Native beliefs versus universal concepts
By Cazzy Lewchuk
“Spirit animals” (sometimes known as “power animals”) are traditional concepts related to shamanism and animism in certain Indigenous cultures. By those outside of these cultures, the term is often used sarcastically, or not taken very seriously. For some, their spirit animal might be a raven or wolf. For some, it’s Beyoncé or Michael Jackson.
The usage has caused controversy, with many believing spirit animals should be reserved for the significant and sacred ceremonies used in their original context and culture. The results of a Buzzfeed quiz are not the same as a deep, natural connection with the Earth. Spirit animals are totems that serve as guardians. It is traditionally believed that one does not choose the animal, but rather that it is a particular being assigned to you, spiritually. Many cultures feature some sort of spirit that serves as a protector to oneself, but the particular animism beliefs do specifically pertain to indigenous culture.
I’m a white guy, and it is not necessarily my place to speak on indigenous tradition, or what is considered offensive to a culture that is not mine. (In my case, “cultural appropriation” would involve Native people decimating my people’s land, beliefs, and traditions while abusing our children and plunging us into extreme poverty for generations. It’s the white way!) Nevertheless, I’ve done research and spoken with friends of Native descent. I’ve concluded that, whether you’re using it ironically or genuinely believe you have a natural connection, spirit animals are a universal concept.
Most cultures and religions have some sort of similar idea. Spirits and beings that guide and control us from another place are definitely not exclusive to indigenous belief systems. For the believer, the concepts being universal suggests that there truly is something outside of the physical world to guide us, and has been revealing itself in all of humanity. For the non-believer (including myself), it merely suggests that these concepts originate universally within the human mind, invented in one form or another to find a kinship with nature.
There are a lot of ways to commit cultural appropriation: dressing in a caricature of ceremonial garments, such as a feather headdress, or getting a tattoo of symbols from a tribe that you are not a member of are only a few examples. However, attempting to find some harmony in nature (even if your harmony happens to be found in Taylor Swift) isn’t offensive to ancient ceremonies. It’s just finding a force that exists inside us all.