Not your spirit animal: Cultural appropriation, misinformation, and the Internet

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Deer, photo by Lena NicholsonAccording to the Internet, anything and everything can be your spirit animal.

Cat? Spirit animal. Pizza? Spirit animal. The “1812 Overture?” Spirit animal.

Like most things on the internet, however, this is not only wrong but extremely offensive. The culturally-appropriative way that the term “spirit animal” is used in everyday speech is extremely harmful and so casual that most people don’t even think twice about it.

The reason why the term spirit animal has risen to popularity on the Internet is because it’s so easily understood. What people are saying is that they like this thing a lot and that makes them happy. It’s that simple. Using “spirit animal” is a short hand that shows how into something they are.

The problem is that the continued use of the phrase is a part of the cultural appropriation of Indigenous culture that seeks to commodify and erase the realities of Indigenous people.

This issue becomes more complex when you add Paganism or spirituality to the mix as people do have practices that incorporate familiars, totems, or other animal representations so it may seem fair to use spirit animal when referring to these “animal spirits.” However, given that the term spirit animal is meant to refer to practices that are unique to certain Indigenous traditions, using the term, even in practice is still harmful. Although certain practices may resemble the tradition of spirit animals, they are not interchangeable.

Let’s get the pop culture part out of the way

First and foremost, the use of spirit animal as a punchline is always wrong. There’s no grey area here. In the same way that wearing headdresses and “Indian Princess” costumes are harmful, using spirit animal to confess your love or enjoyment of something is harmful to the Indigenous people who are living these traditions.

There is a long and violent history of colonization throughout North America that has kept Indigenous people disenfranchised from practicing and preserving their own belief systems and traditional cultural practices, as well as from their right to protect and live on their sacred lands. Historians and academics agree that many of the ways that the “New World” was colonized would today be considered ethnic cleansing and genocide.1

The effects of colonization did not end after settlement, either. For example, American Indian Boarding schools, known in Canada as Indian Residential Schools, existed well into the 20th century. These church and state run schools sought to aggressively assimilate Indigenous children into European (i.e. Christian) culture, and did so by making attendance mandatory. Children were taken from their families, forced to live away from their traditional cultures, and faced neglect and abuse within these institutions, all while many of their family members struggled to survive on reserves because of the trauma, poverty, and illness stemming from the effects of colonialism.2

At the very same time, romanticized images of “noble” savages were seen on the silver screen, and sold as children’s toys and costumes. Today, Indigenous populations still face discrimination, at both the personal and structural level; violent pasts have created difficult presents, and many (if not all) of the same issues still exist today. Movements like #idlenomore3 and #NoDAPL4 are evidence of some of the larger political movements which are gaining ground to tackle these issues, but at the same time, racist representations of Indigenous folks are still found all around us. Maybe this is why it’s so hard for people to understand the issue with the term spirit animal; we have a very long history of normalizing this type of oppression.

When asked not to use the phrase, many people say things like “Well the Vikings had spirit animals!” or more generally “Lots of cultures have them, it’s not just a Native thing!” Both of these statements are actually wrong, but even if they were true, chances are the person saying them (or the person reading them right now) is not a Viking nor do they actively participate in any belief system that has actual spirit animals. Furthermore, when we speak of spirit animals in today’s world, we are referring very specifically to the type based in Indigenous traditions, and our understanding of them is shaped by colonial representations.

St. Michael's Indian Residential School, Alert Bay, photo by Erin Brown-John

What are spirit animals?

There are a ton of books and websites that talk about spirit animals. With a few clicks, you can get your spirit animal from online quizzes. You can find books that can help you identify the signs in your life that will point you towards what sacred animal is your spirit animal. These are at best complete nonsense and, at worst, bastardization of real Indigenous traditions.

At this point we should discuss the reality that the term “spirit animal” in and of itself is unlikely to be an actual Indigenous term and is instead, a term that was fabricated, in some part, by early anthropologists whose work was propped up by colonial ideas. This isn’t to say that the practice attributed to the term isn’t real, this is only to say that the term is assigned by people from outside the culture. However, since the term is associated heavily with colonial understandings of Indigenous beliefs, it is still harmful to Indigenous people5. Misinformation or not, the two ideas are bound together.

Spiral Nature In-Post Ad Spot

Not every Indigenous group believes in spirit animals. These people are not a homogeneous group; they are varied tribes, with various beliefs and traditions. Spirit animals do appear in more than one tribe’s traditions but not all of them. Each practice is unique and sacred, and thinking you can just be assigned one because you asked nicely is not at all how it works.

