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by Renee
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research paper on windigo psychosis being a culture-bound syndrome

This paper discusses and examines culture bound syndromes and includes a case study example of a culture bound syndrome, Windigo Psychosis.  Culture bound syndromes are special illnesses that are bound to a certain culture/culture area; they are found all over the world.  Windigo Psychosis is found among the Algonkian-speaking Native Americans in northeast Canada.  Windigo Psychosis generally manifests itself with the nearly insatiable hunger for human flesh, and it often drives its victims to commit acts of murder and cannibalism.  There are many ways to look at culture bound syndromes.  For this paper, the two views that are used are the exclusionist view and the inclusionist view; each complements the other in their beliefs.  According to the inclusionist view, all illness exist on the same field, but are either more culturally based or more biologically based.  According to the exclusionist view, culture bound syndromes are a specific and unique set of illnesses that are like none other.  This paper uses Windigo Psychosis as a case study and examines it using both views.

Medical anthropology can be a very complex field of anthropology; it is holistic, meaning that it takes into consideration many parts of the whole, as is anthropology in general.  Medical anthropology, according to the Society for Medical Anthropology is a subfield of anthropology that draws upon many other subfields such as linguistic and social in order to better understand the things that really affect heath, healthcare, and well being in an area since the state of a person or body is not determined or influenced by only one factor.  These certain aspects that influence or can have an effect on health and well being are the distribution of illnesses, the culture implications that come with an illness, prevention and treatment of an illness, healing systems, and the cultural elements that help to make up and define the illness (No Author 2009).
There are many topics that can be studied within medical anthropology.  Not just an illness that manifests its form in the physical body, but also those that manifest themselves in the ‘mental body’.  Such examples of these types of mental illnesses are culture bound syndromes.

Culture bound syndromes can simply be stated as syndromes that are specific to or found only in a certain culture area.  Janzen states that culture bound syndromes are “specific to a particular community, society, or cultural tradition” (Janzen 2002:203).  Rubel states that a culture bound syndrome is any type of illness that is recognized by a culture and treated in a culturally specific way (Rubel 1977).  Culture bound syndromes are also known to have a certain set or range of symbolic meanings; including moral, social, and/or psychological that make sense for both the victim of the syndrome and also those who are around them.  It can also be inferred that culture bound syndromes have imbedded in them; recurrent patterns of public behavior that encapsulates some of today’s core cultural themes and values.  Culture bound syndromes also can often be linked to wider concerns that the victim has, such as those concerning the community, environment, or even supernatural forces.  Each of these concerns is often-times held as the reason for the culture bound syndrome to manifest in the first place.  The culture bound syndrome itself becomes a language of distress in which certain types of psychological or social disorders are expressed, such as the eating of human flesh (Helman 2007).  Another good definition of culture bound syndrome is “syndromes form which members of a particular group claim to suffer from and for which their culture provides an etiology, a diagnosis, preventative measures, and regimes of healing” (Rubel 1977:130)
Culture bound syndromes are important for societies.  Within many societies, they play the role of expressing and resolving anti-social emotions, conflicts, or behaviors in a way that is socially acceptable and often-times patterned way (Helman 2007).  Some well known examples of culture bound syndromes demonstrate this function quite well.  For example with Amok in the Arctic culture area, there is a high value attached to not showing any type of emotions.  Human beings do have natural emotions, and it can be hard to stifle these for a very long time and so sometimes a person will ‘break’ and go into a fit of Amok.  This is viewed as a culturally acceptable release by the Arctic people, and often time it manifests itself in a very patterned and predictable way.
For the remainder of this paper, the culture bound syndrome under examination will be Windigo Psychosis.  Like Amok, it too can be seen as a loosely culturally-acceptable release from the pressures of life within the Algonkian-speaking Native American society and/or culture.  Therefore, the culture bound syndrome known as Windigo Psychosis can be explained and ultimately better understood using a model of terms set forth by Carr, which are very similar to those set forth by Arthur Kleinman to describe other aspects of Medical anthropology.

