The Indigenous peoples of North America have strong spiritual beliefs about nature and the other creatures that inhabit the world. Spirit animals are one way Native Americans connect with nature and allow it to influence and improve their everyday lives. However, many people misunderstand what spirit animals represent. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about spirit animals and snake symbolism in First Nations cultures.
This article’s writer is not of Native American, Indigenous, or First Nations heritage. However, we have tried to source as many first-hand Native sources as we could. We want to represent Native voices in an article about their spirituality correctly. We encourage our Indigenous readers to send in corrections regarding these articles. A-Z Animals wants to ensure we’re elevating Native voices on our platform.
Additionally, A-Z Animals does not condone or encourage the cultural appropriation of spirit animals and clans into the lives of Non-Native peoples. We encourage you to listen and hear the words spoken by Indigenous peoples when they ask us not to appropriate this time-honored tradition. Spirit animals are not novelties or toys; they are more than your favorite animal. They are a cultural zeitgeist of the Native American peoples. Therefore, they should be treated with the utmost respect. This includes not using the term to refer to oneself unless you are Native.
For more information about why it’s offensive to adopt spirit animals and clans into your daily life as a non-Native person, we encourage you to read articles by Native voices. This article from the National Museum of the American Indian is a great place to start.
What Is a Spirit Animal in Native American Traditions?
Spirit animals are a revered type of spirit that acts as a guide, teacher, or messenger to a person throughout their life. These spirits appear to their human counterparts as animals, from where we get the term “spirit animal.” You are not limited to just one spirit animal; many animal spirits may visit you throughout your life to guide you through different situations.
Many people misunderstand what spirit animals mean to the Native Americans. The most popular misunderstanding is that spirit animals are like Zodiac signs; spirit animals do not define the type of person you are or who you will grow into.
The meaning you derive from your spirit animal is unique to you and the spirit in question. There is no inherent meaning to your spirit animal as you would have for a Zodiac sign. As you interact with your spirit animal, and if and when it eventually has imparted all of its wisdom and moves on — if it does.
Suppose you are unsure of what your spirit animal is. In that case, Native Americans believe you need only to ask your spirit animal to reveal itself, and it shall. After all, your spirit animal is your teacher; it does not need to hide or be mysterious.
Tribal Trade Co has some excellent questions you can ask yourself when searching for the identity of your spirit animal. For example, asking yourself if you’ve ever felt particularly drawn to, frightened of, med of, or mystified by a specific animal is a great place to start when it comes to searching for your spirit animal. You might also ask yourself if you see a particular animal often appearing in your dreams or motifs around you.
Spirit Animal vs. Birth Totem
Another animal that is significant in Native American traditions is the birth totem. Birth totems are more like what the rest know as Zodiac signs. They’re determined by your date and time of birth and are meant to define your character and who you will grow up to be.
Not all animals are included in the birth totem, and the included animals will change based on the specific tribe’s beliefs. In addition, some tribes don’t have birth totems at all.
Spirit Animal vs. Power Animal
Power animals are also animal spirits with special meanings and talents in the Indigenous traditions. Power animals are animal spirits that you invoke when you need their mystical capabilities. Which animals have power and what powers they have differs between tribes. For instance, many tribes believe that the fox is a powerful medicinal animal that can lead you to rare medicinal herbs. However, the Navajo believe the fox is an ardent trickster who may lead you astray.
As a result, in some tribes, a medicine man may invoke the fox as a power animal during an outbreak of illness in the tribe. But other tribes would prefer to avoid the fox as both a physical animal and a spirit if they can.
What Does the Snake Spirit Symbolize?
While spirit animals may not have inherent meaning, the Native Americans do ascribe meaning and symbolism to the presence of certain spirits and animals. As we mentioned above, the fox is sometimes seen as a medicinal animal that may know where rare herbs are. The snake is a pivotal figure in many Native American legends. We’ve compiled a few of the myths you can hear when looking across the United States of America.
Snakes are often regarded as poor omens and are typically avoided by many Native American tribes. This is because they’re often associated with violence and revenge. However, some Mexican and Californian tribes revere certain kinds of snakes, especially the Kingsnake.
The horned serpent is a figure in the mythologies of many Eastern Native American tribes. Thus, we’ve compiled them into a subheading instead of introducing many similar myths. The horned serpent has many different features across different tribes. However, they’re typically associated with massive, scaly, dragon-like bodies with horns and long teeth. The fact that so many tribes have a horned serpent legend has led researchers to believe that the creature is based on a real creature that no longer walks the Earth, like the giant crocodile.
In Native American myths, the horned serpent has many mystical powers; it’s a supernatural creature. Some magical abilities the horned serpent may present are shapeshifting, hypnosis, and invisibility. They may also bestow supernatural medicinal abilities to those who defeat one in battle or control storms and the weather. Regardless, this creature is no laughing matter to the Eastern tribes.
Horned serpents do not appear in Woodland folktales of the natural world. So, it’s safe to say that the Native Americans believed this was a magical creature or mythological spirit, not a regular animal like the alligators and crocodiles in folklore.
Some examples of horned serpents in tribe-specific mythology include the Big Water Snake of the Blackfoot tribe, Gitaskog of the Abenaki, and Hiintcabiit of the Arapaho tribe. However, horned serpents are present almost universally in the mythologies of Eastern Native American tribes.
Snakes might not be the most revered animal in Native American mythologies. However, it’s still the subject of many myths and legends. From the horned serpents of the Eastern tribes to Quetzalcoatl and other southern and western myths about the snake, there’s no shortage of amazing stories to hear and tell about the snake.
Once again, we want to remind everyone that spirit animals are not novelties or toys. They are a crucial spiritual belief within the Native American tribes and must be treated respectfully. Please respect the voices of Native American people when they ask you not to appropriate this concept into your life without guidance from actual Native American people.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
How do I find my spirit animal?
To find your spirit animal, you need only ask it to reveal itself to you. Your spirit animal is not a mysterious figure; they are a teacher that will gladly reveal themselves to help you throughout life.
What does the snake symbolize?
Most tribes believe that the snake symbolizes violence and revenge. However, some tribes in Mexico and California revere snakes as gods.
What is a birth totem?
Birth totems are somewhat like a Native American Zodiac. They are animals assigned to specific birth dates and times that are meant to determine what kind of person you will grow up to be.
What is a power animal?
Power animals are spirits that you invoke when you need their mystical abilities to help you throughout life.
What is a spirit animal?
Spirit animals are spiritual guides that appear as animals to teach and bring messages to you throughout life.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
- Tribal Trade Co, Available here: https://us.tribaltradeco.com/blogs/teachings/what-is-a-spirit-animal
- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horned_Serpent#:~:text=The%20Horned%20Serpent%20appears%20in,Complex%20of%20North%20American%20prehistory.
- Native Languages, Available here: http://www.native-languages.org/legends-snake.htm
- Legends of America, Available here: https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-totems/
- National Museum of the American Indian, Available here: https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/informational/native-american-spirit-animal
- Native American Vault, Available here: https://www.nativeamericanvault.com/pages/totem-animals-and-their-meanings
- We R Native, Available here: https://www.wernative.org/articles/spirit-animals
- Faust Gallery, Available here: https://www.faustgallery.com/what-is-a-native-american-totem-animal/
- Native American Jewelry, Available here: https://www.nativeamericanjewelry.com/native-american-birth-totems/