The First Nations and Indigenous peoples of North America connect strongly with nature and the animals that inhabit it. One way that these peoples pay respects to the animals they share the world with is through spirit animals.
Spirit animals are messengers, guides, and teachers that come to people in the form of animal spirits. Owls are just one messenger that may appear to people, but that doesn’t make them any less sacred to the Indigenous peoples.
The writer of this article is not Indigenous or of First Nations heritage (not even on the same continent!) However, we did our best to source as many first-hand First Nations, Indigenous, and Native American sources as possible.
Additionally, this article is meant for educational and entertainment purposes only. Thus, we ask that you respect Native voices when they tell you not to use this concept for yourself unless you are of Native heritage or are given explicit permission from Native people.
We encourage you to research this topic directly through Native sources. This article from the National Museum of the American Indian elucidates why adopting spirit animals and clans into your non-Native life is offensive.
What Is a Spirit Animal? Where Does the Concept Originate?
The modern concept of spirit animals can be traced back to the First Nations and Indigenous peoples of North America. While many cultures worldwide have spiritual beliefs and connections to the animals that inhabit the world, the term “spirit animal” in the context we use it today is most similar to the beliefs of the First Nations and Indigenous peoples of North America.
Spirit animals are thought to be messengers, guides, and teachers. They are spirits that appear to you as an animal of their choosing. You are not limited to just one spirit animal; many spirits may reach out to you to help you throughout your life.
Many people outside of the First Nations and Indigenous communities erroneously believe that one’s spirit animal is like a Zodiac sign. Spirit animals do not communicate anything about the person they are visiting; if your spirit animal is a wolf, that does not mean you are “wolf-like” or possess the wolf’s characteristics. It simply means a spirit that enjoys the form of a wolf is visiting you.
What your spirit animal means to you is entirely unique to you as a person. Through your interactions with your spirit animal, you will develop a special meaning for its guidance and presence in your life. It has no inherent meaning; you determine what your spirit animal means by listening to, interacting with, and honoring it.
Spirit Animal vs. Birth Totem
Another animal that is significant to the Native Americans is the birth totem. Birth totems are more like what the average person knows as a Zodiac sign. They’re determined by your time and date of birth and are meant to determine what kind of person you’ll grow into.
Which animals are included in the birth totem list, and in what order are unique to the different tribes; no two tribes have precisely the same beliefs. Some don’t use birth totems at all! You’ll have to research and speak with members of different tribes to learn your birth totem and what it means for you!
Spirit Animal vs. Power Animal
You’ll also come across power animals when researching Native and First Nations beliefs. Like with spirit animals, you are not limited to just one power animal; many power animals may visit you throughout your lifetime.
Power animals are animals whose spirits you invoke when you need their mystical, shamanistic powers. For instance, a medicine man may invoke the spirit of the fox, a common medicinal animal in Native cultures, when searching for necessary or rare herbs or during an outbreak of illness in the tribe.
What Does the Owl Spirit Mean?
While your spirit animal itself may not have inherent meaning regarding who you are on the inside, there is meaning to encountering an owl spirit. Owl spirits have many meanings depending on what tribe’s mythos you’re looking at. However, they’re primarily defined by their association with wisdom, intelligence, and death.
The Lakota believe that the Great Horned owl and Screech owl are the most dangerous of the owls. Due to the plumicorns these owls possess, the Lakota believe they are symbols of immense power. However, they are also associated with the spirits of death, making them signs of strength and wisdom and a harbinger of death.
Since the Lakota believe that nighttime is associated with death and the underworld, the owl’s place as a nocturnal animal linked it to the underworld. Some tribes believe it to be a spirit of the restless dead, while others believe they are shape-shifters.
The Navajo also believe that the owl is linked to death and the underworld because of its nighttime hunting activities. Additionally, some Navajo believe that the owl’s tendency to eat small animals is a form of inexcusable violence. Coupled with the owl’s eerie vocalizations, this animal tends to be considered the enemy and the opposite of the eagle. Since the Navajo revere the eagle as a symbol of power, the owl’s position as its enemy and opposite of the eagle makes them a negative sign to the Navajo.