Windigo Psychosis is generally speaking, a culture bound syndrome that is marked with the desire and pure urge to feed on human flesh (Hay 1971); cannibalism to the extreme.  Cases have shown that people are most often affected by Windigo Psychosis in the middle of the winter season when the fear of isolation and starving to death are at their highest.
Windigo Psychosis is found only in the Algonkian speaking groups in Northeastern Canada.  For this culture, the idea of food and providing food is a major consideration to all the members of the society, and there was a major fear of failing to provide food for not just themselves, but for their families as well, as well as being lost or isolated out in the forest during winter which is a situation that would certainly lead to death.
Not only do the values that are held as highly important for the Algonkina-speaking groups play a large role in the development of Windigo Psychosis, myths also play a large role.  There are a series of Chippewa myths which feature the windigo as the villain.  For the Chippewa of Wisconsin, the windigo is also a cannibal giant who is often times a normal man on the inside but are covered with ice on the outside (Barnouw 1977).  This could be an allusion at the fear of the cold in the dead of winter and the fear of isolation and being left out in the cold.  Most of the myths from the Chippewa have some character that is to fight the windigo; usually the character is not one that you would normally expect.  For example, one myth tells how no one in the village is strong enough to fight the windigo except for one little girl (Barnouw 1977).  This could also relate directly back to the fear of isolation in the winter, and the way that one must fight the cold ‘being’ in order to survive.  For the Algonkians, the windigo is also a cannibal giant; the windigo is also one of many spirits who wander around the forest.  However, unlike the Chippewa myth, the windigo here has a heart of ice.  Again, this could have the same relation to the fear of the cold and dying as a result of winter.  It seems as if winter may be the antagonist in most of the stories and possibly even the mentality; it is winter for which everything dies.  There is also commonly a fight that occurs between the windigo and the person whom the windigo is trying to either eat or posses (Teicher 1960).  For the Algonkians, the windigo can either posses a person and cause them to become a cannibal or the windigo can simply wait and attack the person, turning them into a windigo (Brightman 1983).  The possession and loss of control over one’s acts is the most common belief of the cause of Windigo Psychosis among the Algonkians (Teicher 1960).  This could be related back to a possible core fear of the Algonkians, the loss of control over your person and your emotions.
         There have been many examinations of Windigo Psychosis, especially in the area of development.  Many scholars and researchers are curious as to why someone would develop a syndrome or psychosis that would incorporate such heinous and anti-social acts such as cannibalism.  One reason for the development of Windigo Psychosis is based on nutrition.  Some believe that the loss of animal fats and proteins during the winter are linked to the development of this syndrome and the desire to eat human flesh, and it is true that many become windigos during times of food deprivation (McGee 1972).  It has been noted that when people are lacking certain nutrients, they will often crave what they need, such as the speculation for pica in pregnant women.  There is also another reasoning that has been suggested that was mentioned earlier; the need for a social outlet.  It has been shown that in the Iroquois there is a practice of consuming captured enemies; cannibalism, that is institutionalized and culturally acceptable.  It is suggested that there are no Windigo Psychosis-like problems in that culture because there is an outlet for one to release those urges.  Unlike the Iroquois, the Northern Algonkians have no institutionalized outlet to relieve the urges or impulses of cannibalism (Hay 1971).  Because of this, Windigo Psychosis is present in the culture and ‘attacks’ when the people are at their weakest mental state; in the winter when resources they need to live are scarce.
         There are also many other reasons that are believed to contribute to the development of Windigo Psychosis.  They include the need to preserve a relationship with a loved one or someone who has been lost, there are cases where a mother will eat her children if she knows that the group will die; acquiring some part or characteristic of the person, such as courage or strength; or to fix something with someone, if you consume the person, then you have ultimately won and the problems can no longer be present (Hay 1971).
         A list of signs and symptoms have been compiled that can warn for the upcoming event that someone will turn into a windigo or already is a windigo.  Some symptoms include melancholia, anorexia, insomnia, desire for human flesh, and hallucinations during which the people who are around him or her are seen as wild animals (Hay 1971). 

         Illnesses can be seen from many different angles and analyzed from many different points of view.  With that, we know that there are many different views from which to approach an illness.
         Two views that can be used are the exclusionist view and the inclusionist view.  To state is simply, the exclusionist view says that culture bound syndromes are a unique group of disorders that are different from ‘real’ disorders, or those such as cancer that are very biologically based and more physical; they are somehow culture-free (Helman 2007).  The inclusionist view says that all diseases and illnesses can be put onto a continuum with one end being more cultural and the other being more biological.  The inclusionist view incorporates social, psychological, and physical aspects to create one whole image.
         The psychologist Joseph Carr gave a name to a set of definitions that helped to show these two views.  By using the set of terms Arthur Kleinman coined, which pertained to disease versus illness, Carr developed an explanatory principle for culture bound syndromes.  Carr’s model is an inclusionistic view.  He states that culture bound syndromes are driven by and shaped by culture just as the term illness is shaped and driven by culture according to Kleinman; and that a disease or syndrome cannot exist without culture.  However, on the opposite side, there are culture free syndromes which are not driven or shaped by culture but rather nature, just as the term disease is not shaped by culture according to Kleinman. 

