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Hunting The Wendigo (Part 2)

Posted May 03 2009 10:38pm

Continued from Part I

Wenpos[1] One wendigo killing case for which extensive legal documentation exists occurred in northeastern Manitoba in 1906. When a trader reported rumours of a wendigo killing to a Northwest Mounted Police officer who, in turn, told his superiors, a formal investigation was launched. A patrol was sent out to Sandy Lake and an RCMP constable questioned the local Sucker clan of the area. The Sucker clan was part of the Anishinaabe nation (the Sucker fish was their totem or doodem ). Despite a long history of dealing with traders, the band had little real experience with the Canadian legal system or the RCMP and freely admitted that their "ogema" (a term for shaman or medicine man) had killed a wendigo in the previous year. Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow (more commonly known as Jack Fiddler) had been the medicine man of the Sucker people for decades. Not only was he their chief negotiator with nearby tribes, but he was legendary for his ability to confront wendigos and protect his people from harm. The incident that brought him to the RCMP' s attention occured when his brother' s daughter-in-law Wahsakapeequay (wife of his nephew Thomas) became delirious and needed to be restrained. Since delirium was one of the signs of wendigo possession, Jack Fiddler and his brother Pesequan (Joseph Fiddler) strangled her with a cord while others held her down.

The members of the Sucker clan were devastated when the NWMP took Joseph and Jack Fiddler into custody on June 15, 1907. It probably didn' t help that none of them spoke English and that the police also ordered the group to abandon their practice of taking multiple wives as well. Both men were taken to the Norway House detachment and the constables became increasingly confused about what should be done with them. The Toronto Globe ran a headline titled "Dark Deeds of Keewatin Indians - They Strangle and Burn Sick Friends" but a senior NWMP superintendent recommended that the entire prosecution be dropped. Not only were both men elderly but Jack Fiddler was in poor health and his condition began to deteriorate in custody. On September 30, after 15 weeks in custody, Jack Fiddler walked away from the detachment and entered the bush. He was later found dead after he hanged himself in the woods.

Joseph Fiddler went to trial on October 7 at Norway House.He had no lawyer (Canadian law at the time had no provision for defense counsel even for capital offenses) and spoke no English. The senior NWMP superintendent acted as judge despite his own involvement in the case and the Crown prosecutor was a Liberal appointee. While the Department of Indian Affairs sent an "observer", he played no role in the trial.The six-man jury was made up exclusively of local White men who were extremely uncomfortable with the decision they were forced to make.; Since the participants in the case made it clear that Jack Fiddler had killed other wendigos in the past, the court was determined to made an example of Joseph Fiddler in keeping with the Canadian government' s "get tough" policy over criminal offenses that were considered justified by tribal custom. When the jury handed down a verdict of guilt with a recommendation for mercy, the judge sentenced Fiddler to death.

Although the sentence was later commuted, this made little difference to the ailing Joseph Fiddler. He was transferred to the infirmary at Stony Mountain Prison near Winnipeg, Manitoba in January, 1908. At the same time, NWMP constables went to the Sucker camp and told the band about the conviction (they were also ordered to "mend their ways" and abandon "pagan" practices).Despite the efforts of activists to free Fiddler (including three of the six jurors that convicted him), the Ministry of Justice and senior officials in the NWMP opposed releasing him. Joseph Fiddler' s pleas for release were ignored and his condition deteriorated. He died of tuberculosis on September 1. The letter from Canada' s Governor General ordering his immediate release arrived at the prison three days later.

The Fiddler case represents the last known Wendigo killing to be prosecuted under Canadian law. As Algonquian bands came into greater contact with the Canadian legal system, the old customs were abandoned (or at least modified to avoid prosecution). Although cases of cannibalism have been found around the world, there have been almost no recorded cases of Wendigo psychosis in the past century (with virtually no references in professional journals). What little available literature there is on the Wendigo legend has focused on Algonquian folklore and culture rather than the actual value of the Wendigo psychosis diagnosis for mental health professionals.

Legends about the Wendigo continue to be told and have increasingly found their way into popular culture. Horror novels, movies, television programs, video games, and graphic novels have featured Wendigos as characters (with little resemblance to the actual legends). Along with vampires, werewolves and zombies, wendigos seem destined to be part of a tradition of horror that will continue to frighten anyone walking in the northern woods alone.

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