Contesting Cannibal Wihtiko:

Common Ground on the Edge of Humanity

Book manuscript under advance contract to McGill-Queen's University Press

General Description

Two prominent historians, David Cannadine and Brad Gregory, have recently contended, in very different contexts, that history is distorted by overemphasis on human difference and division across time and space. This problem has been acute in studies of NativeNewcomer relations, where exaggeration of Native pre-contact stability and post-contact change further emphasized Native-Newcomer difference. Although questioned in economic, social and political spheres, emphasis on Native-Newcomer cultural difference persists, and remains entangled in contests over moral and political power, authenticity, as well as questions of truth and reconciliation.

To investigate this problem, I examine the Algonquian wihtiko (windigo), an apparent exemplar of Native-Newcomer difference and division. With a focus on the James Bay Cree, I first probe the wihtiko phenomenon’s Algonquian origins and meanings. I then examine post-1635 Newcomer encounters with this phenomenon: from the bush to public opinion and law, especially between 1815 and 1914, and in post-1820 academia. Given the historical depth of this study as well as the intercultural and interdisciplinary nature of the contexts and questions, my study draws from very diverse archives, ethnographies, oral traditions, and bodies of scholarly literature.

I show how the cannibal wihtiko evolved from Algonquian attempts to understand and control rare but extreme mental and moral failures in famine contexts, on the edge of humanity. Although it attained mythical proportions, fears of wihtiko possession, transformation and violence remained real enough to provoke pre-emptive killings even of family members. Wihtiko beliefs also influenced Algonquian manifestations and interpretations of generic mental and moral failures. Consciously or not, others used it to scapegoat, manipulate, or kill. Newcomers threatened by moral and mental failures attributed to the wihtiko often took Algonquian beliefs and practices seriously, even espousing them. Yet Algonquian wihtiko behaviours, beliefs and practices sometimes presented Newcomers with another layer of questions about mental and moral incompetence. Collisions sometimes arose when they contested, discounted, misconstrued or asserted control over Algonquian beliefs and practices.

For post-colonial critics, colonial Newcomer responses to Algonquian wihtiko beliefs and practices have raised a third layer of questions about intellectual and moral incompetence. Yet such critics have sometimes also misconstrued these earlier attempts to understand and control the wihtiko, or attributed an apparent lack of scholarly consensus to Western cultural incompetence or inability to grasp the wihtiko.

In contrast, my study of wihtiko phenomena and concepts reveals deeper commonalities and continuities. This intercultural and historical common ground is often obscured by the complex evolution of Natives’ and Newcomers’ struggles to understand and control the wihtiko. Yet hidden in these very struggles and the wihtiko itself is a persistent shared conviction that reducing others to objects of power signals mental and moral failure. The wihtiko reveals cultural differences, changes and divisions, but it exemplifies more fundamental commonalities and continuities. Ultimately, contestations with and about the cannibal wihtiko reveal significant common ground on (at and about) the edge of humanity. This finding has important implications for contemporary issues, especially truth and reconciliation efforts. 

© 2020 by Cecil Chabot

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