native americans

PSA: Yes, “Spirit Animals” Are Cultural Appropriation- That Means You

Posted on

Another important topic has been bought up on my dash, and that is the use of “spirit animals”. Having an animal guide or an animal familiar or an animal you really like is not the same as a spirit animal: and for those of you who are confused, here are several Tumblr posts to help you understand:

 

poorlifechoicesblog:

[NB: if you (like me) are non-Native and you reblogged agentotter’s commentary PLEASE read sofriel’s refutation below. “Spirit Animal” as a non-Native phrase is SUPER FUCKED UP.]

sofriel:

fralusans-ana-marein:

thekal:

agentotter:

exploitationiscontagious:

Petition to start using “patronus” instead of “spirit animal” because not being appropriative is pretty rad.

Okay let’s go through this one more time. Deep breath.

If you think the concept of “spirit animals” comes from Native American religious practices, you are wrong. Also, you’re probably basing your ideas about Native American spiritualism on movies that are incredibly, extremely, offensively wrong. (Spoiler alert: You cannot actually paint with all the colors of the wind.) You’re also failing to understand that Native American and First Nations people are not a homogeneous group, that they do not now and have never existed as a single people with a single set of beliefs. In short, what I’m saying is that just this once, calling this appropriation is actually the thing that is offensive.

If you think the concept of “spirit animals” is specific to any one cultural or religious practice, you are wrong. This idea of animal guides and related ones — like shape-shifting, people possessed by the spirits of animals, particular interpretations of animal dreams, a certain attitude toward the hunting of animals, etc etc — have roots in all sorts of ancient religions, including eastern Shamanic religions, Celtic religions, really religions of of every description… I could go on. Essentially it’s animism, which is common to the whole of human experience, because there isn’t a culture on this planet that doesn’t have a complex, deep-rooted relationship of some kind with animals. But “spirit animals” as most of us understand the concept? Is a made-up thing. Just like Harry Potter’s patronus. Just like His Dark Materials’ daemons. Just like basically any other “inoffensive” alternative on offer.

Essentially, “spirit animal” is a trope. I happen to fucking love that trope. I think it’s fun and interesting. It’s not a real concept, except possibly for Wiccans and New Agers, both of whom appropriated the concept from — guess what! — their completely wrong ideas about Native spiritual practices. I’m willing to bet that everything you’ve ever learned about Native religions came from a white person. I’m willing to bet that it’s wrong.

For all these people who want to be sensitive to Native culture, you can do a lot better than defending their honor from a concept that isn’t theirs in the first place. (You can start by acknowledging that it’s New Age, not Native. AT ALL.) There are so many ways you can learn about Native culture and the problems that tribes face directly from the people themselves. You could start small. Read some Sherman Alexie. Watch Reel Injun orIncident at Oglala on Netflix. Read up on why exactly casting Johnny Depp as Tonto is fucking horrible. Try actually learning something about what they’re going through (basically a never-ending shitstorm of oppression and erasure) and you can help just by being more informed. Become a social justice crusader foractual social justice issues. Still not sure about the spirit animal thing? These Natives would be happy to tell you all about it. And these ones. And this one. (tl;dr: They’re sick of your bullshit.)

This information about “spirit animals” not being a thing makes sense, but I’m not really clear on how referencing a stereotypical, New-Age misinterpretation of Native American religion is that much less offensive/appropriative than improperly referencing an actual Native American religious concept? Doesn’t appropriation usually involve portraying the original culture(s)/religion(s) inaccurately?

that makes sense to me, and I’ve definitely also read things by Native folks here writing against using the term “spirit animal”, although I can’t find any of them just now. perhaps sofriel or moniquill (or others, I’m not sure who else follows me) might have more input.

No. Nooooooooooooooo. No. God, I would like to make a rule where non-Natives are not allowed to make any sort of statements on the appropriativeness or non-appropriativeness of “spirit animals” ever again. 

Fact 1: I am Native. So-called “spirit animals” are part of my spiritual tradition, which is Metis-Anishinaabe. They’re usually called by the Anishinaabe word, which I am not putting on the internet, or “spirit/dream helpers” in English. Natives in fact are not, gasp, homogeneous, and omg some of us have different spiritual traditions than others! (look, I can do the obnoxious patronizing voice too!) And so just because you point to three Native people from cultures that don’t have such a tradition doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist! This tradition is a VERY sacred one, and thanks to colonization it is being forgotten in huge amounts, to the extent that most young Natives don’t even really know much about it—a situation exacerbated by the popular appropriation of “spirit animals.”

Fact 2: Yes, people around the world have and had similar traditions of spirit helpers, who are frequently animals. HOWEVER, the concept of spirit animals in popular culture came from anthropologists’ descriptions of Native American religions (see Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). It doesn’t matter if the ancient Celts had similar practices, because spirit animals are associated in the popular imagination with Natives, not Celts. I and other Natives regularly get asked, “Can you tell me what my spirit animal is??” Irish people, for instance, do not. And “it’s not Native, it’s New Age” my ass.Where the hell do you think the New Agers got it from? They got it from anthropology textbooks and from the hippies who went to the reservations in the 60s seeking Noble Savage enlightenment.

Fact 3: The fact that spirit animals in popular culture are a bastardized form of Native traditions does not mean they are not appropriative or harmful. Why? Because the popular idea of it comes to supersede the original meaning, infantilizing our traditions.Non-Natives start to think that they understand our traditions, and that they are primitive, rather than actually consulting and trying to understand. This gets bad when those non-Natives are the ones with control over our legal ability to practice our religion. Non-Native appropriation of the sweatlodge incorrectly done and causing death, for example, has resulted in greater restrictions on Native sweatlodges, because the non-Native interpretation was assumed to be representative. 

Fact 4: Appropriation is a part of Native oppression, not a decoy issue, good lord. This attitude of popular ownership of Native traditions causes people to deny Natives the right to practice our religion, which is tied to the colonization and denial of access to our landbase since our practices are often linked to specific places, which is tied to the situation on reservations. It’s tied to the psychological state of our people, because you try growing up with having everyone making an utter mockery of your religion and see how your self-esteem comes out.

And yeah, I will also say, if calling out appropriation is the only thing you’re doing to help Native people, if you are just shouting “Don’t wear headdresses!” and don’t actually get why it’s a problem, then yes, you’re kinda failing as an ally. But appropriation is part of the violence being done to indigenous people. 

You did get one thing right though, we are sick of your bullshit. Very, very sick of it.

Important!!

I see a lot of ppl on my dash reblogging the post where someone else says that “spirit animal” is not a racist or culturally appropriative term because it’s “New Age” and not Native—but that doesn’t erase the v v smart and true response that sofriel explains above: where did the New Agers get that stereotype and how are you acting in concert with their racism???

 

Please stop with your weak attempts to justify your appropriation. PSA over