Navajo Witchcraft

Ryan Dube
Native American skull and feather

Navajo witchcraft, a kind of spirituality practiced throughout the great Navajo Nation, is a phenomenon that is greatly feared and rarely mentioned, especially to outsiders. Read on to learn more about their major types of witchcraft and the legend of the Skinwalker.

What Is Navajo Witchcraft?

This Navajo form of witchcraft is not separate from Navajo spirituality, it is simply another set of "Ways" within the Navajo religion. The Navajo believe that people must live in harmony with Mother Earth, and that there are two classes of beings, Earth People who are mortals, and the Holy People who are unseen spiritual beings. They believe these beings have the ability to either help or harm mortals. The Navajo believe that illness and life problems are "disorder" within one's life that can be remedied with herbs, prayer, songs, medicine men and ceremonies. However, while medicine men learn the Navajo Ways to heal and aid those who are afflicted, there are others who practice Navajo witchcraft and seek to direct spiritual forces to cause harm or misfortune to others.

The term witchcraft doesn't accurately apply because this form Navajo spirituality has little to do with the practices and beliefs of European witchcraft. In fact, Navajo "witchcraft", in the sense that the Navajo believe, is simply another aspect or set of "ways" within the existing Navajo spiritual culture. The four basic "ways" of Navajo witchcraft are, "Witchery, Sorcery, Wizardry and Frenzy." None of the four are actually witchcraft in the European sense of the word. They are simply additional parts of the vast spirituality of the Navajo people.

The Four "Ways" of Navajo Witchcraft

The Dine (Navajo) believe that there are natural places where powers for both good and evil are concentrated, and that those sacred powers can be harnessed for good (healing) or evil (harm). Navajo witches also believe that objects such as hair or personal items can be used for good or evil. Within Navajo spirituality, the supernatural and the physical worlds are tightly intertwined, so pieces of physical objects like bone, hair or other items hold strong supernatural properties that can be manipulated. For the most part, only a very thin line separates the living from the dead, the good from the evil, and the medicine man from the Navajo witch.

In his 1944 book Navajo Witchcraft, anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn lists the four "Ways" of the Navajo witch as follows.

  • Witchery Way focuses on corpses in all of their rituals and ceremonies.
  • Sorcery Way involves burying a victims' personal objects or body parts (like hair) during ceremonies.
  • Wizardry Way focuses on injecting foreign objects such as poison or cursed darts into the victim.
  • Frenzy Way is focused on using charms that influence the emotional or mental state of others.

The Skinwalker

The "Witchery Way" is the best known form of Navajo witchcraft. Those who practice the Witchery Way, like all Navajo traditions, learn it from the elders of their family. Very little is actually known about those who practice the Witchery way, as very few Navajo are actually willing to speak about it. Every form of this witchcraft is based on death, and the Witchery way focuses on corpses. Although little is known about Navajo witches, witnesses have reported that they gather in caves or any secluded place where they go into "animal form". During these gatherings, they perform ceremonies similar to other Navajo ceremonies that involve rituals, dance and sand-painting. However, they perform these ceremonies with some dark alterations, such as using ash instead of sand, or modifying other Navajo rituals in "corrupted" ways. These gatherings are also rumored to include necrophilia and cannibalism.

"Skinwalkers" are the famous Navajo witches who follow the Witchery way and transform into animal form in order to take advantage of the unique characteristics and special powers of those animals. The Skinwalker is the most famous Navajo witch throughout western culture, due to recent books and movies. The accuracy and truth of these stories can only be judged by the Navajo who live as neighbors to the real world Skinwalkers in Navajo Nation. Witness sightings of strange creatures, and odd phenomenon, are common throughout this part of the country.

Some interesting witness accounts of real life skinwalkers are provided below:

  • James Donahue published an article that describes a case where anthropologist Clyde Klukhohn reports an eerie event where he and his wife spotted a strange wolf standing in the yard. After disappearing, the couple learned that the wolf had left small female human footprints.
  • In 1996, an organization of scientists called NIDS decided to scientifically investigate the many outrageous claims reported at the "Skinwalker Ranch," and this investigation is outlined by reporter George Knapp and scientist Colm Kelleher in the book Hunt for Skinwalker. The book relates a number of witness accounts of real Skinwalker phenomenon that reflect aspects of the Witchery way.

Native American Spirituality

While there are many articles, books and even movies about this aspect of Navajo spirituality, most Native Americans living within the massive land called "Navajo Nation" would likely scoff at the western world's version of their religion. Within Navajo spirituality, both good and evil coexist, and both are considered natural parts of the world that we live in, made for us by the Creator. The Navajo have accepted the reality of both the good and bad phenomenon that exist in this world, and they incorporate that reality into their daily lives and their spiritual beliefs.

Navajo Witchcraft