Why you should care
Because killing monsters is only OK if everyone believes they exist.
The shaman slipped away from police in Norway House, Manitoba, in September 1907. Once free, he tied a slipknot in his sash and hung it from a tree, and within minutes, the famed healer was dead.
Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow, whose name in Anishinaabe meant “he who stands in the southern sky,” was also known as Jack Fiddler by Europeans, who nicknamed him for his musical talent. Born in the 1830s or ’40s around Sandy Lake in northwestern Ontario, Fiddler was the headman of the Sucker people, a clan within a large community of Oji-Cree, who today are known as the Sandy Lake First Nation. He was renowned among his tribe and neighboring clans for his healing capabilities, particularly his power to combat a monster feared by people of the boreal forest: the bloodthirsty half-beast they called the windigo.
The windigo myth served as a cautionary tale to the Cree and others regarding “selfishness and losing connection to animals.”
Details of the windigo myth shifted from clan to clan, but common among them was that the voracious wandering spirit was capable of possessing people and forcing them into cannibalism. Some feared they could infect others, even after death, and that their presence would scare away all other animals within the vicinity. Nadia Ferrara, an anthropologist and senior policy manager with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, says the windigo myth served as a cautionary tale to the Cree and others regarding “selfishness and losing connection to animals.”
A shaman was a clan’s only hope against the windigo. Ceremonies and potions existed, but the ultimate cure for someone gripped by this spirit was death, followed by ritual burning and burial. It was typical for someone who felt they were succumbing to the will of the windigo to send for the shaman to administer the ultimate cure. Families who witnessed a loved one in the throes of delirium shouting about human flesh would also call for the shaman to euthanize their kin.
Fiddler once told a minister he had defeated 14 windigos. By 1907, word of windigo killings had reached the Royal North-West Mounted Police, and a patrol was dispatched to investigate. On their travels the Mounties learned of Wahsakapeequay, a woman suspected of being possessed by the creature. She had been choked to death with a piece of string by her father-in-law, Pesequan, and his brother, Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow. The brothers were arrested and charged with murder on June 15.
After 15 weeks of captivity, the frail Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow broke free and killed himself. Pesequan’s trial began a week later, with headlines like “Devil Worship Among the Cree” splashed across the Montreal Daily Witness. Pesequan had no legal representation (Canada’s Department of Justice had advised the court not to provide any). Hudson’s Bay Company employee James Kirkness, who knew Pesequan’s people like few other whites did, was available to give testimony on tribal customs, but he wasn’t asked to do so. The magistrate who heard the case against Pesequan, RNWMP Commissioner Aylesworth Bowen Perry, told the jury, “What the law forbids, no pagan belief can justify.” The jury found Pesequan guilty and sentenced him to hang.
Though the establishment had railed against Pesequan and Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow, other Euro-Canadians came to their defense. A petition, signed by prominent whites familiar with Sandy Lake and its indigenous people, stated that Pesequan’s actions were “the opposite of murder.” According to the beliefs of the Oji-Cree, they were acts of mercy that prevented a person from becoming “a roving spiritual cannibal” who was “never allowed to reach the Happy Hunting Ground.”
Others questioned whether the brothers should be punished for committing an act they didn’t realize was an offense. For evidence of Fiddler’s unfamiliarity with colonial laws one need look no further than his statement to police, in which he insisted via an interpreter that “I did not know what I was doing was wrong, and if I had known, I would not have done the deed.”
But critics of the sentence failed to get it overturned. Pesequan died from illness before he could hang, and in 1910, after losing two of their leaders, the Sandy Lake First Nation signed Treaty Five with the Canadian federal government. This, according to Ferrara, led to Canada exploiting the tribe like never before.
Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow and other medicine men killed those around them when their communities feared they were under siege by a powerful force capable of perverting their relationship with the land. Though he took on the windigos that came his way, the shaman himself stood little chance against the winds of change.