“Patronus,” or “Spirit Animal?”

It has been suggested in the Pagan community for those of us who are not Native American to use the word “patronus” as a substitute for the phrase “spirit animal” to avoid cultural appropriation. This was the catalyst for a debate on whether or not the usage of the phrase “spirit animal” was racist. The largest portion of which happened on the website Tumblr, and could be summarized as:

  • Using the phrase “spirit animals” is racist if you are not Native, and is stealing from Native American cultures. Use the word “patronus” instead.
  • No, it is not racist. The concept of spirit animals has existed globally, in numerous cultures. Native American traditions and practices vary from tribe to tribe, and they do not all have a set “spirit animal” concept. You are judging Native culture by media which incorrectly portrays Native American spirituality. In real life, spirit animals are not real. They are a thing of entertainment, and New Age spirituality, not real cultures.
  • [New person] No, I am Native American, and spirit animals are a very real part of our culture. Claiming them only furthers oppression via cultural appropriation. The concept of spirit animals exists globally, but is most associated with Native cultures, and appropriated from us, not the other cultures.
  • [Conclusion] Yes, so all non-Native should say “patronus” instead.

It has become quite common across the internet for people to refer to fictional characters, actors, memes, and just about anything humorous as a “spirit animal.” Many Native American individuals have taken offense to this, as it trivializes their spirituality and culture.

Now, as someone had already mentioned, the concept of “spirit animals” and animals having or themselves being spirits can be found in several different indigenous cultures worldwide. So why is this specifically offensive to Native Americans? This is because, as stated, people know “spirit animals” to be a thing of, or associated with, Native American cultures. Those who so often toss the phrase around casually likely cannot name any other specific culture with “spirit animals,” and is probably ignorant of Native American cultures overall (associating “spirit animals” with them, but not knowing much else.) Similarly, when people post online about having a spirit animal, often accompanied with it is reasoning specific to a Native American tribe (“My spirit animal is a wolf because it says in Lakota legend that…”) or simply with Native American art.

My issue here is when it comes to those who are not Native American, but who still may practice their ancestral religions are told to use “patronus” as an alternative.

Here, on one hand, we have people trivializing Native American spiritualities referring to anything online or anything that strikes their fancy as a “spirit animal.” And on the other, we are now opening up the possibility for the trivialization of other traditional spiritualities or Pagan beliefs by using a word that is almost solely associated with the fantasy series Harry Potter. 

The area in which I live is populated mostly by militant Christian republicans. Several people have expressed a genuine fear of expressing their Pagan beliefs, worrying that they might be physically assaulted or disowned if they did so. I personally hear aggressive statements concerning numerous groups of people (including but not limited to: Transgender individuals, women, POC, democrats, and gay males) on a daily basis. Yet many of these people enjoy aspects of Pagan beliefs and cultures because of the fantasy aspect (e.g Magic The Gathering, Harry Potter, Thor and Loki featured in popular media). It would be difficult enough stating that I am Pagan, without referencing something they already have engraved into their minds as fantasy (the idea of a patronus).

Therefore, I perfectly understand why many Pagans I have come across refuse to describe their “spirit animal” as a “patronus.” Because those who truly do recognize themselves to have “spirit animals” are not doing so in relation to Native American cultures. Their use of the phrase is separate altogether.

It seems to me that there are a variety of issues here:

  • Cultural appropriation: Non-Native Americans claiming they have a spirit animal and using Native American cultures as justification for the belief.
  • Cultural insensitivity and racism: Throwing the phrase around carelessly, with no regard to its real meaning or origin, or knowingly disregarding the concept as “fake” but referencing it anyway.
  • Insensitivity to non-Christian beliefs: Not taking the idea of “spirit animals” seriously in context of Native American spiritualities, and equating modern Paganism with fantasy.
  • A  combination of the above.

I think “patronus” is a great substitute for those using the phrase simply to describe something with which they are affiliated or enjoy, as this is not relevant to anyone’s spirituality or culture, both of which should be taken seriously.

Otherwise, I have encountered many Native Americans (such as the one whose words were paraphrased above) who have a word in their own tribe’s language that describes a “spirit animal.” A possible solution then, when using the concept seriously, is to use the word of your specific tradition or spirituality instead of “spirit animal.” One Native American made a post stating that they were uncomfortable with the phrase being considered appropriation of Native American culture because “spirit animal” is not the phrase that is used in any of their languages, and that, in essence, non-Natives who genuinely do have a spirituality or practice with a “spirit animal” concept have only their languages to choose from, leaving many people with the phrase “spirit animal” and no alternative that can be used seriously.  Screenshot_2016-05-08-16-05-53_1

But is that the case? Well, it depends on how you define “spirit animal” and why.

As mentioned multiple times previously, there is no universally agreed upon concept of “spirit animal.” What this is, and their functions, vary greatly from culture to culture, and religion to religion. The majority of non-Native American people I have come across who believe in spirit animals claim that it is a concept that they were not taught, nor is it a part of an ancestral spirituality, but rather a seemingly logical spiritual belief that developed simply by feeling/intuition or by reflection. Typically, a spirit animal was considered to a be a spirit within someone who guides them along the right path in life. Other times, a spirit animal was considered to be the animal species with which you most relate. And finally, “spirit animal” was occasionally equated with “theriotype.”

So, those of you non-Natives considering a “spirit animal” to be an animal you feel very connected to, or your own spirit as an animal, might actually fall into the category of “therian” or “animal-hearted.” Which, unfortunately, is often taken less seriously than most other Paganesque spiritual concepts. It may not only describe you better, but may also prevent you from misrepresenting or disrespecting Native American cultures.

In the end, if you are not intending to take the concept seriously and are one of the many who call any given celebrity your “spirit animal,” then the term “patronus” would be better suited to you, as it is already associated with fun and fantasy rather than any established spirituality. If you are using the concept seriously, using a word specific to your tradition/belief would likely be taken more seriously than the phrase “spirit animal” and would avoid cultural appropriation. Otherwise, I sincerely hope that the use of the phrase will be reclaimed and eventually taken seriously in regards to Native American spirituality.