American Werewolves

This illustration first appeared in a 19th-century werewolf novel, 'The Wolf Leader' by Dumas. It is old enough that its copyright is in the public domain.
American werewolves can be found in every corner of North America. You might have to dig deep to uncover the folklore or urban legends that portray them, but even so there are far more of these critters than most people suspect.

When the first settlers arrived from Europe, they found that the New World had its own resident population of wolves, along with indigenous folklore about Native American werewolves. These pioneers brought their own werewolf tales with them, invented new ones after they arrived, and were influenced by their neighbors' lore. The American werewolf we have today is a result of this cultural melting pot.

In Canada, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and upstate New York, the loup-garou is a werewolf resulting from a mixture of Indian beliefs with those imported by French settlers. Typically French characteristics, such as a werewolf who seeks to break a burdensome curse, are mixed with other ideas, such as the cannibal windigo of Native American lore.

The southwest still contains many people who believe in the "skinwalker" or Navajo werewolf. In fiction, the term "skinwalker" is often used as a kind of shorthand for any Native American werewolf, while in anthropology and folklore, it is reserved for Navajo werewolves. The sloppy use of this term in fiction has often angered Navajos, particularly since movies and novels often haphazardly mix lore from the Navajo tribe and other tribes, topping off this mixture with a generous serving of fakelore (beliefs presented as folklore in a piece of fiction that do not actually occur in traditional oral literature). In Navajo folklore, skinwalkers are viewed as objects of terror and disgust. They appear in a surprisingly large number of modern accounts. Besides shapeshifting, the typical activities of Navajo skinwalkers are putting hexes on people and robbing graves. Skinwalkers rob graves in order to eat the dead and steal jewelry.

Farther to the south, there is a Mexican werewolf called the nahual. The Mexican werewolf is known for stealing cheese, chasing women and being vulnerable to the presence of iron and human clothing. It is often thought to be incapable of killing humans, but it is still feared and hated as a sleazy thief and potential rapist. In places such as New Mexico and Utah, skinwalker lore may be blended with beliefs imported from Spain, creating a hybrid mythology that sometimes results in Aztec gods mixing with witches and devil-worship in order to create werewolves.

Near New Orleans, there are legends of the Cajun werewolf, a swamp-dwelling critter that has some characteristics borrowed from Canadian werewolves and French werewolves, plus other characteristics that are new. Cajun werewolves often look like they are part dog or fox.

Urban legends are another important genre of American werewolf legends, found all over the nation, among every ethnic group. In the United States, urban legends starring werewolves have appeared as recently as the 1990's, less than a hundred miles from Chicago. Creatures such as the Beast of Bray Road and the Wolfman of Defiance are only now starting to receive much publicity. The werewolves in urban legends are more likely to be portrayed as hairy humanoids with wolf heads, instead of the near-wolf forms (difficult to distinguish from real wolves) that appear in typical folklore.

Go to the Library
You can find out more about American werewolves by reading Hunting the American Werewolf by Linda Godfrey and The Field Guide to North American Monsters by W. Haden Blackman.
Most werewolf novels that are set in America have nothing to do with American werewolf legends. Generally they are reinventions of the European werewolf, if there is any folklore at all in them. Some notable novels about American werewolves for young adult readers are Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, The Adventures of a Two-Minute Werewolf by Gene DeWeese and Bad Blood by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald.

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