[To the Celtic peoples of Europe a “dust devil” – a moving mini-cyclone of dirt and detritus – announced the passage of an invisible supernatural being, usually one of the Fairy-folk but not exempting one of their own formidable witches. I know the Six Nations/Hodenosaunee people in my home region of Western New York have it within their tradition, too, that these tiny tornadoes might be the sign of a witch or wizard. In North America, the supplanters of the Native Americans – white people like me – occasionally witness things that seem to them supernatural, and that have no explanation outside Native American tradition. Those are my favorite stories.]
It was five on a Sunday afternoon. I was catching an hour with my laptop at the small pub of the Roycroft Inn in East Aurora, New York. A married couple four feet to my left seemed to know the bartender well. Their talk had turned to the paranormal.
“I don’t believe anything about that,” the gentleman told the bartender. “But I’ll tell you about the three… no, four things I’ve seen in my life that I couldn’t figure out.”
All his experiences came from his years in the American southwest. Three of them were aerial sightings. One sounded like a classic UFO. Two others were pretty clearly ALP (Anomalous Light Phenomena), AKA, “witch lights” like the ones so prominent in the Native traditions and tales of upstate New York. His fourth experience caught my attention.
“We were just a couple kids out of college,” he said. The experience, he guesses, took place between 1975 and 1978. He was sure it was in the autumn, and the region was that of the Aubrey Cliffs near Seligman, Arizona. He described it as a dry area of broad expanses and many escarpments. You can drive right up a ridge and look out for miles on the open terrain below.
It was a nice life for awhile, he commented, camping with his buddy in their truck, cooking out under the skies, and sniping at prairie dogs during the day. I couldn’t kill for fun, but… It was appreciated by the ranchers whose land they were on. The holes the little critters make in the earth are hazards for the cattle. These two young men had “more guns than sense,” according to my witness, and boatloads of ammunition.
One early evening the pair had pulled their camper several hundred feet up the side of an escarpment and rested on the tail of their vehicle, listening to the crackle of their fire. Something caught their eye on the flat, dry land below them.
It was a speeding trail of dust like that pitched up by a truck or motorcycle, moving across their position nearly a mile in the distance. But nothing was creating it, at least nothing they could see. The pair took up their binoculars and were even more baffled. It was like the Invisible Man running 100 MPH. For several minutes they studied the miracle. Then it simply subsided.
The two young men with their youthful sense of invincibility and all their firepower were suddenly and sincerely spooked. They cut their lights and extinguished their budding fire so as to avoid calling any attention to themselves. They sat where they were, on the lookout, for at least two hours. They slept uneasily that night.
The gentleman who told the tale seemed happy to elaborate, and I asked him many follow up questions. Did he feel that whatever was pitching up the dust was simply too small to be seen at the distance? “It was invisible,” was his assessment.
What could they have seen? I can’t tell you. Suspected paranormal events are almost never verifiable. I can, however, look for parallels.
My Native friends would probably say that these two young men had seen
at least the signs of a Skinwalker, and one that was having a little fun with them – or one whose business did not involve them.
“Skinwalker” (or the recent nickname, “Skinnie”) is a popular term for a shapeshifting witch, a dreaded fixture of Navajo/Southwestern tradition. The Skinwalker is a power-person who’s normal most of the time. He or she goes into “the zone” on one of those nights, often with the aid of an animal-totem like a paw or pelt. The Skinwalker, though, is usually all too visible in action. It appears as a human/animal morph.
I know of no writer who’s evoked the Native supernatural traditions of any region more vividly than Roy Hillerman (1925-2008) has done for the Southwest. I turn to my memory of his account of a trucker spotting what could only have been a Skinwalker late at night on one of those lonely highways. To him it appeared as a Native American man under an animal pelt who ran alongside his vehicle at high speeds and motioned for him to pull over.
Terrified, the driver sped up; the odd fellow kept up with him for miles, and at speeds over 80 MPH. The driver especially recalled the man’s white teeth against his brown skin as he grinned under the wolfy hood.
My Six Nations/Longhouse friends about upstate New York don’t use this term “Skinwalker” much, but their tradition clearly has its own version of a similar thing. Their shapeshifters can run mighty fast, too. I’ve also heard reports of medicine people and shamans all over the Americas traveling great distances on foot overnight. I’ve heard of anthropologists and ethnologists who have tracked strange, prodigiously-spaced human footprints between villages that seemed to confirm a recent story of such a feat. If these masters can do anything like what is attributed to them, the capacity to make themselves invisible – or to simply make someone else fail to see them – doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
My Algonquin friend Mike Bastine is a Western New York resident who has lines out all over the Americas. He is a good man to talk to about any subject that touches upon the traditions of the Native peoples. I described the experience of the two hunters to him and asked at the end, “Could they have seen something that would have been called a Skinwalker?”
He thought before he replied. “These things that are out there don’t all fall into such neat categories,” he said. “But I’d say that’s a real high probability.”