(To clarify, this is the 1999 version of Ravenous, not the 2017 zombie Ravenous, which I have not watched because I’m goddamned sick of zombies).
Since I’ve re-watched Ravenous, I’ve become re-fascinated with the Native American Wendigo. For those who aren’t up on American cryptids, the Wendigo is a vicious, cannibalistic, preternatural being. Although the myth of the Wendigo is believed to originate with the First Nations Algonquian tribes, there are many variations and at least 24 spelling variations (the Wechuge, however, is a distinct Northwest Pacific tribal myth, though they do share similar traits. Don’t worry. You won’t be tested on this).
However, whether the Wendigo is told from the Cree, Objibwe, or many other Algonquian-speaking tribal traditions, the central characteristics of the Wendigo are the same: they are malevolent, cannibalistic and insatiable. They are also strongly associated with winter, famine and consequential starvation, which is why they are often portrayed as being much larger than men, yet extremely emaciated. With every feeding, it grows in proportion to the size of its last victim, but the larger it becomes, the more flesh it needs, hence its insatiable hunger. No matter how much it consumes, no matter how many lives it destroys, the Wendigo’s only motivation is more.
In essence, the Wendigo is the supernatural archetype of greed.
And while the Wendigo can be a legit monster, in other traditions, a man who is consumed with greed can become a literal, monstrous Wendigo, or he can simply become possessed by its spirit. In psychological terms, this cool little crazy is known as Wendigo psychosis, in which a man (unfortunately, I can’t find any detailed instances of it afflicting a woman, though I wish I could) develops, amongst less interesting symptoms, a frenzied, uncontrollable urge to devour human flesh, typically caused from breaking the monolithic taboo of starvation-induced cannibalism. Because it’s far more honorable to starve. I guess. This is a very controversial, “culture-bound” (also controversial) syndrome, and if you want to see a bunch of anthropologists and psychologists throw down–and who wouldn’t?–ask them if Wendigo psychosis is real or fake. I suppose there is a case to be made on either side, but if you are one of those people who either likes to feel superior or masochistically harsh your own buzz (freak), you can find plenty of very dry, scholar-y buzz-harsh dissertations online.
For the rest of us, there is Swift Runner.
Swift Runner was a Cree Indian who staggered into at a Catholic mission in the spring of 1878. He told the priest a heartbreaking story of how his entire family–mother in law, wife and six kids–died during the harsh Alberta winter from starvation. Less tragic, though, was that Swift Runner didn’t look as if he missed too many meals during those four months of alleged famine. Oh, and according to Cree gossip, there was plenty of healthy game that winter…and besides, his cabin was a mere 25 miles away from emergency food supplies. The final straw was when they caught him trying to lead a herd of potential snack-kids into the forest. So the priest dimed out Swift Runner to the authorities and he led them to a big ol’ pile of marrow-sucked bones. It wasn’t his fault. He got possessed by the Wendigo from that one time he had to eat his dead friend and was overcome (7 times) with a maddening, voracious hunger for human flesh–a clear-cut case of Wendigo psychosis. Also, he drank. A lot. And he was such a mean 6’3, 200 pound drunk that the other Cree kicked his ass out, which is why they had to stay in a cabin. Apparently, Wendigo psychosis is some nasty shit. On the brighter side, the hanging cured him.
Wendigo vs. Wètiko
Unfortunately, most Wendigos aren’t literally cannibalistic…and no, that’s not a typo. Don’t get me wrong; I am hardly a defender of people-eaters…but even the hungriest Wendigo can only consume so many humans–the Wètikos have been known to consume entire nations. The one trait they do share is insanity: Wendigo psychosis drives a human to become obsessed with literally eating human flesh (or they become possessed by a supernatural Wendigo–tomātoes, tomahtoes); Wètiko disease is a disease of exploitation. Or, as the late author Jack Forbes explained in Columbus and Other Cannibals*, “Cannibalism is the consuming of another’s life for one’s own private purpose or profit,” which in and of itself was insane. Wètikos can seem almost invincible; instead of flesh, they gain their strength from money and privilege. Like the Wendigo, they are insatiable–the more they take, the more they want and eventually, they’re going to want what you have, rationalize why you don’t deserve it and fuck your basic needs…they’re going to take it. After that, they’ll still want more and resent you for not having it to take. The Wètiko will exploit, violate, abuse, lie, cheat, steal and even kill in their mad quest to conquer and possess, destroying everything in their path–land, animals, humans–but it is still never, ever enough.
Today’s Wètikos incude Jeff Bezos–on track to become the first trillionaire but slave-drives underpaid workers and obsessively drives thousands of independent retailers out of business. Right-to-Deathers, whose mask-free liberty is more important than others’ health–Wètiko Karens. Pharmaceutical CEOs, who quadruple the cost of insulin to justify their $40 million a year salary–incurable Wètikos. A leader who cares more about the economy than hundreds of thousands of lives–currently the worst Wètiko in the fucking world.
But Wètiko disease is highly contagious and spreads rapidly. Wètiko madness can present as corrupt political systems, unjust laws, racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, income inequality, authoritarianism, nationalism, terrorism and/or colonization…Manifest Destiny for example. Which finally brings us to Ravenous.
Wètiko: the Poster Child of Manifest Destiny
“Manifest Destiny…Westward expansion…thousands of gold-hungry Americans will travel over these mountains, on their way to new lives…passing right through here. This country is seeking to be whole . . . Stretching out its arms . . . and consuming all it can. And we merely follow–Cannibal Colonel Ives, whose irony is surpassed only by his appetite.
In terms of sheer Wètiko-ness, Manifest Destiny —the idea that white folks have a divine right (because God. And whiteness) to snatch up the whole entire country comes second only to the divine right to own human beings (same). Just as Colonel Ives happily and indiscriminately consumes humans, Manifest Destiny happily and indiscriminately consumed all in its path–flora, fauna and many, many, many more humans than Ives could ever dream of eating. Ravenous opens at the end of the Spanish War, in which James Polk did a George W., lied about a Mexican attack to justify killing 58,000 Mexican citizens and stealing 7 states worth of land, some of which they hoped to sneak some slaves in…which, on top of everything else, set things in motion for the Civil War (both Lincoln and Grant voted against the Mexican-American war because it was unjust and a dick move besides).
At that point, everybody–and especially land speculators–said, “Well, might as well take the rest, then!” Their justification? Pretty much the same as the justification for all colonialism, war and genocide: 1) Americans (white people) and its institutions were innately superior, because God, 2) it was their duty to bring Christianity and institutions across the country, shove it down the throat of any other existing peoples and if they resisted, God is okay with driving them away and killing them because they are inferior, anyway (not white), 3) taking over the land all the way to the Pacific was American destiny, because God…pretty much the same reasons for every fucked up things white people have done throughout the ages. I guess God makes for a handy circular argument…and a Supreme Wètiko.
Captain Boyd doesn’t make it that far, but he is sent somewhere in the BFE region of the Sierra Nevadas to an outpost of Misfit Soldiers as punishment for cowardice in battle…just after he also is given a medal for superhuman bravery. Boyd joins a motley crew of benign losers, but it is a community. Even wannabe-killer-soldier Private Reich is relatively benevolent. All is well until a stranger appears, with a fantastic story of starvation, helpless cannibalism and escape from a wagon-mate turned evil…very much as Alfred J. Packer did, upon who Colonel Ives is based. And Packer wasn’t benevolent. At all.
Next: a mega-spoiler discussion of Ravenous, Part II–Ives, Alfred J. Packer, Manifest destiny and, of course, Wètikos.