The Apache have a character in their mythology known as “Big Owl.” Big Owl’s position in the Apache mythos is similar to the Bogeyman in typical American children’s stories. In some Apache tribes, Big Owl has a more significant role in their mythos as an opponent of the War Twins early on in their myth. Like most Apache mythological beings, Big Owl has a human form as a man-eating ogre, and even in owl form, is large enough to carry off a child.
The Seminole tribes have many different beliefs regarding owls. Many Seminole tribes speak of the Stikini, evil witches who have transformed themselves into owl beings. During the day, the Stikini resemble humans and may even resemble other Seminole people. However, they vomit up their souls and innards at night and transform into undead owls that feed on human hearts.
The Seminole people believe that speaking of the Stikini by name puts you at risk of becoming a Stikini yourself. Thus, only certain medicine men are allowed to tell stories of them. However, some tribes speak of the Stikini casually as bogeymen from children’s stories.
The Hopi revere the owl, who they refer to as the Mongwa, as a sign of wisdom and intelligence. They believe that the Mongwa’s intelligence keeps their fields free of rodents and plays the “straight man” role when confronted with more frivolous and silly spirits that might play pranks on the Hopi people.
There are multiple types of Mongwa in the Hopi traditions. The term “Mongwa” on its own refers to the Great Horned Owl. But the Screech owl and the Spruce owl, named Hotsko and Salap Mongwa, respectively, in Hopi traditions, also have positions of great importance to the Hopi people.
How to Honor Your Spirit Animal
There is no rulebook on how you can honor your spirit animal. However, it is a significant tradition for those who believe in spirit animals. It’s important to honor your spirit animal. Your spirit animal is taking their time to guide and aid you through life. Thus, they should be thanked and revered for their assistance.
In many tribes, people create beadwork featuring their spirit animal to wear on their regalia. Additionally, dancers at Powwows and other festivals may assume positions evocative of their spirit animals during their dances to show respect for the spirits who guide them into their current roles in the tribe.
What Does the Owl Birth Totem Mean?
Not all tribes include the owl in their birth totems. However, those that do typically view those born under the guidance of the owl to be wise, intelligent, and multi-talented. Those born under the direction of the owl seek adventure and approach situations with a light-hearted. Yet, they have a wise nature that enables them to be successful at anything they put their minds to.
Native American traditions are deeply connected to nature and the animals that inhabit it. However, they are under threat of extinction. So we should do our best to support our Indigenous neighbors in keeping their cultures alive! Immerse yourself in the cultures of others with guidance from your local Native reservations. Learn everything you can about these gorgeous cultural traditions!
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What is a spirit animal?
Spirit animals are guides, messengers, and teachers that appear to people as animal spirits.
Where do spirit animals originate?
The most commonly used meaning for spirit animals today originates from the beliefs of several of the Native American tribes.
What do owl spirits represent?
Owl spirits represent intelligence, wisdom, death, and the underworld.
Are owl spirits good or bad?
Some tribes believe the owl spirit is good; others believe it is evil and dangerous.
What does the owl birth totem mean?
As a birth totem, the owl represents intelligence, wisdom, and adventurousness.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
- National Museum of the American Indian, Available here: https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/informational/native-american-spirit-animal
- Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Available here: https://centerofthewest.org/2018/08/06/owls-native-american-culture/#:~:text=Many%20tribes%20across%20the%20country,a%20spirit%20in%20some%20way.
- UniGuide, Available here: https://www.uniguide.com/owl-meaning-symbolism-spirit-animal-guide
- Native American Jewelry, Available here: https://www.nativeamericanjewelry.com/native-american-birth-totems/
- Native American Languages, Available here: http://www.native-languages.org/legends-owl.htm
- Akta Lakota, Available here: https://aktalakota.stjo.org/lakota_spirit_animal/owl-hinhan/
- USC Digital Archive of Folklore, Available here: http://folklore.usc.edu/owls-and-the-lakota/
- AREW, Available here: https://arew.org/why-is-the-owl-bad-in-navajo/
- YouTube, Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Cu8fLzSol8