Yes, I think so. I’ve talked about it before. It’s cultural appropriation on a base level, but it’s also a horrible misunderstanding of what spirit animals and guides are and how they factor into native culture. By using that misunderstanding of them to help define character traits of predominantly white characters, we’re contributing to the trivialization of a spiritual practice of an already marginalized group. In short, it just isn’t cool.
There’re two posts that circle around the writing community on this topic: edwardkenwayrps’ Masterlist of Animal ‘Totems’ and thatfrenchhelper’s Patronus/Spirit Animal analysis. The first is just wrong in its general understanding of what spirit animals and totems are (Spirit Guide =/= totem; the former relates to tutelary guides and the latter to clan/family emblem/identification) and the second just mistakenly relates patronuses directly to NA spirit animals.
Neither resource is intentional appropriation, but it’s appropriation all the same.
From another Native American tumblr user sofriel:
The concept of spirit animals in popular culture came from anthropologists’ descriptions of Native American religions (see Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). It doesn’t matter if the ancient Celts had similar practices, because spirit animals are associated in the popular imagination with Natives, not Celts…
The fact that spirit animals in popular culture are a bastardized form of Native traditions does not mean they are not appropriative or harmful. Why? Because the popular idea of it comes to supersede the original meaning, infantilizing our traditions. Non-Natives start to think that they understand our traditions, and that they are primitive, rather than actually consulting and trying to understand.
They also show up casually in character questionnaires all over the site (and on the internet in general):
Referring to anything as our “spirit animal.” OH NO, LESLEY, PLEASE DON’T RUIN “SPIRIT ANIMAL,” TOO! I know, I’m sorry, guys. It’s a bummer to find out stuff we once thought was just silly and funny may in fact be harmful and mocking. It sucks because once we know the potential hurt they can cause, we can’t un-know it — we have to walk around with that information and understand that if we continue to use these terms, we may be willfully contributing to a lot of crap and misery in the world.
Are all people of color universally offended by all this stuff? Of course not. Everyone is different and has different levels of patience and indulgence for this sort of thing. The point is not that these “casual” racisms are offensive to individual people (although yeah, that’s worth considering too) — the point is that they contribute to systematic cultural racism as a whole.By just swallowing this stuff as no big deal, we’re saying these stereotypes are OK. And they’re not.
The concept disregards real practices and and the history of Native culture. The Manataka American Indian Council’s webpage says:
An animal spirit guide is not and cannot be chosen by the individual. These ‘games’ do not work and they give their victims false impressions that may lead a sincere person far astray from their goal of connecting with animal spirits to help them in their walk in life. Yes, the games are cute and interesting but the vendors are replacing spiritual beliefs with modern plastic and disrespect ancient ways in the process of making money.
It’s just unequivocally appropriation, and the it’s the community’s responsibility to be aware of this and change their wording in respect.
The word totem is an Ojibwe word.… [and] the use of the word totem IS offensive and cultural appropriation because it is an Anishinaabe concept (dodem) and the fact it has been taken and misused by non-natives, especially by New Agers to come up with all these distorted concepts and calling it Native American and coming up with things like a Native American totem zodiac and what not, yes, it is cultural appropriation and offensive because the oppressor has taken something from the oppressed and lifted it up to come up with these ridiculous concepts and images. [x]
Other posts on the topic:
ALTERNATIVE (NON-APPROPRIATIVE) WORDS:
- Patronus - Wizards everywhere are more than willing to lend you this term and the geekiness is an added bonus. I just read that geeks are sexy, or so the Metro, so, there you go, a patronus is clearly your next ascribed accessory. Recommend by tumblr user selchieproductions.
And my personal recommendations:
- Tutelars, or a Tutelary Diety is a deity or spirit who is a guardian, patron or protector of a particular place, geographic feature, person, lineage, nation, culture or occupation. Both tutelary and tutelar can be used as either a noun or an adjective
“A familiar (alter ego, doppelgänger, personal demon, personal totem, spirit companion) is the double, the alter-ego, of an individual. It does not look like the individual concerned. Even though it may have an independent life of its own, it remains closely linked to the individual. The familiar can be an animal.” - Pierre Riffard
- Genius - the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place, or thing.
If you can’t use these terms or any other term to refer to what you’re talking about (or what you think you’re talking about) then don’t use any term at all. When you misuse these cultural and sacred religious concepts you contribute to centuries of oppression and the systematic ‘mysticification’ of Native people; turning people into an ‘other’ and making Native culture something to be mocked or taken lightly by new generations.
There are so many other ways to develop your characters, if you can’t change your wording, you can find another exercise. Your character doesn’t need to put on a native hat (and a poorly researched one, at that) for you to understand them better, and if you truly want to understand native practices, you should be doing your research from native sources.