Human-Wolves among the Navaho

by Jason McDonald | August 31, 2018 |

(adaptation from the book by William Morgan, published by Section of anthropology, Department of the social sciences, Yale university, 1936)

To store their food for the winter, the Navajo dry corn and bury it in a hole dug beside their hogan, a domed shelter made from dried mud.  They cover the hole with a stone and hide it with some dirt and weeds so no one will find it.  Afterward, they take their goats and sheep up into the mountains for the winter and return to their hogan to retrieve the dried corn when they want.

A family did that and after a while they needed some more corn.  This family had a very pretty daughter and lots of men wanted to marry her.  They sent her with her little brother back to the hogan to get it.  They both rode on one horse and when they got there, it was too late to return home, so they decided to get the corn in the morning.

The brother and sister went inside and prepared to sleep.  They had tied the two front feet of their horse, and he went off to feed.  However, it wasn’t long before they heard the horse come back, stamping nervously outside the entrance.  The girl knew someone must have followed them because earlier that day she had seen some men and even overheard one say, “Now I can get that girl!” before turning down a different trail.

She peeked out and saw a dark shadow in the moonlit woods.  The rancid odor of rotten meat filled the hogan, and she knew a human-wolf was after them.  Using their bare hands, the two dug a small hole under the wall – just large enough for her little brother.  She told him to get in and hide.  If anyone came, he was to crawl outside and ride fast to their family.  She would try to fight as long as she could.  With that, the girl tied a blanket over the door, hoping it would slow the wolf down long enough for her brother to get away.  Their preparations complete, she settled down and waited.

With a start, she heard some mud fall off the top of the hogan.  The wolf had come at last.  The small boy crawled out from his hole, cut the rope around the horse’s feet, and jumped on the horse.  Already scared, the horse bolted away, and the boy struggled to keep hold of the mane.  With one last look over his shoulder, the little brother watched the dim shape of the wolf enter the hogan.


The girl’s big brother was not at home.  He had made a long bow and lots of fine arrows with eagle feathers on them, and he could sure shoot.  He went out hunting that day and stopped at a nearby hogan for the night.

It had snowed a little and the next morning he said, “This is a good day for hunting, I guess I will shoot some rabbits.”  Snow blanketed the ground as he stepped outside, wearing good new moccasins with heavy soles and wrapped in burlap sacks to keep them dry.  The big brother was a fine shot and could hit whatever he wanted.

He saw two rabbits hop through the thicket.  He took two arrows and shot them – he never missed.  As he was riding along, he saw a big track partially covered by the snow.  The track was strange and he did not know whether it was a horse or a man or some animal.  With his face close to the ground, he blew the snow out of the track.   Underneath was a trail of blood, and then he knew it was a human-wolf.  So he followed it.  He followed it all day, and toward evening he came to the edge of a mesa.  With one arrow in his bow and two in his mouth, he crawled slowly to the edge.  At the edge he came to the last track made by the human-wolf.  In the failing light, he could not see a way to get down the cliff so he circled around until he found a narrow path going down.

Crouching, he followed the path as it hugged the cliff face.  The path stopped at a big stone that concealed the entrance to a cave, and he knew that was where the human-wolf was.  He pulled back the stone and went into the cave.  It was black as pitch inside and he felt around with his arms outstretched.  Pretty soon he came to a black curtain.  He pulled that back and went in.  Beyond there was a narrow passage and he went along for half a mile and then he came to another black curtain.  In a half mile he came to another, and then he came to the fourth one.  He pulled that back and found himself in a big room that was round like a hogan.

Inside, he saw lots of men and women sitting around.  Skeletons and bones and jewelry littered the floor and lined the walls.  He thought, “Now they will kill me.”

There was a small room at the left, and he went in, hoping they wouldn’t see him.  There was one big fat man and he was chief and he was singing.  All these people, even girls and boys, were learning how to be human-wolves.  The big fat man said, “There is an old lady who has died about two hundred miles from here and I want two men to go there and dig her up and take her jewelry.” So two men came in front of him and he sang over them and then he said to be careful. They took their skins and went out.

Then the people said, “There is a boy in there and he doesn’t belong to us.”  Several of the larger men found the brother and put him in the middle of the round room.  They wanted to kill him.

He searched around thinking of how he could get out of there.  He knew their magic.  He had to get their eagle feathers because that was the main thing to all this.  If he could take them, then everything would go wrong with them and they would have to stop.  But they were all around him and they were watching him.  Up on the wall ahead of him was a girl’s head – the gore at her neck still wet.

The big brother just stared at the head on the wall.  It took everything he had to not fly into a suicidal rage.  It was the head of his sister.  He just kept staring. His fists clenched at his sides.

“Do you want to be a human-wolf?” the big fat man, who was the human-wolf chief, asked.

The brother didn’t answer so the man continued, “You will study to be a wolf or we will kill you.”

Taking his eyes from his sister’s head, he said, “I will be a wolf,” and all the time he was thinking how he could get out of there.  On each side of the door they had a big dog so if he ran out they would make a noise and stop him.

“Sit and join us.”

Several of the men and women, who were sitting, made room for him.  After he sat, they passed him some meat.  Bile rose in the back of his throat – he knew it was human meat.  He thought he had better take some, so he took a piece and put it near his mouth and then at the last second put it down inside his shirt, near his heart.  Counting on his sister to save his life, he thought, “When I go out I will give a piece to those dogs and they won’t make a noise.”

Soon the big fat man fell asleep and the brother pretended sleep as well.  He snored yet all the time he was looking around with his eyes almost shut.  Then after a while, all of them were asleep because they knew the dogs would make a noise if he tried to go out.

Once he was sure everyone was asleep, he got up and took his bow and arrows which they had taken away from him.  He took as many of their eagle feathers as he could find and headed toward the door.  As he took his first step in that direction, one of the dogs began to growl.  He slowly took the meat out of his shirt and broke it into two pieces.  The dogs eyed the pieces of meat hungrily as he tossed it to them.

With the dogs distracted, he ran through the curtain as fast as he could.  They had put wood and stones behind the curtains so he would have a hard time, but he got through three of them before he heard a lot of noise among those people.

Big logs and stones blocked the cave at the fourth curtain, and he had to push them out of the way with all his strength.  Once clear of the last curtain, he ran through the cave and up the path as fast as he could.  He was a fine runner, but soon he heard a wolf chasing behind him, and then another.  He dared not look back.  They were all around him.  He came to a badger’s hole and pulled up a big weed and crawled inside.  He pulled the weed down hard so it looked like it was growing there.

After the noises stopped, he pushed up the weed and looked around.  He heard someone coming so he went down again.  The big fat man came running and ran right past the badger’s hole.  As he went by, the brother heard him say, “I wish we had killed him like I told them to.”

Then after a while the brother came out and ran home.  When he got there the sole of his moccasin was worn out and his foot was sore.

In one or two nights there was a War Dance near, and the big brother’s family went over there.  The brother didn’t go because his foot was sore.  But later he changed his mind and took his bow and his arrows like a cane.  When he got there he saw the big fat man, who was chief of the human-wolves, sitting on a big white horse.  He and his wife were dressed in fine clothes and wore lots of bracelets and necklaces.

The boy said, ‘I’m going to shoot that man,” so he went around the circle of the wagons and people until he came behind the fat man.  He put an arrow in and gave a long pull.  Aiming at the man’s back, he let go the string.  The arrow flew straight and true.  It went in so far that only the eagle feather fletching showed.

And that’s the end of the story.

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