people noted that depictions of the Katshituashku looked similar to African elephants, which the Native Americans would have never seen.
That led to the theory that the Native Americans discovered the skeletal remains of a prehistoric mastodon. Not knowing what the remains were, the Penobscot people developed myths surrounding the creature and its origins, and a “man-eating bear the size of an elephant” sounds cool.
Like the Sasquatch, the Bakwas (Bukwüs, Bookwuu and other variations exist) was a hairy wild man that lived in the forest. Unlike the Sasquatch, however, the Bakwas was a ghostly creature that passed back and forth between the human world and the ghostly world.
“He is the Wild Man of the Woods, the Keeper of Drowned Souls, and children are taught to be wary of him,” writes Cheryl Shearar in Understanding Northwest Coast Art: A Guide to Crests, Beings and Symbols. “Those souls captured by Bakwas are condemned to eternal hunger, misery, wandering and evildoing.”
If the Bakwas came upon a human who was lost in the woods, it would offer the person some food — but it wasn’t normal food. It was ghost food. If the human ate it, he or she would be transformed into a Bakwas too.
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References & Further Reading
- Clark, E. E. (2003). Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest. Univ. of California Press.
- Clayton, M. (2020). Native American Myths: Captivating Myths and Legends of Cherokee Mythology, the Choctaws and Other Indigenous Peoples from North America. Captivating History.
- Erdoes, R., & Ortiz, A. (1984). American Indian Myths and Legends. Pantheon Books.
- Gibbons, J. W. (1955). History of the Piasa Bird: Tracing the fate of the petroglyph known by this name from its earliest mention to the present day. Ouatoga Society.
- Gill, S. D., & Sullivan, I. F. (1994). Dictionary of Native American Mythology. Oxford University Press.
- Lake-Thom, B. (1997). Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies. Plume.
- Shearar, C. (2004). Understanding Northwest Coast Art: A Guide to Crests, Beings and Symbols. Douglas & McIntyre.
- Smallman, S. C. (2015). Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History. Heritage House Publishing.
- Zitkala-Sa. (2006). American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Penguin Books.
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.