         One of the most well known cases of Windigo Psychosis is that of Swift Runner.  In the winter of 1879, Swift Runner was hanged for murdering and eating eight members of his family.  Swift Runner was convinced that he had been possessed by a windigo.  As the story goes, Swift Runner was proud of the fact that he had been the only member of his family who did not starve to death during the very harsh winter.  Apparently, a few priests became suspicious because Swift Runner did not look malnourished, as he should have if everyone else had died from starvation.  Swift Runner told the priests that he was being tormented by an evil spirit, the windigo.  The Priests did nothing immediately.  Later, police were called and at the site where the family had lived, they found bits of human bones and flesh.  Finally Swift Runner confessed to killing them, but still was convinced that he had been under the control of the windigo (Hannon 2008).
         If we look at the case of Swift Runner, we can analyze it using the inclusionst and the exclusionist views.  Beginning with the exclusionist view, providing that we believe that Swift Runner really was affected by Windigo Psychosis, we could say that yes, Windigo Psychosis is a culture bound syndrome and culture bound syndromes are a unique set of illnesses, mental illnesses usually that are different from other types of illnesses (Hahn 1995).  Using the inclusionists view, the case of Swift Runner can be analyzed again, but through a different lens.  With this view, we could put culture bound syndromes, or more specifically Windigo Psychosis on a continuum with another illness such as cancer.

Cancer is a more biologically-based illness while culture bound syndromes are more culturally-based illness and are bound by cultural ideas.  According to Engel and Hahn
“All episodes of human suffering have cultural, biological, and psychodynamic dimensions and can be placed on a nature-culture [biological] continuum.  Some conditions tend to be more cultural while others tend to be more biological, but each of them shares all three dimensions” (Helman 2007:271).
Windigo Psychosis is a culture bound syndrome that is bound by the cultural ideas that are associated with the cultural area that it is prevalent in, not merely the natural environment.

         In conclusion, medical anthropology is a subfield of anthropology which takes into consideration the many aspects that make up healthcare.  For example, the way that a culture views illness and the way that the culture treats an illness affects the healing process and etc.  Medical anthropologists study many aspects of healthcare and illness, including mental illnesses.  Culture bound syndromes are one of the topics that is studied in medical anthropology.  A culture bound syndrome is a certain illness that is manifested in a certain culture and is treated a specific way within that culture.  Culture bound syndromes have specific patterns that reflect the culture in which they are seen.  Windigo Psychosis is one of the many culture bound syndromes.  A victim of Windigo Psychosis will have an almost insatiable need to consume human flesh, as well as a number of other symptoms.  Culture bound syndromes can be examined using different views.  Two of these views are the inclusionist view and the exclusionist view.  The exclusionist view says that culture bound syndromes are a specific set of illnesses that are completely different from other illnesses.  The inclusionist views says that culture bound syndromes can be put on a scale with all other illnesses and can be ‘measured’ by how culturally or biologically based they are.


Barnouw, Victor
1977          Wisconsin Chippewa Myths and Tales and Their Relation to Chippewa Life.  The University of Wisconsin Press.

Brightman, Robert A.
1983          On Windigo Psychosis.  Current Anthropology 24(1): 120-125.

Hahn, Robert A.
1995          Sickness and Healing:  An Anthropological Perspective.  Yale University Press, London.

Hannon, Andrew
2008          Evil Spirit Made Man Eat Family:  A Look Back at Swift Runner.  Sun Media.  Accessed at http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/WeirdNews/2008/07/20/6213011-sun.html on May 1, 2010.

Hay, Thomas H.
1971.          The Windigo Psychosis:  Psychodynamic, Cultural, and Social Factors in Aberrant Behavior.  American Anthropologist 73(1): 1-19.

Helman, Cecil G
2007          Culture, Health, and Illness. 5th ed.  Oxford University Pr, New York.

Janzen, James M
2002          The Social Fabric of Health:  An Introduction to Medical Anthropology.  McGraw-Hill New York.

McGee, Harold Franklin Jr.
1972          Windigo Psychosis.  American Anthropologist 74(112): 244-246.

Rubel, A.J
1977          The Epidemiology of a Folk Illness:  Susto in Hispanic America.  Culture, Disease, and Healing:  Studies in Medical Anthropology.  Edited by. D. Landy.  Macmillan, London.

Teicher, Morton I
1960          Windigo Psychosis:  A Study of a Relationship between Belief and Behavior among the Indians of Northeastern Canada.  American Ethnological Society, Seattle WA.

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