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The Cree Cannibal: Swift Runner

Witiko (or windigo) has long been an unsettling, controversial, and inadequately understood topic for anthropologists, ethnohistorians, and scholars alike.

The Witiko is described as being owl-eyed with claws, matted hair, a naked emaciated body, and a heart of solid ice in the ancient Cree and Métis legends (legends referred to as the atâyohkewina) of northern Alberta. Witikos are thought to possess such an insatiable appetite that they even eat their own lips. They possess both a terrifying and grotesque presence as well as superhuman strength, making them the perfect predator.

There was nothing unusual about Swift Runner's background. In his early years, he received a solid Cree education; he married and had six children; he traded with the Hudson's Bay Company; and, in 1875, he served as a guide for the North West Mounted Police.

Swift Runner's life ended in tragedy and notoriety, however. He suffered from Wendigo psychosis in the winter of 1878-79, a period of starvation and misery for the Cree people. Anthropologists have identified this aberration in several Canadian Indian cultures. He cooked and ate his wife and family. Eventually, he was arrested, tried, and hanged at Fort Saskatchewan in December, 1879.

Nehiyawak (Cree)
Nehiyawak (neh-HEE-oh-wuk) is the Plains Cree word for the Cree people. The Cree also call themselves nihithaw, nehinaw, and ininiw. Canada's Cree are the most populous and widely distributed Indigenous people. The Cree occupy territory from Alberta to Quebec, as well as portions of the plains region in Alberta and Saskatchewan. According to the 2016 census, 356,655 people identified themselves as having Cree ancestry and 96,575 people spoke Cree.

Swift Runner was a Cree hunter and trapper from the region north of Fort Edmonton. A big man, over six feet tall, he was well liked. A mild and trustworthy man, a considerate husband, and a very affectionate father. He was well liked by his people and by the Hudson's Bay Company traders. When he returned without his spouse and family from his winter camp in the spring of 1879, however, this was not enough to dispel suspicion. His in-laws became worried when he was unable to provide a satisfactory account of where they were. They decided to inform the North West Mounted Police, which had then only been established in the West for five years.

Swift Runner's account of what took place was one of your worst nightmares.

Historian Nathan Carlson describes Wendigos in this way:
“Wîhtikôw was regarded by the Native people as a type of #supernatural or spiritual condition that compelled its sufferers to bouts of rage, insanity, and— if the condition went unchecked— homicide and #cannibalism. Moreover, it was oftentimes believed that the only way to stop #wîhtikôw, if cures were unsuccessful, was to execute the sufferers by beheading them and then burning their hearts over a funeral pyre.”

Swift Runner was haunted by dreams at first. A Windigo spirit urged him to consume others around him. Eventually, the spirit took control of his mind. He no longer recognized himself as Swift Runner but as the Windigo. The Windigo then killed and ate Swift Runner's wife. It forced one of Swift Runner’s boys to kill and butcher his younger brother. After the grisly meal, the spirit hanged Swift Runner's infant by the neck from a lodge pole. It was later revealed that the Windigo also killed and consumed Swift Runner's brother–and his mother-in-law, who he acknowledged was "a bit tough."

Swift Runner and the evidence were towed back to Fort Saskatchewan by the understandably bewildered Mounted Police. The trial commenced on August 8, 1879. The judge and jury did not view the Windigo concept as the Cree did, of course. Swift Runner was seen by them as a murderer, and the trapper didn't try to hide his guilt. His execution was swiftly ordered by Stipendiary Magistrate Richardson. The unrepentant cannibal was given the opportunity to address the crowd and after acknowledging his guilt and thanking his jailers for their kindness, he scolded the guard for making him wait in the cold.

“The reason that an axe was used was that there is a belief amongst the Indians that a bullet will not pierce a #wendigo or man eater. The body was burned and large trees felled over the grave to prevent the possibility of a re-appearance of the “wendigo.” Some days after the death of the man the people of the settlement were terror stricken, believing that he might reappear and destroy them. His murder is justified on the ground that unless he was killed he would have killed others, and that it is the custom of the country.”
– “A Trout Lake Tragedy,” The Brandon Mail, April 30, 1896, Page 3.

Throughout the 1890s, newspapers in Western Canada reported numerous Windigo incidents. A missionary brought two women from Whitefish Lake for treatment after one of them had a dream about her brother (who had been dead for four years) who offered her human flesh to eat in a bowl of ice, and both women later became ill and were thought to be Windigos. Both of them eventually recovered and never consumed human flesh. Two men were arrested and tried at Cat Lake in 1899 for murdering a man who had been overtaken by the Windigo spirit. The afflicted man had asked them to kill him before he killed others, and they felt obliged to do so, using an axe.

During this decade, an unusual rash of reports of people either being eaten by Windigos or being charged by Canadian legal officials for Windigo-inspired homicide (often before a cannibal was able to kill anyone) were rumored or put on record. At least one individual was officially executed for his actions in Fort Saskatchewan: Swift Runner.

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