"He says, 'So, what's your spirit animal?' And I was like, 'What? What are you talking about?' And he goes, 'Yeah, all Native people have a spirit animal.'" She remembers laughing the comment off, telling him she wasn't familiar with the term and that it must be a stereotype. But her classmate didn't take no for an answer, insisting that he had it on authority from First Nations people in Canada that "real Natives"—in his words—have spirit animals. "I was like, 'Hold on, dude. Don't tell me about my own culture,'" says Luger. "I can't speak for all Indigenous people, and there's a chance that you'll find somebody out there to say something differently, but I've worked in hundreds of Native communities over the past 10 years or so—and I know plenty of First Nations people from Canada. I've never heard anybody talk about this."
The Phrase 'Spirit Animal' Isn’t Even Part of Indigenous Vocabulary
As a member of the Shoshone-Bannock nation, the phrase "spirit animal" wasn't a part of Nikki McDaid-Morgan's vocabulary, either, until it entered the pop-culture realm, that is. "I can only speak for myself as a Shoshone-Bannock woman, and not even for other members of my tribe," says McDaid-Morgan, a PhD student in Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. "I will say that for me, I have relations with more-than-human animals, plants, and natural kinds—[such as] water, soil, sun—just like I do with humans because we are all relatives. Any or all of these relationships can be spiritual." That said, she's not aware of a specific term in her language that translates to "spirit animal" as it's used colloquially. "We learn from and have strong spiritual relationships with many more-than-human relatives, as well, not just one, so the idea of having a 'spirit animal' in the way white people often talk about them seems strange to me and actually pretty capitalistic in a way that doesn't sit well with me."
Even so, in the mid-2010s the phrase started appearing everywhere. Internet memes. Coffee mugs. T-shirts. Although it's not clear how "spirit animal" entered popular vernacular, internet historians claim that it started appearing online un-ironically on Wiccan and Pagan message boards in the '90s. But in 2010, the meaning shifted as it was used in a joking manner on Tumblr and in the New York Times. In a lot of these cases, "spirit animal" didn't even reference an actual animal. Instead, one person may proclaim Harry Styles as their spirit animal, while another reserves that title for pizza.
How the Phrase Takes Away From a Sacred Connection With Nature
But therein lies the problem with this phrase. Even though "spirit animal" isn't a term widely used in Indigenous cultures—if at all—it takes the concept of their sacred connection with and reverence for nature and twists it into a catchphrase and a commodity. This makes it a damaging form of cultural appropriation. "It feels like people are making light of our culture," says Luger, now a journalist and founder of Indigenous wellness initiative Well for Culture. "That feels offensive because it's already been difficult for us over the years to have people recognize and respect who we are as people."
Animal Symbolism Among Indigenous People
While the phrase "spirit animal" may not be commonly used in Native cultures, animals are highly symbolic in general. "We do, of course, maintain connections and different relationships to the natural world around us," says Luger. There are thousands of Indigenous peoples in North America alone, so it's impossible to generalize the spiritual role that animals play across all of these groups and from person to person. But one example of animal symbolism among Indigenous peoples, according to Luger, is that political and familial organizations are sometimes named after animals. "You might be part of the Wolf Clan or you might be part of the Turtle Clan... These are part of the complex ways that our communities were and continue to be organized," she says. "I think it can feel very dehumanizing and disrespectful when something that is as storied and important as our clan systems is misinterpreted as this silly 'spirit animal' thing."
Furthermore, animals are often used among Native, Aboriginal, and Indigenous communities to communicate their values and spiritual beliefs. “Their importance is evident in creation stories and in the ways they are valued and respected for providing food, clothing, covering from the elements, and more,” says Jackie Ferguson, an inclusive language expert, certified diversity executive, and the VP of content and programming for The Diversity Movement, a diversity, equity, and inclusion firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Animal imagery is also sometimes used to share family, tribal, and personal stories. Animal imagery and symbolism in these cultures gives a glimpse into their understandings and beliefs regarding the interconnectedness of the environment.”
