Friday, March 13, 2015

Spirit Animals: Not for Online Quizzes

I've talked on this blog before about my evolution as a spiritual person, and how it has inevitably been tied up in race.  I'd like to return to that theme today from a different angle.

I'm a white girl, and I have a spirit animal guide.

It feels appropriative as shit, and it's not something I necessarily share with people, at least not in those terms.  I will say, "I feel a special connection to badgers," or "Badger really helped me through some hard times."  Yes, sometimes people just think I'm a furry, but ultimately, if I don't have the time to go into detail about why and how badger became my spirit guide, I'm not about to just say "My spirit animal is the badger!" like I took some internet quiz.

My whole life, being in the woods was the closest thing I ever felt to religion, and I've always loved animals. I used to sneak out in the mornings and hunker down behind a hill to watch the deer come through our field.  Even watching squirrels and chipmunks was a pleasure.  I nagged my parents for a dog relentlessly for two years until they gave in.  All of this shaped who I was when my guide came to me.

I was in graduate school and feeling profoundly disempowered.  I felt affection from my colleagues, but also inadequate, like I couldn't live up to the standards they set.  My professors were nice and polite but I felt a lack of advocacy from them at best and antagonism from some.  I didn't necessarily have one distinct spiritual tradition, so I relied on lots of little affirmations in my life to help me through (as well as my close relationships).  One of these came in the form of a youtube video that you may be familiar with: I actually, literally remembered that "honey badger don't give a shit" when I felt like the entire culture of graduate school was organized to prevent me from living a happy, fulfilling life.

During my spring break of my second year in school, I visited a dear friend in Santa Fe.  It was restorative for many reasons (connecting with friends, time in nature).  But I will always remember the day my friend took me to a store selling animal fetish figurines, made by local Zuni artists.  It wasn't just the beauty of the stone animals that made such an impact; reading about the spirit animal tradition in their booklets and pamphlets really made sense to me.  I loved reading about what different animals had to teach, and how observing them in nature gave us guidance for how to handle our own problems.

Reading about badger, too, was like having a lightbulb go off.  Badger is the animal of advocacy, teaching us through its tenacity and protectiveness how to fight for others. It is an animal that has a deep connection to dirt and the earth (think digging) and is the keeper of stories, due to its strong jaw muscles.  These are all elements that have played a strong part in my identity throughout my life, and I truly felt like watching honey badger refuse to give a shit was a way of bringing me to this aspect of my spirituality, coming to a point in the store where I saw it in context of Zuni animism.

I bought a beautiful stone badger fetish (it sits on my desk at home), and when I got home, I did as much research as I could on Zuni spirit animal traditions.  I was determined, if I was going to do this, that I would do it right.  It was very important to me that I not engage in a practice of appropriation, but rather, take the tradition seriously as an earnest expression of my spirituality.

I have since learned that one may tend to have a spirit guide animal that resurfaces often in your life (for me, that's badger), but the Zuni tradition suggests that any animal that appears in our life may have something to teach us at that moment.  I have found this approach to be extremely enriching and important in my life: turtles have reminded me to slow down and reconnect with the earth when I have been frantic, hummingbirds have encouraged me to be more carefree when I was overwhelmed, and rabbits have reminded me that living a life of fear is neither productive nor joyful.

In writing this post and sharing this part of me, I hope to highlight a few strategies I took in order to try to avoid appropriation.  First, I engaged in good faith, meaning that I took the Zuni tradition as seriously as I would any other faith tradition.  I was engaging because it resonated with me.  Second, I tried to get as much of my information as possible from Zuni and other Native sources, including patronizing Native shops and artists (I encourage you to check out any local Native artists in your area, if you are interested, or look for some online).  I also make an effort to be aware of what is happening currently among Native communities, starting in my own state (I've been very lucky to attend pow-wows in my area), and talk to Native folks when I have the chance.  It's really important for non-Native Americans to realize that Native culture is not a thing of the past, but rather consists of many contemporary, dynamic cultures.  Finally, if I ever have an opportunity to discuss with other white folks my spirit animal, I only do so if I have the space and time to explain why it is important to me, and I am careful to include the specific nation (Zuni) and recommendations for contemporary Native voices.

Am I doing this right?  I don't know.  I do my best to engage in cultural exchange and support, and not fall into appropriation.  As a white person living in a nation built on violent colonialization, though, part of claiming this spiritual belief means that I must also constantly be aware of how I am engaging with this tradition.  I need to listen. I need to do my best to cede my unearned power, or at least use it to encourage others to do the work of rejecting appropriation.

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