Obviously, spirit animals are not granted by online quizzes. For the tribes that do have this belief there is ritual and tradition that goes with it. Once it has been discovered, that spirit serves a specific function in their belief system.

Sometimes similar things are very different

One of the issues that surrounds the idea of spirit animals is that there are other cultures who have the same practice. This, at first glance, would seem to be true. Animals play huge roles in many different religious traditions. However, these are not spirit animals. Many cultures have a version of totemism, “guides,” or even familiars.

These sorts of distinctions are different from spirit animals in their very traditions and how they operate. Totemism does appear in quite a few cultures, most famously, and somewhat paradoxically, in various Indigenous cultures. This is a sort of alignment with a certain animal that may extend to your family as well. We see similar systems in the Norse6 way which explains the mistaken belief that they believed in spirit animals as well.

Similarly, familiars7 also appear to be close to spirit animals but given that they can be and quite often are animals that are living and breathing in this world, they aren’t really spirit animals either and, unlike guides, they are very personal to the practitioner.

Similarly, things like shape-shifters, animals that appear in dreams as messengers from gods, or any number of representations of animals in spiritual practices are not by default spirit animals.These beings often have their own titles and serve a purpose that could very well be drastically different from that of a spirit animal. “Spirit animal” is not a catch all phrase, but it has sadly been used that way.

By using spirit animal as a catch all for anytime a furry, feathered, or scaly creature is mentioned in regards to Paganism or spirituality, we are further appropriating Indigenous culture because like the anthropologists who coined the term, we are stripping away the practice’s original function and meaning and forcing it into a box that is more palatable for our needs.

I’m not Indigenous but I have a spirit animal

Some people who are not Indigenous do believe that they have a spirit animal or at least that is what they call the animal spirit that lends them guidance. Everyone’s personal practice is their own and I would never tell anyone that what they are experiencing is not what they are experiencing however, I would ask that they review the language they are using to share and explain it.

We use the language that we have. Spirit animal, in that case, may seem correct because that is the language that we have to describe something but it is likely not the best, or even correct term to explain something of that nature.

If you are not Indigenous, it’s time to expand your language. Lupa’s post on totemism8 is a very good primer on the subject as well as an excellent reading list.

You can also review your own specific practice and tradition, to learn what roles animals play in it. This could lead to a deeper understanding of your own spirituality and belief system.

We must accept that the reason that the idea of spirit animals exists within occulture is cultural appropriation and the misrecognition of Indigenous beliefs, and had that early appropriation not taken place, there would be no such confusion now. Even if the practitioner does not otherwise engage in sort of pseudo-Indigenous practices as filtered through early spiritual texts, relying on terms like “spirit animal” is still cultural appropriation and should be avoided at all costs.

Moving away from the harms of the past

It may not seem like a huge deal to use spirit animal to describe a part of your practice or even as an Internet joke, but this term just a form of microaggression against Indigenous people. By questioning it’s use, we can step away from practices that harm and further degrade a group of people. As we all continue to grow as practitioners, we should make a point to move away from these harmful practices and towards inclusive systems that do not undermine, belittle, or appropriate.

Thinking about the term spirit animal is a good place to start your self-examination but it doesn’t have to end there. As we become more aware of cultures other than our own we can review our own teachings, see which parts are harmful, and address them. By doing this we will not only address the issue of cultural appropriation, but ultimately form better and more mindful practices for ourselves and our communities.

Image credits: Lena Nicholson and Erin Brown-John

Footnotes:

  1. United Nations World Conference on Racism, “Doctrines of Disposession – Racism against Indigenous peoples,” accessed 4 January 2017. []
  2. CBC News, “A history of residential schools in Canada,” accessed 4 January 2017. []
  3. Idle No More, accessed 7 January 2016. []
  4. NoDAPL, accessed 7 January 2016. []
  5. The Hoodoo Witch, “PSA: Yes, ‘Spirit Animals’ Are Cultural Appropriation- That Means You,” 12 December 2013 []
  6. Norse Mythology for Smart People, “Totemism – Norse Mythology for Smart People,” accessed 12 December 2016. []
  7. PaganCentric, “What Is an Animal Familiar?,” 20 March 2015. []
  8. See, “The difference between traditional and Pagan totemism,” by Lupa. []

24 COMMENTS

  1. The fact that Druids and Celts have spirit animals as well blows your whole argument for “microagression against indigenous” apart. Native Americans are not the only folk with Spirit Animals. Russians have it, Celts have it, and the Norse have it as well. For example, the Druidic religion which is a folk religion of the Irish people believed in a connection with the animal realm. Do your research before you create a post like this on the public sphere.

