Today we are going to be writing another essay for the “I Shouldn’t Have to Write This Essay” series. There is a popular trend among young Americans to call things their “spirit animal”. I have been guilty of this when I was younger, calling everything from a fox to Chandler Bing my spirit animal. It’s a common trope that white people use to indicate “I associate strongly with this thing and feel that it is a large part of my personality” or “This item, person, or place, informs a lot of my personality”. Neither of these concepts are an accurate representation of what spirit animals are to Native Cultures of North America. There’s a lot to unpack when dealing with this issue so let’s begin.
What is a spirit animal?
It’s difficult to discuss this because there’s not a good outsider definition of what a spirit animal is. These are sacred practices for a number of people and not something that is generally shared with outsiders. Spirit Animals are deeply sacred and the hows of them are always kept a secret from anyone who doesn’t need to know. So we, as Non-Natives, don’t have a solid idea of how Spirit Animals come about and what they are. When you combine that with the long history of abuse and cultural genocide that Native Americans faced, having a set definition of what a Spirit Animal is, is difficult. The traditions vary from tribe to tribe and I cannot do them true justice with my explanations. Suffice it to say that spirit animals represent a deeply held spiritual belief of many Native Tribes and this belief is generalized and infantalized by many white Americans.
The term “spirit animal” is in all likelihood not even a Native American term. They likely have their own word for the concept. Spirit Animal is a term used by early 19th century anthropologists in order to try and explain a concept to their readers. We must keep in mind that early Anthropology is made up of a great deal of racism, ethnocentrism, and western imperialist ideology. So when we use the term Spirit Animal we are referring to the Native American religious belief of Spirit Animals. A belief that was misunderstood, and distorted by early anthropologists, that they attempted to be wipe out through the 19th and 20th centuries.
How has it been infantalized?
While some white Americans use spirit animal to refer to an animal spirit guide that they believe guides and aids them in their life, the internet has come to use “spirit animal” as a meme. Samuel L. Jackson was the internet’s first spirit animal, and from there it slowly snowballed until everything from Ron Swanson, to pizza, to whiskey was suddenly a spirit animal. Putting aside the inherent problems of identifying so strongly with whiskey as to call it your spirit animal, let’s look at the cultural problems.
Here we have an important and deeply held spiritual and religious belief for many Native Americans. Native Americans whose history with Europeans and Americans is one entirely made up of physical and cultural genocide, of oppression, of having their culture mocked by sports teams. Of childhood games of Cowboys and Indians where we unwittingly relived the Indian Wars as children. Of cultural appropriation and of having their culture turned into Halloween costumes.
Native Americans are a marginalized group who have been abused since the point of first contact with Europeans. Due to this long history of abuse and the abuse that they still encounter from the US government, partly in the form of reservations, Native Americans have the largest rate of alcoholism per capita. When we examine the Residential Schools of the US, Canada, and Australia that began in the 1870s and ended in Canada in 1996 we see a furthering of the violent culture of these nations that attempted to strip the culture from Native Tribes and assimilate them into their mainstream culture, forcing them to give up their sacred beliefs in order to become more white.
So when you take this belief, held by many tribes, appropriate it and then infantalize it, you are furthering the history of theft and abuse that is all Native Americans have ever known. You’re not using spirit animal as it was intended, and you’re not part of a culture that has spirit animals. You don’t get one, and claiming one, whether in earnest or in jest is culturally appropriative.
Don’t other cultures have spirit animals?
One of the most common counters that I see to the spirit animal debate is the idea that other cultures like the Celts, the Vikings, and a few other have spirit guides. There are still Celtic Polytheists and Norse Polytheists and even practicing Druids, Wiccans, and various other religions that claim a spirit guide or tutelary spirit.
The European Pagan ideas of a spirit guide are different than the Native American concepts of spirit animals. To equate the two as the same is to create a false equivalence.
Many pagan religions, the Celts, the Norse, various New Age religions, neo-shamanism, Wicca, etc. have deep connections to the spiritual through forces of nature. They have tutelary spirits or fylgja, familiars, spirit guides, etc.
The ancient Celts didn’t have spirit animals, despite what you may have been told. The Celts were animists, which means that they believed that every aspect of the natural world had a spirit and that they could develop a rapport and connection with those spirits. Spirits and dieties often were thought to inhabit parts of the natural world and could take the form of animals or use them as messengers, but animism is a distinctly different belief than a belief in a Spirit Animal. Spirits and animal spirits had a large part in Celtic faith, but they are not Spirit Animals. They should not be referred to using those terms due to the differing nature of the beliefs.
