Indigenous and First Nations tribes place enormous weight on nature and human interactions with nature. One way that First Nations connect with the nature around them is through Spirit Animals. Let’s take a look at one possible Spirit Animal and identify what it means to Indigenous peoples as best we can.
The writer of this article is not Indigenous or of First Nations heritage. However, we did our best to compile only sources from Indigenous-owned and operated organizations. The information compiled here is only for educational and entertainment purposes. A-Z Animals does not claim to be an authoritative source on Indigenous and First Nations cultures.
A-Z Animals also does not recommend culturally appropriating the Spirit Animal concept. This is a critical cultural practice for Indigenous peoples. We recommend only using this term in reference to First Nations persons with their express consent.
What Is a Spirit Animal? What Does It Mean to the First Nations?
The exact spirituality regarding Spirit Animals differs between tribes. However, the general teaching is that your Spirit Animal is a teacher or messenger that comes to you in the form of an animal. Once again, this is not a novelty or fun concept. These spirits are sacred to the First Nations. Those outside their influence should treat them with the utmost respect.
Spirit Animals typically have a general “meaning” associated with them. Still, the true meaning of one’s Spirit Animal is designed and defined by the individual, not a tome or text. Thus, once you’ve found your Spirit Animal, there is no need to stress about what it means. Instead, what your Spirit Animal means to you will be revealed through your interactions with it.
In First Nations cultures, you do not choose your Spirit Animal. Instead, your Spirit Animal chooses you and decides to be your guide and messenger during your life. Thus, your Spirit Animal is selected by the Spirit itself rather than your birthday or another trait that a Zodiac-esque system might use.
A person is not limited to one Spirit Animal. Many Spirit Animals may visit throughout the course of one’s life, and they may choose to take different forms as they’re independent creatures.
Spirit Animal vs. Birth Totem
Many people confuse the Spirit Animal and the Birth Totem, especially those with little interaction with the First Nations beyond popular culture. Unlike the Spirit Animal, which chooses you at birth, your Birth Totem is more like a Zodiac sign, determined by the time of your birth.
What many people believe the Spirit Animal represents is actually represented by the Birth Totem rather than the Spirit Animal. Your Spirit Animal doesn’t “define” who you are or associate you with specific traits. Instead, the Spirit Animal is a guide and friend that takes the form of an animal of its own choice.
Like with Spirit Animals, the exact meaning of your Birth Totem differs between tribes. So while there is a generally accepted meaning for them that you can reference, the precise meaning of your Birth Totem will change based on what tribe you’re a part of.
To put it briefly, your Spirit Animal is your friend and guide, an independent source of knowledge and support for your life. Your Birth Totem is who you ‘are’ on the inside and determines your personality and other personal traits.
Spirit Animal vs. Power Animal
In First Nations cultures, a Power Animal may also assist you in life. This animal is a spirit you invoke when you need additional assistance from the world beyond. Power Animals are sometimes referred to as Tutelary Spirits, meaning they act as a protector or guardian of a particular place, people, person, or thing. In an individual sense, your Power Animal is your spiritual protector and guardian.
Many Power Animals may visit a person in their lives. Power Animals are also sometimes associated with wider guardianship of whole tribes or bloodlines.
What Does the Wolf Spirit Symbolize?
Generally, the Wolf Spirit symbolizes education, intelligence, strong family ties, and loyalty. However, the exact meaning and lore behind the Wolf Spirit differ between tribes, so we’ve compiled a few of the individual tribes’ beliefs regarding Wolf Spirits.
The Lakota tribe has very positive opinions of the Wolf and his Spirits. In Lakota legends, the Wolf taught humans how to interact cooperatively and be loyal to the family, both found and born. They also believe that the Wolf holds immense supernatural power, and its ability is prized in the Lakota society.
In fact, the Lakota tribe has a Wolf Society, an elite society of warriors who wear wolf pelts and pray to the spirit of the Wolf for prowess in battle. Even outside the Wolf Society, Lakota scouts also wear wolf pelts. They mirror Wolf’s hunting patterns by sending scouts ahead of the pack and scrutinizing every detail of their surroundings, much like their Spirit Animal guides.
Conversely, the Navajo fear the wolf for its power. They associate the Wolf Spirit with its immense supernatural powers and treat the wolf with trepidation. This fear comes from the use of Wolf’s power by witch clans who seek to upend the natural order using Wolf’s power. The Navajo are not the only tribe that believes Wolf’s power is often used for evil by witches. The Hopi tribe has a similar belief system.
Many Navajo believe the wolves of the world to be skinwalkers. These witches can take the form of any animal at will. While not all witches are skinwalkers, all skinwalkers are witches, and the Navajo tribe treats the wolf with the respect one might give to a demon.
How to Honor Your Spirit Animal
Honoring the Spirit Animal who has chosen to protect and guide you is essential. After all, this spirit has made a lifelong commitment to you and deserves to be thanked. There are many ways to honor one’s spirit animal.
Many indigenous people like to create beadwork featuring their Spirit Animal to wear on their regalia. Dancers at festivals and Powwows often assume the posture of their Spirit Animals during their dances, especially if they’re the type to wear regalia related to their Spirit Animals. Honoring your Spirit Animal is a very personal and unique experience that you will learn as you live alongside your guide.
While it may not be acceptable to flaunt your Spirit Animal if you aren’t Indigenous, learning new things is always fun. By understanding each other’s cultures, we can come together as a unified front of unique peoples. Unfortunately, Indigenous cultures don’t often receive the coverage and respect they deserve. So we hope to bring more attention to a beautiful cultural tradition with these articles.
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What is a Spirit Animal?
A Spirit Animal is a First Nations cultural tradition where a Spirit appears to a person as an animal to act as a teacher or messenger for life.
What is the difference between a Spirit Animal and Totem Animal?
A Spirit Animal is a Spirit that guides you through life, while a Totem Animal is who you ‘are’ on the inside.
What is the difference between a Spirit Animal and Power Animal?
Your Power Animal is an animal spirit you invoke in times of significant trouble. At the same time, your Spirit Animal guides you through daily life.
What does the Wolf Spirit Symbolize?
The Wolf Spirit symbolizes loyalty, intelligence, and cooperation. However, the exact symbolism of the Wolf will differ between tribes. For example, some tribes believe the Wolf to be a portent of evil.
How do I honor my Spirit Animal?
How you honor your Spirit Animal is between you and your Spirit Animal. Many people wear regalia featuring their Spirit Animal, and others express their love for their Spirit Animal through the arts. But each person has a personal journey with their Spirit Animal.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
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- Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center (1970) https://aktalakota.stjo.org/lakota_spirit_animal/wolf-sungmanitu-tȟanka/#:~:text=Lakota%20Spirit%20Animals,-Badger&text=Observing%20wolf%20packs%20gave%20humans,circumstances%20and%20avoid%20unnecessary%20battles.
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- Navajo Wolf by Tony Hillerman, Available here: https://ehillerman.unm.edu/node/1698#sthash.bV0BGp6c.dpbs
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- Native Languages, Available here: http://www.native-languages.org/legends-wolf.htm