    • Hi Shae,

      Thank you for taking the time to read this article however, there seems to be some misinformation. None of the cultures you’ve mentioned have spirit animals as we conceptualize them in Western culture. What they do have is a form of totemism or animism which are often conflated as being “spirit animals” but they are not. In some cases there is a belief that a particular type of spirit that takes the form of an animal may attach itself to a person but this is not really a spirit animal either. They are different and rich practices, all in their own right. Having a connection to the animal realm is not the same thing as a spirit animal. The cultures you’ve mentioned have their own words for these practices.

      As I covered in this piece, we use terms interchangeable not realizing the real world harm they are doing to groups outside of ourselves. The language we use to speak of our practices is very important and now, more than ever, it is vital that we are cognizant of this and strive not to be appropriate in our practice.

      • Hi! I feel like this article would make more sense to me if you described more what the correct definition of a spirit animal is for some of these cultures. A little more specific history of the misrepresentation of the phrase would help too. As it stands it’s difficult for me to not just see people’s use of the phrase as part of the natural evolution of language trying to capture accurate expression. For example I’ve noticed alot of people using the term not for their favorite animal necessarily, but for an animal they feel that they emulate.

        Not to say that your assessment is wrong, but that providing the above mentioned details would be a tremendous help. I read the whole article waiting for an accurate definition which never came.

        • Interesting article, thank you for taking the time to write it.

          I would like to echo Trent and ask for a correct definition of what a spirit animal does represent in the First Nations cultures it appears in. At the moment I read it is different from what the Norse, Celts etc believe, but I do not understand how.

          • Hi Dave,

            As much as I would love to write a piece about the specific practices of Spirit Animals in the First Nations cultures that do practice them, I can’t. What I can say is that they are deeply personal and only achieved by those that have a strong connection with their faith.

            These are secret traditions, passed through generations by elders to their people. That’s part of why the abuse of Native people has been so devastating to these practices because they are oral and colonialism has created gaps that they are even now still recovering from.

            What we know about Norse, Celts, etc shows that these practices had a strong connection to animals and they practiced something that would be more correctly called animism which is, to simplify things, a strong connection to the animal world. Although the Celts did use animals as a form of divination, which was pretty neat!

            This differs greatly from Spirit Animals as, for one, it’s a practice that you’re more or less born in to and can access at anytime. You don’t need to do any work to, for example, claim the crow as your totem or to recognize that when owls show up in your life it means something is going to go wrong for you.

            Gaining knowledge of your Spirit animal takes time and work. It is not something you choose. It is not something you control. I hope that helps clear it up a bit for you!

        • Hi Trent,

          Thanks for taking the time to read my article and respond. Some of the other cultures we have mentioned in this article that are often incorrectly said to have spirit animals actually practice a form of totemnism or animism. As this piece was not about other practices, per say, there wasn’t the space to explain those practices here.

          However, in the footnotes you will find links that can further your understanding of totemnism or familiars as well as how they connect to other magick traditions.

          • Thank you for taking the time to reply.

            It does appear tricky to not use the term incorrectly if one cannot find the true meaning, although it seems likely any non-First Nations person using it is probably doing so in correctly.

            In a related point, if the phrase “spirit animal” is/was a poor translation attempt initially, then it really represents a Western concept, rather than what the true First Nation tradition is about. In which case, does it really matter how others use it, as if they are applying their own meanings to their own phrase then it has little relevance to First Nations culture?

      • Ms. Donyae,

        I realize this will come a bit late (like a month after you posted this article), but in effect you asking people to stop using “spirit animal” because in the contexts it can be seen as being racist (implying a racial superiority or inferiority of another race).

        You will agree that North America was home to a vast diversity of cultures, and when we talk of Native America we often think of those from the Plains tribes or the five civilized tribes, but Native America included way more than that. It included the Pueblo, Ananazi, Aztecs, Olmecs and even the Mayans at the height of their empires. It may have also included the Early Celts and Vikings.

        My point? Not every culture in Native America practiced the concept of “Spirit Animals”, and to imply that they did is as racist as one being “culturally appropriation” is, whether it’s in dress or in this case language. Again, Native America included more than just the Plains Tribes or the five civilized tribes, and many of the cultures were very distinct and divergent from any other culture found in America. Lumping them all together in a general fashion is racist by assuming they all walked, talked, and looked the same when they did not- and that is what “cultural appropriation” does, and inadvertently did when you wrote this piece.

