18 October, 2012

Spirit Animals -- Racist?

Hey, Readers,

This first bit is going to be cross-posted from something I just put on my tumblr, where this originated. Then I'll add on.

Someone sent this anonymously to someone I follow on tumblr:
Using the term spirit animal is cultural appropriation and perpetuates racism. I didn’t know until someone told me, so I thought I’d pass the information along. Better terms can be “patronus,” “daemon,” or something similar.
It is, of course, referring to the trend of calling someone or something, especially in the media (Honey Boo Boo, Doritos, that lady who isn’t a model, etc.), your spirit animal.
I was wondering what those of you who also believe in and work with spirit animals think about this. Personally, I never had a problem with it or thought it was racist. Admittedly, this could be because I don’t think spirit animals and similar concepts are specific only to certain cultures and races, so it would be difficult to say exactly whom you are appropriating. I think Native Americans/American Indians are probably the big one people in the States think of, but other cultures use these concepts, as well.
Patronus and daemon actually have more direct cultural connections (they’re not just things made up in books, although the Harry Potter patronus makes more sense with this trend than the Roman patronus) (and daemons are Greek), so I really don’t think they’re any better if you want to avoid something that could potentially be making fun of a culture.
So anyway, I put pagans in the title of this just because there’s a higher chance of finding people who work with these concepts there, but of course non-pagans do, too. So this is just for anyone who believes in and works with these types of guides, or whatever you personally call them. What do you think?


So, here is my add-on section:

mikothecat replied to my post saying "I never thought of it as being racist either. Much like you said, I never considered the idea of having spirit animals limited to a certain group of people or culture."

Someone else suggested the word "Eomkin" which translates to "I am kin." When I looked this up online, the only result I found was a link to the tumblr post wherein someone suggested that word as an alternative, non-offensive term for "spirit animal."

On that post, further up, was where someone suggested "daemon" and "patronus" saying that the only person you're appropriating with "daemon" is Pullman and only Harry Potter with "patronus." However, as I said in my original post, daemon and patronus DO also have cultural meaning. A daemon is a Greek nature spirit. Pullman was certainly not the first to use this term. So you could easily be offending a Hellenist or other followers of Greek religion. And patronus does make more sense in the Harry Potter definition, but the word means "patron" in Roman culture which is where I think Rowling probably got the idea to use that word for a spirit who protects someone. Several of the words she uses in the books for magic spells are actual words, so I wouldn't be surprised if she chose patronus knowing its Roman origin.

Anyway, point being, some people are taking this "racism" thing pretty far when they seek to replace their "offensive" terms with thing that have even more direct history. I do believe that spirit animals are a concept that spans several cultures, whereas these other terms definitely only stem from one.

If you're going to call something racist, at least look up the things you want to start saying instead.

Blessings~
-C-


Further edit! I have received a reply on tumblr from a Native American, saying theirs is the culture being appropriated because that is where said terms originated, and as outsiders, we cannot know what spirit animals are about, etc. and we can't use them. Furthermore, I was also being offensive by asking pagans their opinion on this, because they are not pagans' concepts to have opinions on. I explained in the post, as you can see above, that I addressed pagans just because I know pagans use similar concepts, so I was hoping to reach an audience that would have an opinion about it that way. But basically, I'm an eclectic practitioner. Everything I do is probably deemed offensive by someone, no matter how well I look into it and how respectful I am of it--it is racist simply because it's not from my culture. It doesn't matter if a Native American taught me these concepts, or if a Native American wrote the books society reads to learn about these concepts. It doesn't matter what we do, in some cases. And I am still confused about the fact that cultures other than Native Americans do use these concepts. But I've asked the person who wrote to me about that, and I hope to gain some more understanding. Also, I will definitely make it a point to ask my Native American friends about this, now that I know theirs is the culture we're talking about.
-C-

9 comments:

  1. Hi Cara, I was shocked with the idea of being racist by using the term 'spirit animal'... I agree that there are other shamanic cultures in the world who use these concepts such as the Siberian Shamans, or in Mesoamerican cultures there is a similiar concept called the Nahual(Carlos Castaneda also makes reference to this) but I think the only racist thing would be the statement that a person can't make use of the native wisdom because they're white. I once heard a Native American saying that stated the white man's son will one day value and cherish the native traditions. In my opinion we are honoring and recognizing our roots by using their concepts or trying to learn more about them.

    Patricio

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  3. It's not the "concept" that's appropriation, it's just the actual phrase "spirit animal." This phrase was introduced into English literature by white anthropologists documenting Anishinaabe religion, which includes spirit animals.

    You're more than welcome to have spirit guides, or animal guides, or be guided by animal spirits... you just can't have a "spirit animal" because that phrase belongs to one particular religion. Just like a 14 year old boy can have a "coming of age party" but it won't be a "bar mitzvah" unless he's Jewish. Same idea.

