The animal within

Spirit animals aren’t just for casting patronus spells


Arielle Dreher | Contributing Writer


Wolf. Owl. Bear. Dolphin. Fox. For many, spirit animals have become a joke. People laugh or sulk at the spirit animal they’ve been assigned by others either through a test or mere speculation. Still others have embraced spirit animals on a deeper level; it’s become a cultural norm to call on our spirit animals to help in everyday situations. Regardless, the lingo used to describe the “power animal” or the “spirit animal” could actually be considered offensive and not very funny at all.

Dr. David Shorter, professor and vice chair of world arts and cultures at UCLA, studied Native American Indian culture for over 20 years in multiple indigenous communities. According to Shorter, the idea of a power or spirit animal is commonly used by white shamans trying to make money on the notion that there’s one animal for you.

However, in his studies Shorter found that American Indian tribes don’t have a standardized view of spirit animals at all. In fact, there are hundreds of tribes that have varying relationships with animals. For example, some tribes believe that an individual’s spirit animal is literally the animal they interact with in the wild as children.

Shorter explained that using the terms “spirit” or “power animal” is disrespectful to Native American cultures, and “essencializing” them, which is very close to stereotyping or prejudice. Using the term “spiritual” places “spirit animals” into Judeo-Christian terminology in an attempt to relate it to a religious practice when in reality, indigenous spirituality and its terminology are quite different than dogmatic or book-based religions that Western cultures are used to.

“If I started to use the term ‘spirit animal’ amongst the native people that I work with as a professor, and also as a collaborator with native communities, they would become highly suspicious of me,” said Shorter. “Those terms are coming from outsiders who are attempting to represent those communities without any experience within those communities.”

The outsiders Shorter refers to come from the rise of the New Age movement and revived Shamanism that has brought significant attention and a generalized reintroduction of the idea of spirit animals back into current dialogue. Shamanism is the belief that one can access alternate realms of consciousness by connecting with the spirit world in which spirit animals inevitably play a major role.

The concept of spirit animals originated in Turkish and Mongolian religious practices as well as in Native American tribal rituals. However, the often generalized view of spirit animals is unwarranted and frequently inaccurate.

In her book, Spirit Animals: Unlocking the Secrets of Our Animal Companions, Stephanie Iris Weiss focuses on the “right here, right now” animal that can instill a sense of courage, peace or encouragement in place of a guru or analyst. Shamanism also views the use of spirit animals on an “as you need them” basis.

In her book, Weiss writes, “Your spirit animal can help reveal what your purpose is. If you’re in need of guidance, healing, or protection, you just might find it with one of the animals illustrated in this book.”

The problem with this view, according to Shorter is that the spirit animal is constant and easily understood, when in Native American culture this might not be the case. “‘New Agers’ say your animal is the owl, and the owl is a wise person…[but] how can they do that? I know two different tribes that have two different views of owls,” Shorter said.

While popular culture depicts spirit animals as an entertaining way to categorize personality types, in actuality, there’s a deeper issue with this view. Such generalizations continue to perpetuate ignorant views of a rich history of the often misunderstood Native American community. These traditions of naming one’s animal connect much deeper than a five-question Facebook survey. Let’s leave these ideas of “spirit animals” to the Harry Potter world of patronuses—in fiction.

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