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Understanding Spirit Animals
Native American religions are shrouded in mystery for the majority of non-natives, but once in awhile, you’ll hear of certain aspects that become iconic as a part of Native American religion. One of the most famous Native American beliefs is the concept of having a spirit animal.
This concept is ubiquitous in Native American religions, but it’s a concept that is often misunderstood or completely warped by mainstream media. If you’re curious about the nature of spirit animals in Native American religions, this guide will shed light on what a spirit animal is, how it works with your growth, and the beliefs surrounding it.
What Are Spirit Animals?
This is actually a loaded question. Each Native tribe has its own unique set of beliefs and terminologies, some of which don’t actually involve spirit animals at all. That said, there’s still a general consensus of what a spirit animal is.
Native American religions generally believe that all living beings have a soul, with no species’ soul being greater or lesser than the other. Their religions emphasize having a harmonious relationship with nature, and that includes working with animals to better one’s life.
A spirit animal, (or animal spirit, or totem animal) is an animal that embodies the positive, empowering traits of an individual or a tribe. These animals can act as guardian angels, teachers, or as a source of inner strength.
Are Animal Totems Living Beings?
This can vary depending on what the individual religion believes. They can be metaphorical, physical beings, or spirits of animals that are tied to a person’s soul. Many believe that an animal totem’s spirit form is the voice of all of the animals of that type to ever live.
So, the Wolf Totem is the voice of all wolves that ever lived. The Bear Totem is the voice of all bears that ever lived. They act as guides, but also symbolize the traits of the animals they represent.
How spirit animals present themselves can change depending on the situation and what needs to be done. At times, they may make an appearance as a living creature. Other times, they may come in a dream.
Does Everyone Have A Spirit Animal?
Yes, and many have multiple–depending on the religion, anyway. This is representative of the close partnership between man and nature. It’s also a nice way to remember that we are never alone when it comes to our spiritual and personal growth journies.
What Is Your Spirit Animal?
It’s often said that spirit animals come to you in your time of need, or make themselves known through dreams or strange occurrences. If you have recurring dreams of a specific animal, regularly see a certain animal cross your path, or are inexplicably drawn to a specific animal, that is probably your totem.
What Do Spirit Animals Represent?
This all depends on which tribal religion you’re asking. The same animal can have multiple interpretations, with many being potentially contradictory. For example, some tribes see bears as malevolent and violent beasts. Others celebrate bears’ courage and maternal instincts.
Are All Animal Totems Positive Signals?
Believe it or not, there are some animal spirits that bring panic among natives when they make themselves known. This is because their arrivals portend serious tragedy, death, or act as warnings of impending danger.
Certain animals are regularly deemed harbingers of news or misfortune. Owls, in particular, are viewed as an omen of death. Hawks, on the other hand, are warnings of danger or a message of being protected from enemies.
How Do Shamans Channel Their Spirit Animals?
Each tribe has its own methods of keeping a spirit animal close. These methods can include:
- Carrying a part of their spirit animal with them. Some carry bags of feathers or bones of their spirit animals as a method of protection.
- Specialized dances. Many tribes celebrate their spirit animals and connect with them through dances and ceremonies. It’s a way to show respect and thank animals for the service they offer.
- Using specific ceremonies to contact them. Tribes in the Southwest tend to be fans of sweat lodges, while others will undergo spirit walks to learn more about what their spirit animals have to say to them.
Do Animal Totems Have Physical Impacts On Tribes?
Though tribes do see animal totems as sacred symbols, tribal totems are also a major aspect of day-to-day life. Tribes may watch animal behavior as a way to determine seasonal changes, use them as sources of food, and even as a way to determine harvest.
To non-natives, seeing this dichotomy might not make much sense. Most Western cultures would never dream of eating something they consider sacred, after all. However, it’s important to remember the most important aspect of many native cultures: the partnership between man and nature.
By using their totem animals, tribes believe that they are keeping that connection between man and nature strong. This is also why natives hold hunting to be such a sacred act and why it’s commonplace to hear of tribal hunters thanking the animals for their sacrifice.
How Do Tribes Determine Their Spirit Animals?
Generally speaking, tribal spirit animals are indigenous to the area that the tribe is located in. Elders and shamans are the ones who determine and consult the spirit animals that guard over the tribe.
What Are The Most Common Animal Totems?
Each tribe has its own set of commonplace animal totems, both large and small. That being said, certain totems are far more common than others. These include:
- Deer are often seen as symbols of martyrdom and sacrifice, as well as a sign of fertility. They are considered to be sacred among most tribes.
- A wolf totem is something you’ll see in most parts of the United States. Much like deer totems, they’re considered to be powerful guides that demand a high level of respect from shamans.
- Turtles are particularly common on the East Coast, and play into the Eastern States’ creation myth. They are seen as calm, peaceful creatures.
- Known for being both creators and tricksters, seeing coyotes as totems often yields wild and positive results.
- Both intelligent and mischievous, crow totems are common throughout the United States.
- Among indigenous tribes in South America, black panthers and jaguars both are seen as powerful spirit totems that symbolize strength.
How Can You Use The Concept Of Spirit Animals?
Spirit animals are not something to be taken lightly. If you notice that you’re being “approached” by visions of an animal, don’t rely on internet guidebooks to figure out what’s going on. It’s better to contact a native tribesperson for help.
Native American religions are incredibly intricate and deserve to be respected. Whittling down interpretations of a spirit animal isn’t just a bad idea; it’s disrespectful. In fact, one of the biggest issues that Native American activists have is the mainstream idea of using spirit animals as a novelty.
If you are serious about learning concepts about Native American culture, the best way to do so is to reach out to local Native American groups and ask them. By learning the truth behind the diluted pop culture, you’ll show respect to the religion and get a better understanding of what guides do.