        • Hi Kenneth,

          I was clear in this piece that this is not a tradition practiced by all Native cultures. Here is the direct quote from the piece: “Not every Indigenous group believes in spirit animals. These people are not a homogeneous group; they are varied tribes, with various beliefs and traditions. Spirit animals do appear in more than one tribe’s traditions but not all of them.”

          Since your concern seemed to be that I had lumped all Native cultures together as one when I did not do so, I believe that the above addresses your concern. However, what I did talk about was the way in which the continued use of the phrase helps to enforce oppression of Native populations by normalizing it.

          • Hi Shae,
            Reading the other comments I feel like you will run into some blocks with the goal of this article. I think the main reason is because language evolves naturally with tendency towards convenience and efficiency.
            Without being able to explain the history of the phrase “spirit animal” along with which native American cultures use the phrase and what it means to them; I fear that you won’t be able to provide enough understanding to convince people why they should stop using or change how they use the the phrase.
            The other thing you’re up against is that, in English, this is a super catchy phrase that gives people warm fuzzy feelings. It has a lot of power. This is the type of thing that drives language evolution.
            I tried googling “spirit animal” and found a bunch of websites telling you how to find your spirit animal and even giving attribute to native American cultures. If you can’t explain what the correct definition is in regards to native American cultures, you won’t be able to explain how other definitions are wrong and/or offensive.

            I love learning about languages and would love to know more about this phrase, it’s history, and connections to various cultures.

  2. Hello Dave,

    To answer your question, yes it does still matter. Due to it’s connotations on the culture, by using it we are still belittling and treating their beliefs as something for our own entertainment. It is still very harmful.

  3. I am sorry but the comments regarding animism are true. Sometimes these arguments about appropriation go way too far. Even Archie Fire Lame Deer the now deceased Lakota holy man talked about the similarities in his practices and those of other tribal cultures around the globe. There is a fine line in appropriating different cultural things and claiming they are owned completely by European culture. But the fact is that Europeans didn’t just appear on the scene eating crumpets and drinking tea. They were once very tribalistic people with methods of healing and ritual quite similar to Native Americans. Hell the Celts were notorious for collecting the heads of their enemies. I think it is just very easy to jump to conclusions just because someone who is Caucasian in complexion is doing something. I think for some people they totally just wipe out the fact that Europeans were tribalistic and animistic peoples.

  4. IMO this article in whole is racist to every human on the planet. Read up on anthropology of the world before making judgment on linguistics of different cultures. Every race has a mixture of different cultures all stemming back to early man and early tribes/cultures. Also if you had done proper research you would not class Druids, Celts, and even indigenous tribes linguistics together, due to the fact that not all forms of languages have been properly deciphered. There are many incorrectly termed signs/symbols/words in ancient languages.

    • Hello KalistaKat,

      I’m not sure why you feel this article is “racist to every human on the planet”. This work does not seek to oppress anyone nor does it attach any sort of value to people based on their skin color. It is pointing out how a common phrase in both mainstream society and pagan communities is appropriative and adds to the oppression of a marginalized group.

      I did not class the linguistics of those groups together at all. I spoke generally of the practices from some of those cultures in the article and again here in the comments and encouraged readers who were interested in those traditions to explore them in more depth. I also spoke of the fact that spirit animal is a term that was fabricated by anthropologists based on colonial ideas and explained why it still matters, despite the fact that is incorrect. This information is all in the piece.

      In short, all of the issues you had, save for your first statement which is nonsensical, were addressed in the work itself.

  5. Appropriation of a culture’s practice/terminology/concept assumes said culture is the absolute origin and therefore has ultimate ownership over it. I don’t know where the line is in that regard because everyone’s threshold for an offense is their own. So we can either assume that everyone’s basically out to harm everyone else and that this is the biggest problem facing our society today, or we can assume that people basically try to be decent to each other and there are other battles best won today.

  6. […] exactly where Boyega has lion sculptures at the foot of his bed. He loves lions (but let’s not use the term “spirit animal” here) and they guard him when he sleeps. That is a fairly good and not-also-out-there decoration, but it […]

  7. […] As Donyae Coles explains, the phrase spirit animal has been used a lot online in ways that do not honour it’s meaning.  She says that basically it has become shorthand for saying your into something.  Even where the concept of spirit animals remain true to the Native American concept, they are often used in disingenuous ways; a quiz which with the click of three buttons reveals your spirit animal being one example. […]

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