Indigenous storytellers share scary stories and the wisdom they hold | CBC Radio


Indigenous peoples have been haunted by stories of eerie figures, beasts and spirits for as long as anyone can remember. In communities across the continent, people have been telling tales of shapeshifters, horned water serpents and cannibalistic flying heads for generations. 

You might think these creatures are the stuff of myth. But could they be real? 

Dan SaSuWeh Jones has spent years mulling this very question. The writer and artist from the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma travelled throughout the United States visiting Indigenous communities and listening to their scary stories.

He was surprised to discover that many tribes in the United States tell tales about similar figures. Bigfoot or Sasquatch, for example, are the subject of stories from the Pacific Northwest coast all the way to Florida, he said. 

“You get to wondering how could this possibly be that these stories are virtually the same or the character is the same … unless there isn’t some truth in these stories,” he said. 

Jones compiled 32 of the stories he heard into a book for kids called Living Ghosts & Mischievous Monsters: Chilling American Indian Stories.

Among the stories in the book is an unnerving, ancient tale about a massive horned serpent that frightens a group of young boys fishing in a body of water they’ve been told never to visit.

There’s also a Seneca story about a flying head with matted hair and red eyes that chases humans down to eat them, and a yarn about shape-shifting creatures that change from human to otter from the Tlingit people of Alaska. These shape shifters, called the Kushtaka, can mimic the sounds of crying babies, which helps them lure people into the forest.

During his travels, Jones said he realized there were lessons to be learned from these stories, regardless of whether they’re fantastical or fact. 

“People use scary stories for a purpose,” he told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. “They use them to protect sacred places such as cemeteries [and] burial grounds. Holy sites are usually associated with monsters, demons, ghosts … and I’m sure that was done quite on purpose, so that these places would be protected.”

Here, four Indigenous storytellers recite a scary tale and share a little about the meaning behind these chilling yarns. 

Stories keep kids safe

Richard Van Camp has published 26 books, including novels, short story collections and comics. (William Au Photography)

Author Richard Van Camp found out at a young age that there are things in the forest that might not be safe for children, even when they’re surrounded by friends and the warmth of a blazing campfire. The bush is certainly somewhere a child should never venture alone, as one of Van Camp’s friends found out on a camping trip many years ago. 

“These stories are designed to keep us safe,” he said. “There’s a reason elders and knowledge keepers are sharing these with you. … So be careful. Be careful on the land, on the water, be respectful, do your best, do no harm and hopefully no harm will come to you.”

What did Van Camp’s young friend see peeking through the branches? Whatever it was, it has kept the Tlicho Dene author away from the forest — even as an adult. 

Unreserved4:25Richard Van Camp’s first experience of soul-throttling terror

Tlicho Dene author Richard Van Camp tells the story of when he was boy and a campfire ghost-storytelling session in Wood Buffalo National Park went terrifyingly wrong.

‘Our ancestors are there’

Julie Pellissier-Lush says the ghost of the Witch of Port-la-Joye is a melancholy figure that can sometimes be spotted on Prince Edward Island, looking for her lost love. (Julie Pellissier-Lush)

Julie Pellissier-Lush believes ghost stories help connect Indigenous peoples to their ancestors.

“Maybe there’s still something that outlasts our shells, that outlasts the time constraints that our bodies give us here on this earth,” said the Mi’kmaw writer and poet laureate of Prince Edward Island, after sharing the tragic tale of the Witch of Port Lajoie.

“Having that sort of connection with the ghost stories, I think, also lets us be aware that our ancestors are there,” she said.

“They might not all walk the shore looking for a lost love, but they’re there in spirit, guiding us and protecting us and looking after us.”

Unreserved7:14The Witch of Port-la-Joye

Mi’kmaq poet Julie Pellissier-Lush tells the chilling tale of the Witch of Port-la-Joye.

A lesson about greed

A black and white photo of Indigenous musician Isaac Murdoch.
Isaac Murdoch shares a gruesome tale of the feared Wendigo. (Submitted by Isaac Murdoch)

Anishinaabe storyteller Isaac Murdoch’s creepy tale of the icy-hearted Wendigo spirit has an important message as well: Living out on the land can be brutal and hard. To survive, people need to share.

“When we don’t give offerings, when we don’t give to those spirits … it affects the natural laws and it can cause starvation. And when starvation starts to happen, that’s when those bad spirits come to prey on the people,” Murdoch explained.

“That’s how we keep those bad spirits away, by always giving our offerings, by always sharing what we have with everybody,” he said. “The medicine we seek is in the offerings that we give.”

Unreserved12:12Isaac Murdoch’s wendigo story

Anishinaabe artist Isaac Murdoch shares a terrifying true story of two men and their encounter with a wendigo, a hungry, greedy, insatiable monster.

Mending what was broken

Artie Martin is a member of Six Nations Investigating Paranormal Encounters. (Submitted by Arthur Martin)

Since joining the group Six Nations Investigating Paranormal Encounters (S.N.I.P.E), Artie Martin has seen some things he can’t explain — like what looked like the ghost of a nun at the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont. 

Martin, who works for an immersion language school on Six Nations of the Grand River, said that in his Haudenosaunee culture, it’s understood that the spirit world is separated from us by a veil — and sometimes, it’s possible to see through that veil.

“It’s as thin as a leaf,” he said. “If you ever put a leaf up to the sun, you can see some holes in it.”

Though Martin isn’t sure if he believes in the paranormal, he does believe in rebuilding his culture. Ghost hunting at the Mohawk Institute has only emphasized the importance of his day job. 

“There is the pain and suffering of the individual,” Martin said of the events that took place at the Mohawk Institute. “But the loss of culture and language … where I work … we deal every day with that loss.”

Unreserved10:35The night Artie Martin went ghost hunting at the Mohawk Institute Residential School

Artie Martin is a Haudenosaunee videographer. His first outing with Six Nations Investigating Paranormal Encounters (S.N.I.P.E) at the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., was chilling and left him with many unanswered questions.

Written and produced by Laura Beaulne-Stuebing.


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