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    1. Mercedes,

      I hadn't gotten on here yet to reply to you, but thank you for your comment. Yours is the first time I had actually seen/heard anyone name which exact religion this issue affects most/where it originates. I tried looking up more about it, and realized that this really changes the whole way people are looking at the issue. It's not just a Native vs. non-Native issue as so many people online are saying. If this is an Ashinaabe concept, then it's worth noting that any non-Ashinaabe tribes with other, similar but not exact concepts (which they may or may not also call "spirit animals") are also not talking about the same thing. And other Native/Indigenous people may not have concepts like this at all. I think this really affects me because while I have learned about the concepts of "spirit animals" from Native Americans all my life, and have continued to speak with Native people about this issue ever since I heard about it, those people are not all from Ashinaabe groups, so their concepts are also going to be different. This may really help explain why many people feel that they do know about the religious concept (whether from Native or other world cultures), while it is ALSO true that we DON'T know what that concept means for the Ashinaabe. Many groups are using the same English phrasing to describe multiple similar, but not identical spiritual concepts.

      I posted this next part in my long reply to Faith, below, but it's about the point you brought up so I'm going to just copy part of it here, and then please do read the link Faith shared below and my thoughts about that, too, if you're interested.

      " The bar mitzvah comment doesn't make sense to me. Those are Hebrew phrases, obviously connected directly to that religious practice, whereas "spirit animal" is an English phrase, a translation of the idea. So you would think if "coming of age ceremony" is okay but "bar mitzvah" is not (if you're not Jewish), then "spirit animal" being an English phrase would be okay, but using the Ashinaabe word is OBVIOUSLY not. "

      (Cont.)

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    2. (Continued from previous)

      The link/conversation that Faith linked to includes commentary from an Ashinaabe person who explains that there is of course an Ashinaabe word for it but they wouldn't type it online (understandable), but then they said that the English phrases they usually use for it are "dream helper" or "spirit helper." Those are not phrases I've heard other Native people use, so that would tell me that those are even more closely the English phrases that really describe the Ashinaabe concept. But they start using the phrase "spirit animal" synonymously, because that's commonly what other people call it. And they go into why it's an issue because of how people perceive it as a Native concept, so any negative fallout gets put on the Native American people, etc. Really, it was so helpful, so thank you both for your input. I still think the fact that we're talking about English translations of concepts really inflates the issue and the confusion around it, though. Especially when some people have been saying, as you mentioned, that "animal spirit" is okay but "spirit animal" is not. It's not the concept, it's not even the words, it's the exact order of the words in a phrase... It just seems off. Based on the person's blog post I'd not hesitate to say that "dream/spirit helper" as being the translations they usually use are NOT okay to use. I've never heard those used anywhere else (even by NA people with other animal spirit beliefs), they do seem to convey a specific belief that is different from others, and they are pretty unique from what I've come across (NOT that I know everything, CLEARLY... but they're obviously not as common). So I feel like the phrase itself still needs some breaking down as to why it can't be used by the many other groups who have these beliefs (though not the same belief as Ashinaabe people, undoubtedly), because it seems like a pretty obvious English translation of the idea, which is why the anthropologists used it. But I feel like I have a better understanding of the ways that so many people using "spirit animal" comes around to affect certain people negatively even though they may not be the only ones who actually have these beliefs and concepts and relationships with spirits.

      So thank you!
      Blessings~
      -C-

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  4. I keep seeing posts from all over the internet stating that if you say you have X as a spirit animal you are somehow culturally appropriating someone's deeply held spiritual and cultural beliefs. Or that you are somehow being a racist. I reject this as both nonsense and false.
    I can't tell if this nonsense is more hilarious or upsetting. 1) mocking a religion or spiritual idea is not racism. 2) stating that a belief is based upon race is actually a racist thought process. No one race is superior to any other or holds any special insights that is denied to others based on race, and stating otherwise just proves that the person saying it is a bigoted douchenozzle. 3) Being so sensitive of innocent phrases shows a need for thicker skin by the accuser as it threatens to make everything unsayable, dangerous, and questionable as nobody becomes sure what is fine and what may offend someone. Freedom of speech and thought must be protected, if nothing else.
    And back to point number one: I WILL ALWAYS MOCK RELIGION. If said religion is so sensitive to mockery, poking fun, playfulness, etc...it must not possess much truth to it and just saying that it offends you as you hold those beliefs is not a good enough reason to get someone else to stop. Perhaps ask the god/gods/spirits you worship to make me stop and see how far that gets you.

