The Hurog Family

Patricia Briggs' Books => The Weres => Mercy's Garage: General Series Topics & Themes Board => Topic started by: Mike Briggs on July 31, 2007, 02:38:25 pm

Title: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Mike Briggs on July 31, 2007, 02:38:25 pm
I moved this post from another thread.  I've seen several questions in various boards about Mercy and Skinwalkers.  This was an answer I posted to one such thread.

That's correct.  For the record, Good Mazoku was correct in stating that Mercy isn't a skin walker.  She's not entirely sure what she is, but she mentions that "Walker" is probably a white-man term for it.  Patty's actually kind of trying to downplay the native american mythos just a bit -- too many authors have exploited the "noble savage" and others have shamelessly butchered native beliefs for their own ends.

People taking the shape of animals is a very common, almost pervasive, trope in indian beliefs.  In fact, the idea that people could take on animal form (or vice versa) is so ingrained that it's nearly expected.  Whatever Mercy is, most of the Northwest tribes would have little trouble producing multiple stories of heroes or medicine men that could take an animal form.  

The people usually associated with  skinwalkers are the Navajo, though most other southwest tribes have very similar beliefs.  Many of the native peoples will not discuss skinwalkers (or their tribal equivalants), believing that speaking of them gives them power.  This is something quite different than simply taking an animal form.  Skinwalkers are pure evil -- usually needing to kill a family member to gain their power (and if you understand traditional beliefs about family, that's even more repugnant than it is in our culture).  They can read men's thoughts, and hypnotize them with their gaze.  In most traditions, they are able to take on many shapes, not just that of a coyote, often needing a skin or other body part to complete their transformation.  In most stories, they are always recognizable as skinwalkers -- usually having human eyes or a partially human head.  Basically, they're like Sauron, Valdemort and Freddy Kruger all wrapped up in a singularly nasty package.  Mercy, for the record, is emphatically not cut from the same cloth.

EDIT: sorry for all the weasel-words when dealing with native american culture.  The problem is that there are often many variants on the same belief within related tribes, and often multiple mutually-contradictory tales within the same tribe.  In addition, everything that's published about native beliefs is automatically suspect.  As a conquered people they have many reasons not to trust us, and they often gave misleading answers to anthropologists poking into their sacred things -- the phrase "pearls before swine" comes to mind.  Although I have several traditional friends, and my father was endlessly fascinated by native beliefs, I am far from an expert.  Finally, their way of viewing the world is very different than our own, and to really understand it requires considerably more time and effort than reading a few tales and stories, so I'm loathe to state anything definitively.  My apologies to any traditionalist should I offend.
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Coyote on August 09, 2007, 11:00:28 pm
I dunno. For "pure evil," most skinwalkers seem content to use their powers to get laid, or scare old people into giving them money.

The big way skinwalkers get their power isn't by killing people, by the way, it's by breaking taboos. Killing someone is a _possible_ taboo, but it's not the life energy or anything like that, in the skinwalker's case. It's that he's breaking the rules of society. The first skinwalker made incestuous advances toward his sister, touched a dead body, and stopped sweeping his house in order to get his power, in some stories.

The reason the skinwalker has power is essentially because he's no longer bound by anyone's rules or expectations, and doesn't necessarily care what anyone thinks. They might just quietly ignore the rules and not bother anyone, or they might just decide not to obey taboos against wanton killing, or putting curses on people.

A skinwalker also gets power from being able to be independent - to not have strings tying him to society except of his own choosing.

The reason, in most of the stories that I've heard, about why the first skinwalker asked Coyote for power, and why Coyote gave it to him, is that the guy came to Coyote and asked for the ability to live as an outcast. The man's family had died tragically, and his neighbors began treating him like he was accursed and full of bad luck. People acted as if somehow he were a bad person for living when his family was dead. Supposedly, in Dineh society at the time, no man could really be an island. People were very interdependent and supportive of one another, and if you became ostracised, you would not just be miserable - you could die!

Anyway, the guy asks Coyote to teach him how to be strong like Coyote, and how to be able to live without having to ask anyone else for anything, and asks Coyote to share his magic powers with him.

