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UPDATED: Sept. 19 2021, at 12:30 a.m.
Among the Anishinaabe people, there is a terrible haunt.
With dizzying blizzards and vicious threats of frostbite, the winter months of the Great Lakes turn fruitful environments into wastelands. The howl of winds sweep over valleys that were pregnant with life just months before and dares anyone, or anything, to suggest an existence beyond the cold grip of frost. Where there was birth, death now takes residence and summer songs are replaced by the groans and echoes of empty stomachs.
Adding to the sad soliloquy are whispers of a gluttonous monster. Between nervous exhales, timid murmurs of the dreadful Windigo travel across the frozen landscape.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer describes in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” during the time of year appropriately named the Hunger Moon, stories about the Windigo warn of a monster that stalks through the north forest looking to kill and eat the unfortunate humans it stumbles upon. There’s a much deeper meaning to this story, however, than to just deliver a mere spook to its audience.
In the generations before our modern era, starvation was apt to knock on the door of the First People during the ghastly Hunger Moon. Snowfall would destroy food resources and hunters would find no game, leaving families with nothing but desperation to stomach at the end of each day. During times of such scarcity, it went without saying that greed was the forbidden sin.
For those lost in the confusing depths of isolation and desperation, it wasn’t uncommon for rumors of cannibalism to flit between families. It was by this heinous act that a Windigo was made: By eating one of their own, an Anishinaabe person was transformed into a tall, gaunt beast damned to wander in starvation for eternity. Characterized by insatiable hunger, the Windigo suffers from greater cravings with each meal it consumes. Forever lost in a cycle of longing, it goes eternity unable to satisfy its hunger or quench its thirst. As the legend goes, so desperate is the Windigo for more that it has chewed off and eaten its own lips trying to momentarily appease its appetite. As we can imagine, however, this unfortunate act too must’ve only made the beast hungrier.
With our modern conveniences, we’re lucky not to have death knocking on our door with the turn of the seasons. Regrettably, I don’t believe this means that gone are the days of the Windigo; regardless of our innovations, it seems humanity’s demons always evolve alongside us.
Reflecting on this tale, I feel it was never cannibalism that truly defined the Windigo. The root of its existence extends beyond gnarly teeth and pale skin. The real monster that the Anishinaabe are warning of here is greed and over-consumption. It’s harboring infinite desire, and then all the things a person is willing to do in an effort to indulge it. Leave simpler ghost stories to be told around the campfire — this one is for the adults in the room. Where there is humanity there is greed, and where there is greed, there is the Windigo.
Our modern-day consumption habits have me fearful that we may be unearthing this monster once again.
I hear its growl as I pace the aisles of the grocery store; its cold breath chills my spine as I pop open the doors of the freezer section each week. I find myself surrounded by plastic-wrapped meats and meals, lost in the kaleidoscope of colorful packaging. There’s enough for today, enough for tomorrow, enough for all time, so it seems. And so I take more than I need and with it all I take packaging that will long outlast me in its time on Earth.
I could smell the rotting flesh on its breath last weekend as I walked down Fifth Avenue. Looking around, I had to watch my step on the New York City sidewalks to avoid the clutter of discarded coffee cups and the other miscellaneous junk of a city spiraling in its consumerism. Bags in tow, I held my breath as I tried to contemplate how I’d fit my new clothes in my already cramped closet.
I fear I even felt one brush by me on campus a few weeks ago. During a conversation about future job opportunities and varying salaries, I couldn’t help but feel its foreboding presence. I swear, it must’ve only been right around the corner.
However many times I think I’ve felt a Windigo presence, there was only one time I know for certain that I saw the real thing. The sighting happened during a bad thunderstorm a few months ago while I was home in Florida. I was passing the time satiating myself on Netflix, watching episode after episode to pass the time. I had been indulging myself for hours in entertainment when the power flickered off.
By the light of the moon shining through my window, staring back at me through the reflection of my screen were two beady eyes and a face devoid of emotion. As I tilted my head, it tilted its own.
Moments later, the electricity was back and I resumed my episode.
CLARIFICATION: Sept. 19, 2021
A previous version of this article did not properly cite Robin Wall Kimmerer's book “Braiding Sweetgrass." The article has been updated to reflect this addition.
Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column “The Experiment of Life” appears on alternate Mondays.
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