How Indigenous culture is appropriated when people declare their ‘spirit animals’

Kerry Justich
·6-min read
Pop culture references to your 'spirit animal' are offensive. (Photo: Getty Images)
Pop culture references to your 'spirit animal' are offensive. (Photo: Getty Images)

With a simple Google search of the term “spirit animal,” people everywhere can participate in the pop culture phenomenon that is choosing an animal, TV character or even a drink at Starbucks that is representative of themselves. The craze focuses on singling out something that might resonate with a person’s personality or identity that they’d like to take on. But for the Indigenous peoples who were raised with a distinctly different cultural understanding of a spirit animal, its role within a tribe and even the way that it inhabits an environment, the many online quizzes, explainers and Urban Dictionary definitions available to the general population are less fun than they are offensive.

“A spirit helper, animal guide or even guardian angel” is how Tristan Picotte, who grew up on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, explains the concept of a spirit animal to Yahoo Life. “It is a guardian, a helper, a watchful eye and it is not new or recent if you understand a guardian angel.”

In contrast, Urban Dictionary’s top definition of a spirit animal reads, “A person or character that represents your inner personality. Someone who behaves as though they are showing your feelings through their own actions.” Latter definitions specifically refer to its rhetorical use online and even call it a “catch-all phrase” associated with myths, neglecting to acknowledge its origins in Native American culture. Finally, one reads, “A word that was used in Native American culture that white people stole to represent how they related to animals or celebrities. Many don't know that this is culturally insensitive.”

Raised in the Lakota tribe, Picotte says that the spirit animal may have various origins, as individual tribes have different beliefs of what it is and where it comes from. His own upbringing, however, lends to the understanding that despite the online quizzes that many non-Indigenous people take to find their own spirit animal, they’re typically not self-selected.

“I have been taught that one does not ‘receive’ a spirit animal. For [Lakota people], spirit animals can inhabit environments, objects or even ideas. To ‘receive’ a spirit animal is for it to have deemed itself necessary, worthy or able to help an individual (also deemed worthy of help) at the time they need it,” he says. “To ‘claim’ a spirit animal is arguably extremely arrogant and shows a misunderstanding of the concept and respect for what they are.”

The widespread claiming of spirit animals within pop culture is nothing new. The Atlantic even traced the term’s roots on the internet back to 2006, when a message board user claimed actor Samuel L. Jackson as a spirit animal. Since then, this use of the term has been passed around in a meme-like fashion on websites like Tumblr and Facebook, making its way to sites like BuzzFeed, where users can answer questions and select multiple-choice options on a myriad of quizzes to identify their spirit animal.

While not on the level of wearing Native American-inspired costumes for Halloween, Picotte points out that this more mainstream and whitewashed use of the spirit animal is still a form of cultural appropriation, although less evident. “Any kind of appropriation that deals more with belief than tangibles will always be more overlooked,” he explains. “A spirit animal is not tangible, which gives people a lot of leeway to make up something about it. It is not the same as if they were trying to replicate a ceremonial item like a Čaŋnúŋpa, a pipe that is integral to Lakota ceremonies.” Still, taking the Native concept as another culture’s own while disregarding where it comes from is problematic.

“A lot of indigenous culture can be easily manipulated like this because we did not document ceremonies or traditions like some cultures did. Our teachings were taught through oral tradition, passed down to generations through example. These were social etiquettes and understandings and beliefs that were shared by our people without need to document them,” he says. “There can be a vast number of different answers to the meaning and the process, given so many different tribes.”

Heightened social justice movements and calls to action surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement have affected larger waves of change throughout groups appropriating BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) culture, like the Brooklyn-based alt-pop band previously called Spirit Animal. The band has since redubbed itself Record Heat.

“When this band was named a decade or so ago, it was done from a place of love and inclusiveness. The two words ‘spirit animal,’ without any context, had so much power and felt so uplifting that everyone who heard the name would interpret it uniquely for themselves. With every conversation, release and performance we found new people who the name excited and drew in, and we fed this open-endedness by laying strict ground rules for how we applied it. Namely, we never used animal-related art or themes and, most importantly, we never used cultural imagery that wasn't our own,” a statement from the band on Aug. 17 read. “The ubiquity of the term ‘spirit animal’ in society made its use feel OK. The debate about its appropriateness was almost non-existent online or off. Even as you read this in 2020, many of you may be confused or surprised that we're couching our decision to change our name in these terms. But a few times now we have been asked about the name. ‘Are you Native American?’ someone messaged us on social media. On a couple occasions, someone has called us out in the comments. These instances were so infrequent that it was difficult to justify taking action. But today we are here to say something we think everyone should aim to internalize and live up to: it doesn't matter how many people are hurt by something you're doing; one person should be enough to make you stop, if not stop and think.”

The group, made up of three men, went on to announce it was changing its name to Record Heat “in solidarity with the Indigenous people whose lives and histories have been overturned and undermined by a brutally unjust system and a cultural blindspot as big as the sun itself.”

During November’s National Native American Heritage Month, Picotte explains the need for ongoing education and understanding when it comes to Native culture — especially as it evolves into what Picotte refers to as the “melting pot” of American culture. “This lack of understanding is the most offensive part of the problem,” he says. “By knowingly or unknowingly misusing what little culture many Indigenous people have, you are in fact disrespecting what is left of it.”

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