Coyote tells him it's easy - all he has to do is stop living by the rules everyone else lives by. So the guy changes his home so that the fireplace faces the other way, he stops tidying up, and quits worrying about his appearance. To break the taboos about who can talk to who, he either talks dirty to, or actually sleeps with, his sister. He sneaks out to where a person has just died and touches the dead body on purpose, to show that he's not afraid of ghosts or death... or traditions.

So Coyote shares his magic, so that the man can shapeshift and catch his own food, and avoid being shot by hunters, and so he can sneak in and steal things from people if he wants.

But then the guy who has become the first skinwalker, immediately decides that since he doesn't have to answer to anyone any more, that he'll use his powers for vengeance and mischief, and promptly begins terrorizing people and making pacts with evil spirits.

Some people just can't handle a little freedom, I suppose.

Having said all that... "pure evil" might be more fun, in a novel.

Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Mike Briggs on August 10, 2007, 07:20:33 am
First of all, are you the THE Coyote?  I grew up listening to stories of the first peoples, and the stories of Coyote were always my favorites.  On the other hand, his sense of humor is often painful or even dangerous to the people around him.  [Whistling] Nice meeting you, I think I'll be going now .  .  ..

Thank you for your insight -- that's wonderful.  One problem I have is that I've grown up around the pacific northwest tribes.  I know quite a bit about the Blackfeet, Salish, and Flathead peoples, but much less about the southwest tribes.  I have one native-american friend (by the way, ever notice that native americans refer to themselves as "indians"?), who knows quite a bit about the Navajo, but he's actually Crow.  He's the one that told me about the "pure evil" thing, and said that little indians are afraid to sleep at night because the nasty skinwalker might get them.  He also claims that most people won't talk about them, because you're never sure who might be one, and they can come up with some terrible curses.  Your explanation makes a lot of sense, and sounds more "authentic", but this just underscores Patty's reason for trying to kind of skirt lightly around beliefs we don't fully understand.  It's too easy to step on someone's toes, and these aren't just old myths to the people who follow the traditional paths. 

I know the northern tribes have lots of stories of shape-changing humans (or animals), but there's no "evil" associated with changing shape. Of course the wounded warrior woke up as a bear, or an eagle.  Naturally the love-sick maiden became a goose and flew away, what else would you expect her to do?  They also have some real nasty players: evil humans, demons and creatures.  Oddly, most of the nasties don't shape change -- though many can do things like call to you in the voices of your loved ones to lure you into the forest at night. 

Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: jackie on August 10, 2007, 09:32:08 am
I learned much of what I know about skinwalkers from Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee/ Lt Leaphorn novels.  Mr Hillerman (and several of his characters)  are anthropologists with a real respect for the Navajo people.  If you haven't found these books yet you might find them interesting.   Also, one of Mr Hillerman's characters points out that Navajo mythology is a living mythology that changes as the storytellers and their culture changes.  Just as our American biligaana culture and myths have changed in response to their culture.
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Mike Briggs on August 10, 2007, 10:21:02 am
I  Also, one of Mr Hillerman's characters points out that Navajo mythology is a living mythology that changes as the storytellers and their culture changes.  Just as our American biligaana culture and myths have changed in response to their culture.
Excellent point, and I'll definitely check out Mr. Hillerman's novels, which I have not yet read.  The point about the living mythology is something I tried to reference in my first post -- even in the same tribe there are often several similar stories (which may be just versions of an earlier story) which present mutually contradictory details.  The indians don't seem to have a lot of trouble accepting them all as equally valid, and don't stress about the inherent contradictions or argue about who's "right" -- just another cultural difference. 
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Spryte on August 10, 2007, 07:52:07 pm
The stories and legends of a people evolve and change along with the people who tell them.... there are hundreds of answers for the Mercy/Skinwalker issue, and none is more right than the other.... But reading the different views posted by people is fascinating, and it is fun to see how each cersion differs from all the rest.... It leaves any possible Skinwalker we may see in a book completely open. ;D
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Patti L. on August 17, 2007, 11:18:04 am
This is a great topic!  Lots of possibilities. :)
Reading what's already been posted, 2 things occurred to me about skinwalkers as evil & their ability to change shape. 
First, the evil & the breaking of taboos may be connected & explained if the people in question are sociopaths.
Second, regarding breaking taboos & changing shape, it reminds me of an old fantasy that made reference to the Victorian 'inability' to see legs or more explicit nudity.  If someone does things that 'everyone knows' are 'impossible', i.e. incest, touching the dead, etc., it may not have occurred to the people whose homes were ransacked or whatever that one of their people could be doing it.  They look around for an explanation, see an animal, very possibly a coyote, & think 'ah, Coyote', or something similar. 
Does this sound plausible?
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Kiersten Walks Funny on November 05, 2007, 04:45:25 pm
skinwalkers are evil witches and mercy is neither evil nor a witch
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Patti L. on January 23, 2008, 09:20:31 am
Right.  And?
I'm trying to explain where the idea that they were connected came from.
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Kiersten Walks Funny on January 24, 2008, 07:46:27 am
probably the fact that mercy doesn't turn into a wolf.  like the skinwalkers turned into different animals, and that she can change when she wants
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Nae on March 08, 2009, 06:51:25 pm
Ok I know that this is an old post but I just wanted to say that being from the southwest I know a lot of the mythos about the Di`ne(Navajo) people, since for my whole life I've lived less an 30 minutes from the reservation. And Mike got most of the myth right, the people don't talk about anything that can be seen as magic be it good or bad and skinwalkers are the worst of the worst you can get. I don't know for sure how someone turns into a skinwalker but it does include murder of both a innocent animal and a human and that they use the skin from the animal to change hence "skin" walker.
Tony Hillerman did a very good job writting about the southwest tribes and I know a lot of people are missing him since he just died this last year.
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Interpreter on July 27, 2009, 12:00:41 pm
Mike and Coyote,