The ancient Norse believed, not in Spirit Animals, but in Fylgja. A fylgja is a supernatural guardian spirit that is attached to a family or person. This is its own distinct practice. Norse paganism has its own issues in its history. The practice was largely wiped out under the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. They are welcome to celebrate their own culture with their own word. Spirit Animal belongs to the Native Americans, and besides the two ideas, while similar are very different.
Many aspects of older European cultures had the idea of a familiar. Familiars are beings, often in the form of animals who aid witches. In modern times a number of witches I know refer to their pets (usually cats) as their familiars. This belief in a distinct animal guide who is an aid to the witch in question is again, a distinct idea from a Spirit Animal. While there is some overlap between the ideas of animism, tutelary spirits, fylgja and familiars. None of those ideas are Spirit Animals as the Native Americans understand them.
So I can’t have a Spirit Animal?
Well look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you can’t believe that you have an animal spirit guide or familiar or even a tutelary spirit. These are all beliefs that transcend a single culture. There are hundreds of cultures that connect very deeply with animal spirits. Aztec culture had a huge connection with the Eagle and the Jaguar. The Morrigan from Celtic tradition is heavily associated with crows. Zeus once turned into a swan and had sex with a woman. Animals have deep connections to many religions. The Spirit Animal though is an old anthropological term used to refer to a specific set of beliefs that belong to a marginalized group. Even if other religious beliefs have overlap with that belief they are different and lumping them all in with the idea of Spirit Animals just further steals agency from Native Tribes and further distorts what their beliefs are to the general public.
You also, it’s worth noting, don’t get a totem animal either. Totem animals are a tradition that belong largely to the Ojibwe people of the Pacific North West and is also a sacred tradition not to be used lightly for the purposes of describing your personality. There are other similar beliefs out there that allow you to connect with with the spiritual through animals. Cultures that are not mocked and appropriated daily. Animism accepts that everything has a spirit and can easily form the base of whatever belief you wish to have.
Many practitioners of neo-shamanism use the term Power Animal to refer to an animal spirit guide with whom they feel a deep connection. Modern religions have even less of an excuse when it comes to using the term Spirit Animal as they emerged after the history of abuse and appropriation began. They can’t claim that it’s a historic practice separate from the Native Culture as New Age books discussing Spirit Animals stole their ideas directly from Native Tribes. Even if you believe that you have a “spirit animal” you’re likely operating under a misunderstanding of what a Spirit Animal actually is.
Look, you can have your religious beliefs of spirit guides and animism and tutelary spirits and power animals. You can associate your spirit or soul or magical energy with a certain animal, but we’ve learned a lot in the past few years about the power of words and symbols and that there are just some that we don’t use and don’t try and take or reclaim.
The swastika has been found in various religions and cultures throughout history. Hinduism used it. The Armenians used it. The ancient Celts and Vikings used it. It’s even been found in some parts of Africa. Then the Nazis took it for their flag and the symbol was ruined. You cannot divorce the symbol from its historic context. Anymore than you can divorce Spirit Animals from the Native context.
The swastika is dead to all save Neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups. It’s still being used to further that hate. Even if it wasn’t that symbol is stained with the blood of over 12 million people. The idea of trying to reclaim that symbol is an insult to the dead.
Spirit Animals are a religious idea that belong to a specific set of cultures. It’s a term that, despite its beginnings in imperialist anthropology, has come to refer to the beliefs of some Native American tribes. While other religions have similar ideas, they do not have a belief in Spirit Animals as we understand it from the western perspective. Keep your beliefs, but it’s this one term that I’m asking you to give up because of its racist and appropriative history.
I’ll wrap this up by saying once again that Native Americans have been, since the day of first contact, an abused and marginalized group. They are making the statement loud and clear that they feel that other cultures trying to claim a Spirit Animal is cultural appropriation. If you want to have a tutelary spirit, or a spirit guide, or a familiar, or a fylgja then more power to you. I won’t tell you that you can’t, but when a marginalized group tells you that you’re stealing their sacred cultural beliefs, pointing to European beliefs as proof that you’re not probably isn’t the best idea. When someone tells you that something you’re doing is hurting them, you don’t get to tell them that their wrong.