How Pop Culture Is Delegitimizing Words Like 'Tribe'
"Spirit animal" isn't the only linguistic form of cultural appropriation linked to Native culture that's been widely commoditized. The word "tribe"—commonly used in white yoga and wellness circles to signify a group of like-minded people—is also harmful given the loaded history behind it. "Initially, the federal government recognized Indigenous people as legitimate nations because that's what we are," Luger says, referring to the period following the American Revolution. But in the later stages of colonialism, she adds, the word "tribe" was imposed upon Indigenous peoples as a way of delegitimizing them.
"It's this complicated thing because within Native communities, of course, we still use the term. It's hard to erase the meaning of something that we have been using for 500 years. But when white people use the term in a playful way now, then we feel further delegitimized in our nationhood and that's why it's offensive." The same goes for words and phrases such as "chief," "powwow," and "Indian style"—all of which McDaid-Morgan's Instagram followers recently commented on when she reposted an educational series on Indigenous microaggressions.
“Terms such as tribe, chief, or powwow are often used to reference friend groups, leaders/managers, or gatherings, respectively,” Ferguson says. “The issue remains that there are sacred and integral parts of Native, Indigenous, and Aboriginal cultures that people from outside of those cultures often take, misapply, and subsume as part of their language. A gathering or a meeting is not a powwow.”
“Having been invited to participate in a powwow based on my family's relationship with a Muscogee Chief and my ancestral ties to Creek Nation (Choctaw), I can attest to the personal and spiritual significance of this event as one of many memorable cultural experiences in my life,” says Ferguson. “The frivolousness of interchanging this venerated event with a simple business meeting is disrespectful and belittling.”
The terms tribe and chief also hold sacred significance. “A tribe is a group of people bound together by family relations and shared culture or traditions,” Ferguson says. “Often, a tribe lives together in a defined territory and speaks a common language or dialect. Traditionally, a tribe’s livelihood, safety, way of life, and very existence were interdependent on each other. Tribal chiefs hold a revered cultural and spiritual leadership position within the tribe.” So, she adds, referring to a mimosa-drinking Sunday brunch group as a “tribe” or a manager as a “chief” is highly offensive and inaccurate.
And the term “Indian style” is also a stereotype that is offensive and imprecise and should never be used because it connotes colonialism and oppression. “Referring to First Nation, Native, Aboriginal, or Indigenous people as ‘Indian,’ indicates ignorance of geography, history, and inclusive language guidelines, which advise that we refer to people in the ways they refer to themselves,” Ferguson says.
Understanding Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation
Using any type of sacred cultural reference casually in conversations without understanding its significance is disrespectful. Ferguson notes that the only correct time to use these terms is when you are either educating yourself on the topic or conversing about it with someone of a Native, Indigenous, Aboriginal, or First Nations background in alignment with their appropriate meaning and with respect for the cultures. This, she adds, is an example of cultural appreciation.
Ferguson defines cultural appropriation as using sacred items, terms, and names; casually wearing clothing; or using other objects as novelties without giving proper reverence and understanding their history and meaning. For instance, when non-Native people burn white sage, it’s cultural appropriation.
On the other hand, cultural appreciation is as it sounds—an appreciation of other cultures that involves seeking to understand and learn more about them to better connect with each other. “I think if we start there and invest fully, we will better understand how to respect and value other cultures,” Ferguson says. “This thoughtful awareness can help us mitigate our biases and eradicate words and actions that are offensive and ill-considered, providing the opportunity to share cultures and experiences that bring us together.”
Bottom line? If you want to give love to your favorite brunch option or reality TV star, stay away from the phrase "spirit animal" and other appropriative language. The same goes if you sincerely want to express a kinship with a particular member of the animal kingdom. "Really, we should all be reaching back in our ancestral heritages to remake relations with more-than-humans, lands, and waters," says McDaid-Morgan. "[But] we don't need misappropriated, superficial, woo-woo terms that are steeped in capitalistic notions of relationships, like 'spirit animal,' to do that.”
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