Thanks for the clarification. I really like this topic as it brings in cultural beliefs and stories. Stories are windows into the culture from which they are created, and I like peeking in!  :)

I would love to see Patty explore this more! Such wonderful possibilities arise from chaos and those who just don't follow the rules!
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Taash on August 12, 2009, 04:22:37 pm
I just found this post so sorry that I am adding and it might be that everyone got bored of this - my grandmother told me stories of people who could become animals - the majority of indian knowledge was and has been oral - told through tales or songs. I would also say that they have a wicked sense of humour - you never know what is truth and what is tale. They take great pleasure in being tricksters - at least the majority of my family did.

Like for example - my father has seven brothers - my father was trying to impress some girl with a car that he built from parts - they were quite poor so having a car was a big deal - so he goes to take this girl out - his six brothers dig a hole - a huge hole like 5-6ft - fill it with water that they carried with buckets and cover it up - the hole is right where he parks his car - so when he gets out of the car he falls in the hole - I think they still tell that story when the family gets together.

Anyway back to shifters - my grandmother didn't call them shifters - I can't remember if she called them anything - but her story was that indian people still have that power - but when the indians were being moved from their lands those that could change did to get away and they stayed in their animal forms - and their children forgot how to become human again which is why no one could do it anymore. The magic was lost.

There were lots of stories about animals of all sorts -  spider, bears, rattlesnakes, lizards, rabbits, a coyote, eagles, hawks - often male animals would chose a young girl to be a wife - and the children of such relationships always had special powers or would grow up to help the tribe. Sometimes the girl was chosen because she was too beautiful, or ugly - or some sort of physical issue. She also told stories of bad children who were changed into animals as punishment. Sometimes it was temporary - sometimes it was forever - it sort of depended on which spirt got upset and decided to teach a lesson.

there are also scary stories about the evil ones - but they were known because of their deeds and their power came from doing horrible things. But these people were always kicked out of the tribe - they weren't allowed to stay and they continued their evil on the unwary or lazy. I always thought it was a way for my grandmother to make us behave - kind of like being threatened by the boogie man - but it was the indian equivalent. - "he/she lives there still waiting and watching"  Very scary! Then none of us could sleep that night! There are also the stories of the monsters - the scary ones that eat people. But these were never people - I can remember them being described as monsters for lack of a better word. Some were things that hide in the mud - others in tall grass or trees - almost always at night - always blending in so you couldn't see until it was too late. Those stories ended with - "they only found this or that possession that would identify the person - and blood and carnage"

anyway I thought I would add - 

Anyway - right or wrong - I like the Mercy story - to me it dosn't matter.
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Ellyll on August 12, 2009, 06:21:36 pm
That's a cool set of stories, Taash.  I like it.  Thanks for posting it.  :)
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Taash on August 14, 2009, 03:04:51 am
Just a different perspective I guess  LOL  I think its difficult to say WHO is an expert? I would say that so much has been lost - that it would be difficult - entire tribes have either died off - or been assimilated into other tribes losing their individual identity. I won't get into it - cause its history and depressing.

