The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.—from The History of Magic in North America.
Rick Etcitty—whose last name would have been better written as Atsidii, the Navajo word for "silversmith"—stared at the words in his history book in disbelief.
He shouldn't have been surprised, he knew. The writer of the book was some random white woman from Europe, not a man or woman from America who had grown up knowing the ways of the Diné, the People. And white people could be amazingly stupid when it came to Natives. Either they saw the ways of Natives as the product of ignorant superstition or as signifying a special spiritual tie to the earth and to nature. Either way, it involved white people telling Natives who they really were instead asking and bothering to listen. Rick was already heartily sick of this, and he was only twelve.
Of course, the same writer insisted that Ilvermorny was the American magic school, and of course she was wrong. There wasn't one American magic school; there were hundreds. There were Sunni and Shi'i schools in Michigan for Muslim kids; inner-city magic schools of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami; the rival technomancy schools in Redmond and Silicon Valley; the astronomy school in Houston; the Quaker magic school in Philadelphia, which dated from colonial times; the Mormon school in Provo, Utah; the schools in Nebraska, Indiana and Alabama for children of ultra-conservative Christian parents who desperately needed reassurance that their children weren't demonic or possessed; the schools for blind witches and wizards in Boston and Boise and the ones for deaf (and Deaf) witches and wizards in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. The Amish didn't bother with magic schools at all, saying that there weren't enough magical children among them to make a school worthwhile; masters taught apprentices their skills, instead. It didn't matter how many (or how few) children there were in a school; people liked to stay within their own communities and faiths, teaching magic in their own way.
What whites could not seem to grasp was the concept of not teaching magic.
It seemed simple, Rick reflected as he doodled a lopsided daisy on his desk. The Diné did not see magic the way the whites did. As near as he could understand, they saw it as…oh, a talent, like being able to dance. According to his grandfather, Joe Bekis, (Bik'is, Rick's mind supplied, 'friend' or 'brother'), who was a Hataałii, the purpose of spiritual power was to maintain Hózhǫ́—balance, beauty and harmony. Without harmony, a person sickened, without and within. What the Diné termed "magic" was closer to what the whites called "black magic," a disruption that threw the whole world out of balance, causing suffering, pain and death. Didn't the long, long history of Dark Lords teach whites how true that was?
But sadly, facts didn't matter. The magical government—and oh, Rick's father and mother had plenty of stories about the policies of Uncle Merlin being no fairer than those of Uncle Sam!—had one idea lodged in its metaphorical head: for the safety of everyone around them, magical children have to learn magic.
Rick's mother, Ruth, had managed to evade mandatory magical education, to the everlasting relief of Shicheii Bekis. But his father, Jim, was the child of a hand trembler—a shaman who diagnosed illness and tried to identify and heal its spiritual cause—and he, like Rick, had been hauled off to Phoenix to learn to do magic the white man's way. Shades of the cursed "Indian schools."
Father spent two years at this school before he finally got himself expelled, Rick thought. His father had said that he had been forced to learn and to become things he was not to survive…and that he still felt out of balance. Shicheii Bekis had sung an Anaʼí Ndááʼ, an Enemy Way ceremony, for Father to restore balance and to banish the effects of evil from his life. Rick thought that his father was still suffering, but maybe it had helped; Shicheii Bekis had said, sighing, that healing often took time, and that healing wounded souls often took the longest time of all.
If this school—Rick refused to dignify it with its name even in his thoughts, as it did not deserve to be honored or remembered—had forced his father to believe that skinwalkers were good, he could understand the problem.
Skinwalkers—those who went on all fours, to give the translation of the Diné word—were not good. They put aside not only their human shape but their humanity, using the beast-form to torment, to frighten, to inflict misery and death. Gaining power through the fear, the suffering and the death of others was the point. They certainly did not "hunt for their tribe"—where on earth had the writer of this history book gotten that ridiculous idea? She might as well talk about Death Eaters worshipping ordinary, un-magical people! It makes just as much sense.
And the idea that Shicheii Bekis was bereft of spiritual power and therefore envied witches and skinwalkers was so nauseatingly bizarre that Rick felt as if someone had shoved a dizzying, poisonous fog into his brain. It wasn't as if witches only existed in children's stories; once in a while the rez police arrested aspiring witches for murdering a member of their family. Killing a close relative, especially a brother or sister, was the traditional initiation ceremony for Diné witches. Witches often robbed graves as well; they needed the flesh of a corpse to create corpse poison, which they fed to other people in the hopes those people would die. The ’áńt’įįzhį, the Witchery Way, called for such things, and always had. How could you envy people willing to do things like this?
