Cannibal Giants

Written by Jesse Bowman Bruchac

My father recently shared a chilling post about these creatures entitled A Starving Moon Story. Stories of cannibals with frozen hearts are shared by most of the Algonquian-speaking people of North America. Among the Wabanaki, Kiwakw, literally meaning forest wanderer, is used by western Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy speakers. Among the Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq, the name Chenoo, the cross, mean, or angry one is also used.

“CHENOO The cannibal giant whose heart is made of ice is called by many different names among the northern people where winter is the most dangerous time of year. This creature, who is sometimes described as a human being transformed into a monster, howls like the storm wind and pursues its prey.”[1]

To our south, the Lenape call it Mhuwe, meaning man-eater, while to our north and west, the Athabaskan, Cree, Ojibwe, and many others use different forms of the most widely known name for this creature Wendigo, meaning evil spirit.

In all the stories about them, these evil spirits were once human, and even after transforming, still maintain some human qualities. The ability to talk, for example, or use tools, weapons, canoes, and of course, hunger—only greater than any hunger we could ever imagine. They also gained great supernatural powers, including unearthly strength and speed, the ability to change their appearance and that of others, the ability to shapeshift into animals, to grow as large as the trees or as small as mice, to walk through solid objects, the ability to fly, disappear with the wind, enter others dreams, and the power to live forever. 

“When they get ready to fight, they suddenly become as tall as the highest trees; their weapons are the trees themselves, which they uproot with great strength. And this strength depends upon the quantity or size of the piece of ice that makes up the heart of the Kewahqu’. This piece of ice is like a little human figure, with hands, feet, head, and every member perfect.”[2]

Those who indulge in cannibalism are believed to be at the greatest risk of this transformation, as well as those who withhold food from the starving, those who are severely brokenhearted, or those who are just plain evil. During times of famine and great hardship, there was believed to be the highest risk of someone transforming into one of these creatures. 

Sometimes, a dead medawlinno supernatural practitioner of dark power would return from their grave as a cannibal giant. Other times they come into being by way of a frost spell cast by Pebon (also called White Rabbit), Winter himself, the evil medawlinno of the North, and the ruler of all of these man-eating creatures. In still other stories, those overpowered by greed or weakness could also become cannibal giants. In this way, these stories serve as a method of encouraging generosity, cooperation, and moderation and discourage gluttony and greed. Finally, if, for some ungodly reason, someone wanted to become a cannibal giant, they could do so by eating one of the monster’s frozen hearts. Once changed, they are the embodiment of gluttony, greed, and excess. They are never satisfied no matter how much they eat. Instead, they are constantly searching for food. 

“The Weendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Weendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody.” [3]

When they eat, they grow in proportion to their meal, but while becoming larger and more powerful, they can never be satiated. 

Within the western Abenaki language, there are two words for greed. The first is sahagedzaha, literally meaning, to be one divided/separated by hardness, often translated as frozen hearted. The second term, which also shows a strong cultural connection to the lessons of this terrifying tradition, is keligasko, which literally means one of a frozen/grasping nature in reference to a person who always wants more.  

Killing a cannibal giant, as you might imagine, is not easy. Their frozen heart is harder than the hardest stone. It is also surrounded by the frozen souls of their victims. The oldest Kiwakw are said to be taller than pine trees and have entire villages of frozen souls around their hearts. In some traditions, the only way to kill one is by cutting them into smaller and smaller pieces and slowly feeding them into a fire until nothing but their frozen heart remains. 

The wlaskana, the horns of Kakadalôgw, a mythical race of giant lizards or, some say, dragons, can also be used to fight the cannibal giants. If you can find one, when thrust into the head of a cannibal giant, the wlaskana becomes like a tree and roots the monster to the ground, unable to move so that it can be burned. However, even if its body is entirely burned to ash, the ice heart still remains unable to be destroyed by fire. 

The cannibal giant can reconstitute itself from their frozen heart alone. In some stories these ice hearts are locked away, buried, or placed in caves in the highest mountain tops.

Stories like those told of the cannibal giants teach many lessons. They also chillingly remind us that from an Indigenous perspective, wealth is measured by one’s ability to help others and that an accumulation of anything without the intent to share is seen as, at the very least, a sign of poor mental health and unhappiness. Unlike in Western thought, where the ultra-rich are idolized, these cautionary tales highlight an understanding that to the community, greed is akin to the atrocities of cannibalistic monsters.


[1] When the Chenoo Howls: Native American Tales of Terror (1998), Joseph and James Bruchac

[2] The Algonquin Legends of New England, by Charles G. Leland (Boston:  Houghton and Mifflin, 1884).

[3] THE MANITOUS: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway. By Basil Johnston

“Passamaquoddy Texts,” by John D. Prince, American Ethnological Society,  Publications 10 (1921). 

A Starving Moon Story, Joseph Bruchac, Generations Blog (2023)

Drawn in part from the preface of The Woman and The Kiwakw, by Jesse Bowman Bruchac (2013)

Image also from The Woman and The Kiwakw, by Jesse Bowman Bruchac (2013)

Chenoo Illustration from When the Chenoo Howls, by William Sauts Netamux’we Bock