- Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History by Shawn Smallman
Windigos are a perfect mystery for ethnohistorians, anthropologists, or fans of the macabre. People transforming into cannibalistic winter spirits with supernatural powers and hearts of ice sounds like something from the fantasy series Game of Thrones. However, Windigo phenomena are found in the Indigenous folklores and histories of central Canada.
What were precontact beliefs regarding Windigos, and how did European colonization influence their evolution over time? Were they mythological beings, exaggerated like “Bigfoot” into tall tales? Were they manifestations of culture-bound mental illness, exacerbated by the trauma of genocide? What are Windigos today? These are some of the questions explored in Shawn Smallman’s Dangerous Spirits.
Shawn Smallman, who holds a PhD in history, is a professor of international and Latin American studies at Portland State University. His self-proclaimed love of mysteries and ghost stories is evident in this book.
Smallman chronicles many accounts of Windigos, placing the phenomena in wider colonial contexts. The scholar explores Windigos in precontact Indigenous mythology and in cultural beliefs about family structures and women. He covers early European reactions to encounters with Windigos and then discusses conflicts between missionaries and believers in the Windigo, linking them to structural violence. Finally, he examines how Canadian criminal justice and medical systems handled suspected Windigos into the twentieth century, as well as those who killed them out of fear or mercy.
Smallman’s work is well referenced, with many accounts involving the Cree peoples of the Canadian Prairies and of the boreal forests near Hudson Bay. He is also sensitive to the political complexities of this subject, mentioning the appropriation of Windigos in popular culture, and contemporary efforts by First Nations to reclaim Windigos as a cautionary symbol for capitalistic greed and overconsumption.
I believe Smallman’s inferences regarding the evolution of Windigo beliefs over time would be stronger with a greater focus on specific cultures and ethnographic details. I find it overly generalizing when Smallman refers to the beliefs of “Algonquians,” since the cultures [End Page 332] of that large language family can vary greatly. For example, while the Yurok and Wiyot of northwestern California speak Algic languages, their linguistic links to Algonquian-speaking cultures, like the Plains Cree, are separated by thousands of years and miles, and they do not share a belief in Windigos.
Overall, I think Dangerous Spirits is a fascinating book. I believe it would be equally fascinating to those interested in Windigos or in the intercultural history of Canada. Furthermore, ethnohistorians of this region, or medical anthropologists interested in culture-bound syndromes, may find this book very useful.