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  5. "...you just can't have a "spirit animal" because that phrase belongs to one particular religion. Just like a 14 year old boy can have a "coming of age party" but it won't be a "bar mitzvah" unless he's Jewish. Same idea."
    BEST. POINT. WIN.

    Also, yeah hope this author got educated. Better check out https://iistrawberrychanii.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/psa-yes-spirit-animals-are-cultural-appropriation-that-means-you/ and cross your fingers and toes. Pagans can be culturally appropriate and insensitive too, and that means you're working in concert with racism...which means you...are....

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    1. Thank you for sharing. This author, if you were referring to me, has definitely been continuing to research, and Mercedes' comment above and now the link you shared are honestly the first time I've ever seen anyone naming Ashinaabe as the religion in particular that is being appropriated. This changes certain things, because it no longer means this is a Native vs. non-Native issue only, but that this isn't even a concept that belongs to all of Native America in the same way. By this argument, it's not just non-Natives who shouldn't be using it, but anyone who isn't part of Ashinaabe groups. Which I know isn't the case, because I know Native Americans whose ties are to non-Ashinaabe tribes, and many of them have similar concepts, though not the same as the Ashinaabe concept, and they use the same English vocabulary to convey the idea. But their original language word would be different, and the concept would be different than the Ashinaabe one.

      The bar mitzvah comment doesn't make sense to me. Those are Hebrew phrases, obviously connected directly to that religious practice, whereas "spirit animal" is an English phrase, a translation of the idea. So you would think if "coming of age ceremony" is okay but "bar mitzvah" is not (if you're not Jewish), then "spirit animal" being an English phrase would be okay, but using the Ashinaabe word is OBVIOUSLY not. The post you linked somewhat touches on that, saying that the Ashinaabe word is so sacred, in fact, that they won't even put it online (which may explain why I haven't been able to find direct translations of what concept, exactly, "spirit animal" is the English phrase for in that religion). But that person actually says that the English terms they use are usually "dream helper" or "spirit helper." They seem to be saying that "spirit animal" is what has become of people incorrectly conflating the ideas with Native practice, but isn't actually the English phrase that they use for their religious concept. It does just seem a bit odd, too, that "animal spirit" is okay, but "spirit animal" is not.

      I absolutely understand now the point they are making about how people incorrectly using the terms negatively affects perception of Native American culture--that is the definition of appropriation, when it causes harm--but the argument about the English words just seems to confuse things. I think it should be obvious to anyone that using the original word/phrase is appropriation. But there are still many people worldwide who do have their own sacred beliefs concerning spirits of animals--no one can really tell an animal spirit who to connect with or not--and people may choose to call it something different, sure... Even those non-Native versions of concepts of animal guides and things, people taking those things and flat out using them incorrectly and perpetuating hatred or confusion because of it is always going to be wrong. And I see why it's harmful that that reflects back on Native Americans. Though as a lot of my asking around and looking around showed, too, a lot of people actually don't associate this idea with Native Americans because it's recognized as a human cultural concept, or thought of as New Age (like other comments were saying), so while some people might see people using the term harmfully and reflect it to Native culture, many others would not. Telling those people it's a Native concept, when they may have only considered it New Age, is probably more harmful because now they're associating it with Native Americans when they otherwise wouldn't have at all.

      (Cont.)

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    2. (Continued from previous, it was too long, haha)

      So thank you, truly, because even knowing that Ashinaabe religion is the one in question is a new thing--I really hadn't seen anyone talking about that before, it was always just Native vs. not. I still don't think the "bar mitzvah" argument is really a good metaphor, though, because that's taking original terms vs. English terms that are okay, whereas this issue is discussing an English translation of a concept as also being not okay.

      Similarly, I still think people urging use of "daemon" and "patronus" is not helpful, because those are also culturally specific and from other languages. So. Same problem there.

      Pagans can absolutely be culturally appropriative and insensitive. Some are even flat-out racists, no holds barred. It's sad, but true. But Pagans--actual practitioners, anyway--are also more likely to know about terms like animism and shamanism, and know that those beliefs are universal throughout cultures, and therefore not automatically associate the negative things some people do with Native American culture, recognizing that it's much more than that, whether you say "spirit animal", "animal spirit", "animal guide", or what have you. Even if we don't say the words "spirit" and "animal" in that order, and even if our different views of animal spirits aren't ever going to be the same as the Ashinaabe concept of them, people causing harm to that concept offends anyone who strongly believes in it. And because that appears to be reflecting solely back on Native American culture, I hope that anyone who has any version of that concept in their practice would continue to try and help to combat that issue. Though it's hard, because other Native Americans don't seem to think it's causing harm, even those who do have animal guides and similar things.

      Anyway, thank you, really, that's the main point of this really long response haha. It adds a lot to the discussion. I appreciate it.

      Blessings~
      -C-

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