My grandmother passed 30 years ago and all the old ones I knew have gone as well - pretty much the stories aren't told anymore - there are so few wild places - and no one seems to have time to go camping and doing all that stuff that would stimulate a youngster to ask about those stories - hard to compete with ninja turtles or the X-men - young ones don't really respect the old ones - unless you still live in 'traditional' tribes - and there are levels of indianness - differences between who was born and raised on reservations - who wasn't - etc. - If you were born and left like my father - or like me - not full blood and not reservation raised. Also when I was growing up - indian people tended to chastise their young with stories - instead of saying no - they would tell you a story or how a person ignored good advice and came to a bad end etc.  - used to drive me insane - cause it always took forever - hard to get a definitive answer from an indian - they love their story telling - don't know if this is still true - but traditional pow-wows had storytelling contests -

Ive worked with two different tribes as an adult - the ones around the tucson area and the ojibwe - not much left of the old stories there either - although again - it depends on the tribe within the nation - I know one ojibwe tribe that runs and funds its own school - teaches the stories and the language - the other dosn't.

My grandfather married into the crow nation - and I only went to a couple of powwows around Hardin when I went to visit - there seemed to be a lot more there - a lot more that still spoke the traditional language. But this is going back quite a few years - he and his wife have also passed.

I think non-indians asking about these things have lots of difficulty because of history - why would you care - why would you want to know and recently how all traditional things are being exploited - bought and sold with nothing given back - there is still so much unresolved pain that probably will never be sorted out.

To sort of answer why there are so many versions - well families have their own- then individual tribes among the many nations - and since storytelling is an art - they would embellish - to make it a good story - not bothered about consistency - the stories belong to whoever is listening and telling - so they belong to everyone or no one.

Title: Re: The Walker Files Fact Finding Thread
Post by: Wulfn1 on September 01, 2009, 09:49:13 am
personal opinion here, (yes I know it's an old thread... but I'm new so I'll probably have to be smacked into submission every now and again till I understand the rules of the place.)

Walkers, from what I've gleaned from these books as well as what I've read over the course of my life elsewhere, appear to have the ability to shift (sometimes without consciously trying to) they can interact with the spirit world(ghost , spirit , entity) as well as control the actions of some of these. Walkers lives are fraught with danger , and because of this not many survive childhood. Those who do  and embrace their gift can live a very long life (the walker taken by the vampire for sustenance only lasted 63 years due in part to the fact that he was someone's lunch for an extended period of time and he was also in captivity, something that goes against every fiber of a walker's wild being) Walkers are a threat to several of the paranormal creatures of the world (not just vampires). Walkers are empathetic, and can feel the pain/joy/anger etc of others if they open themselves up to such. One of the reasons they are called "walkers" is because they can exist in both the natural world as well as the spirit world "walking" from one to the other with no difficulty or obvious transition.

Anyone out there that has considered these things while reading the Mercy series? or am I alone here?
Title: Re: The Walker Files Fact Finding Thread
Post by: Tearadria on September 01, 2009, 09:57:02 pm
Yeah, I've always been into werewolves, lycanthropy, Native American's Skinwalkers and what not. So each time I read a book on anything of the such I always consider those matters of the lore and legends of them and apply them to the book. So far I love Patricia's insight onto these things. Even though some things do not match what the legends and lore say...those are mainly stories from story tellers themselves so that when another person tells a story about them they are telling it from their point of view and how they see it in their minds, just like they did back in time only the stories have carried on and eventually ended up being myth, legends, and lore ; )
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: Ellyll on September 02, 2009, 06:01:32 am
Where do you get the idea that walkers are empathetic?
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: ironkitten on July 01, 2010, 07:57:14 pm
Well, I wish I could remember more on the Navajo, but my parents know a whole lot about them and could tell you guys all about em. We lived on their reservation for a while and even then they are the indian tribe down in New Mexico and Arizona of course they could tell you about the Hopeji too. Not sure I spelled that last one right. Interesting take on here.
Title: Re: Walker or Skinwalker?
Post by: little gray wolf on August 18, 2010, 03:19:13 pm
It is cool that you grew up on a reservation  :D