Despite my numerous posts on animal spirit cards, I have been struggling with the idea of spirit animals and appropriation.
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.
Throughout history, different cultures have revered animals in different ways. For example witches and familiars, gods which take on the form of animals and so on. So what is the problem with spirit animals? Well, according to my research (I am by far not an expert on cultural appropriation) one of the key issues is that the phrase animal spirits is one that, at least in America, people use to refer to misunderstood native beliefs. It seems to be used by non indigenous people to summon up ideas which make light of the concept and trivialise it.
Until I started writing my posts, I hadn’t thought about this issue at all. I don’t know if some of that is because I live in the UK and we have no links with our indigenous people. For me, the phrase was something I used to describe an idea and not something I had associated with Native Americans. I guess now would be a good point to consider what a spirit animal is. According to Megan Garber:
The concept of the spirit animal comes, most directly, from Native American spirituality. In that tradition, though there are variations across tribes and cultures, the spirit animal—otherwise known as a “totem animal”—generally takes the form of a single animal with which a person or a clan shares a certain set of characteristics, and therefore a kinship. The animal acts as a guide and protector for humans. In death, the humans’ spirits are absorbed into the animal.
This touches on one of the issues, the reduction of a complex and varied tradition which differs from tribe to tribe to a single phrase. From what I’ve read, the idea of a spirit animal differs amongst Native people and some tribes don’t have them. This use of language thus lumps them all together and erases or modifies beliefs and identities.
And actually, if like me, you have been using the phrase to refer to an even broader context, such as the entire world, it becomes even more problematic.
Stepping away from America, animals are used in so many ways by so many people in such a way that could be described as a spirit animal. And yet to do so removes any nuance or individuality in practices.
But why, if we are using spirit animals as a description instead of a specific idea stolen from indigenous culture, what is the problem?
Well, for many many people, it seems that spirit animal is a concept tied up with Native American beliefs. And if we use the phrase out of context but still referring to their belief system, this is obviously disrespectful. It can also be harmful – by taking away meaning and belittling beliefs, we open the gate for further appropriation, mockery, oppression and abuse.
Apparently the phrase is used as a punch line or an amusing caption all over the internet. Regardless of whether spirit animal is tied to Native Americans for you or not, this is clearly a degrading way of treating a spiritual concept.
For me, when I have been referring to spirit animals, it has not been in relation to Native America. For me, it has been a way of referring to animals who can help me, guide me and teach me. They are the animals I meet in meditation, the archetypes that I see in nature. They are metaphors and examples. They are not the result of a quick internet quiz and I would be hurt if someone tried to compare my deep emotional/spiritual work to thirty seconds of clicking a mouse.
For the most part, I have used the phrase animal spirit rather than spirit animal because that was what the deck was called. Is this any better? I don’t know. The phrase spirit animal is an English word for a Native concept. Could it have been translated differently? Does it matter? If spirit animal has become the same thing, does the word order affect anything? I have no answers.
I would love to hear from someone more educated on this issue. As a white, british person, I don’t feel anywhere near ok reaching any conclusions here.
Edited to add: This post on little red tarot might give you more to think about.