Rick supposed that it was possible that the magic of people who weren't Diné operated according to different rules, as he was fairly sure that his non-Diné classmates—white, black, Latinx, Asian-American, bi- and triracial—hadn't killed anyone to become magical. But that didn't matter. He was not willing to put aside the Navajo Way and turn himself into a witch who was an imitation white man. Others might decide differently; for him, it would be so wrong as to make the universe tremble.
Jumping slightly in his seat, Rick felt his cheeks grow hot. He'd been so lost in his thoughts that he'd forgotten that he was in class at all.
"Yes, Ms. Murillo?" he asked, his voice squeaking slightly on the last syllable. This was the cue for some of his classmates to laugh. Rick stared at the top of his desk, which now featured not only a lopsided daisy but a jagged mesa and some impressionistic mountains, and wished that he could crawl into his sketches. He had an inkling of what Ms. Murillo wanted him to demonstrate, and he was going to have to fail with as much ineptitude as he could manage.
"If you're with us now"—Ms. Murillo's tone said that she wasn't certain that he was—"could you please come up front and turn this beetle into a button?" With her juniper wand, she tapped a ventilated jar containing a crimson-shelled potato beetle.
Groaning, Rick slipped from his seat and started to trudge to the front of the class.
"With your wand, Mr. Etcitty."
It wasn't his wand. The school had assigned him a wand—piñon pine, ten inches, dragon heartstring core—once the administrators had been certain that his parents weren't going to buy him one. Even touching the thing made him sick to his stomach. After all, a piece of a dead animal was inside the wand. He was exposing himself to corpse poison just by holding it.
He snatched the wand from his bookbag and, holding it as gingerly as possible, plodded up to the front of the room.
Ms. Murillo told him the word for the spell. Rick nodded politely while not listening. He refused to cast a spell on something alive. Those on the Sorcery Way did that, and sorcerers were no better than witches. How could he even try to kill something—and turning something alive into something un-alive was killing, even if it was temporary—just for the sake of a good mark in class? Wasn't that the same as killing for power…the same thing that those on the Witchery Way did?
Ms. Murillo wasn't the only teacher who swore that turning beetles into buttons, mice into coffee mugs, and armadillos into armoires was perfectly fine. That their students shouldn't think of it as killing. That the animals wouldn't even be harmed. Rick wondered how often you had to cast such spells before you stopped seeing life as something that needed respect and attention and started seeing it as something to be used for your convenience.
He said the wrong word and barely twitched his wand.
"Again," said Ms. Murillo grimly, looking like an angry queen carved out of mahogany.
Rick made up a word this time and again barely moved his wand—this time in the wrong direction. After he had "tried" three or four times, by which point his non-Diné classmates were shouting everything he was doing wrong at him, Ms. Murillo shooed him back to his seat.
"Someone must know how to do this," she said in exasperation. "It's an easy spell. What about you, Ms. Tsosie?"
Emma Tsosie, the brightest of all the students, shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ms. Murillo. I can't remember how that spell goes."
Bill Yazzie, who looked like his name—yazhi meaning "small"—shook his head. "I can't keep the words in my brain, Ms. Murillo."
Rick could hear the non-Diné kids complaining under their breath. Why couldn't anyone remember the spell? What was the problem?
He could have told them that there was no problem; it was just that competing to be the best and the brightest was seen as rude. Cooperation was the ideal. A classroom wasn't supposed to be a battlefield. That was simply another way of throwing the world out of balance.
He barely listened as Ms. Murillo scolded the Diné students for not paying attention to their lessons; he couldn't let her opinion shake him. It was better to deliberately mess up every single classroom demonstration, to forget all homework, to fail every test; sooner or later, the school would realize that no, he wasn't going to become what they wanted and they'd have to send him home.
He would have liked Ms. Murillo to know that he wasn't lazy or uneducated, but that was impossible. She just didn't understand how anyone could see learning magic as anything but a glorious opportunity. And he couldn't earn her respect without becoming someone else—either someone so soulsick that the wounds were still festering decades later or someone willing to snuff out an innocent life for someone else's approval and a brief breath of power.
Closing his eyes, he slumped in his chair and tried very hard not to think about what he feared the most as Ms. Murillo nattered on.
Slipping on another identity for power and approval while killing off the person you were…wasn't that skinwalking?