Cannibal Wihtiko: Finding Native-Newcomer Common Ground

by Cecil Chabot

Institution: University of Ottawa
Year: 2016
Keywords: Windigo; wihtiko; wendigo; cannibal; Native-Newcomer; Aboriginal; Indigenous; intercutural; culture; cross-cultural; James Bay Cree; Mushkego; Indigenous law; court; anthropology; trans-cultural psychiatry; madness; monstrous; insanity; monster; problem of evil; power-knowledge; Foucault; religion; spiritual; Christian mission; inter-religious; common ground; fur trade; Rupert's Land; Hudson's Bay Company; Colonialism; imperialism; British North America; postcolonial; postmodern; penal law; insanity defence; values; ideals
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2076748
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10393/33452


Two prominent historians, David Cannadine and Brad Gregory, have recently contended that history is distorted by overemphasis on human difference and division across time and space. This problem has been acute in studies of Native-Newcomer relations, where exaggeration of Native pre-contact stability and post-contact change further emphasized Native-Newcomer difference. Although questioned in economic, social and political spheres, emphasis on cultural difference persists. To investigate the problem, this study examined the Algonquian wihtiko (windigo), an apparent exemplar of Native-Newcomer difference and division. With a focus on the James Bay Cree, this study first probed the wihtiko phenomenon’s Native origins and meanings. It then examined post-1635 Newcomer encounters with this phenomenon: from the bush to public opinion and law, especially between 1815 and 1914, and in post-1820 academia. Diverse archives, ethnographies, oral traditions, and academic texts were consulted. The cannibal wihtiko evolved from Algonquian attempts to understand and control rare but extreme mental and moral failures in famine contexts. It attained mythical proportions, but fears of wihtiko possession, transformation and violence remained real enough to provoke pre-emptive killings even of family members. Wihtiko beliefs also influenced Algonquian manifestations and interpretations of generic mental and moral failures. Consciously or not, others used it to scapegoat, manipulate, or kill. Newcomers threatened by moral and mental failures attributed to the wihtiko often took Algonquian beliefs and practices seriously, even espousing them. Yet Algonquian wihtiko behaviours, beliefs and practices sometimes presented Newcomers with another layer of questions about mental and moral incompetence. Collisions arose when they discounted, misconstrued or asserted control over Algonquian beliefs and practices. For post-colonial critics, this has raised a third layer of questions about intellectual and moral incompetence. Yet some critics have also misconstrued earlier attempts to understand and control the wihtiko, or attributed an apparent lack of scholarly consensus to Western cultural incompetence or inability to grasp the wihtiko. In contrast, this study of wihtiko phenomena reveals deeper commonalities and continuities. They are obscured by the complex evolution of Natives’ and Newcomers’ struggles to understand and control the wihtiko. Yet hidden in these very struggles and the wihtiko itself is a persistent shared conviction that reducing others to objects of power signals mental and moral failure. The wihtiko reveals cultural differences, changes and divisions, but exemplifies more fundamental commonalities and continuities.