A Native View on Spirit Animals and Animal Medicine

Spirit Animal, Animal Guide, Spirit Helper. These terms are used among different cultures to describe spirits of benevolent nature, usually helping someone during a hard time. These spirits can bring strength, insight, and even a sense or feeling to someone who needs it.

In pop culture, however, the concept is interpreted loosely and often references something one identifies with or traits they need or possess. In fact, many online sources today will help you identify your spirit animal or find it within yourself. Unfortunately, sites like these often perpetuate the misunderstandings of a Spirit Helper and how various indigenous cultures perceive them.

This is my personal opinion on the topic, and I can only speak to it from what I’ve been taught. However, it is one more viewpoint you can build upon, and I hope it will increase understanding and encourage more learning about indigenous cultures before trying to find an animal spirit through a journey of self-discovery.

In my teachings, a Spirit Helper isn’t something you choose or identify with but rather something that comes to you in your time of need. Perhaps the animal represents something that holds a certain value, such as strength in a bull or agility in a dragonfly. Lakota culture, it’s from these spirits that we tend to associate values with certain animals. However, that’s not all they bring.

Spirit Helpers are not a novelty. They hold a special place and represent a larger spiritual culture within a tribe. Many people don’t take the time to really understand this, and the adapted understanding and misappropriation is concerning and often offensive to Native cultures.

Spirituality in many indigenous cultures is about a relationship to everything around you – the plants and animals that provide food, the land that provides a home, and the weather that makes living possible. These elements are highly respected because they enable us to live. Our spirituality is strongly tied to the value and respect we hold for the earth. Adapting a concept such as spirits to personalization is like cherry-picking indigenous beliefs, although most likely unintentional.

For many tribes, all creatures are viewed as sacred, and certain animals often appear in stories and legends. For more information, you can check out several articles published by tribes that mention how animals are generally regarded:

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Back to School with TOMS and Bombas

It’s probably no surprise the back-to-school shopping season is second only to Christmas, and this is likely true for households contributing to the $82.8 billion dollar back-to-school business.

For the 2018 school year, “families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average $684.79 each” on school supplies, backpacks, clothing and other back to school items, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation. The realization of this expense for even one student makes the provision of school supplies by PWNA and its American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) program all the more relevant and imperative, as the school year quickly approaches.

As a giving partner of TOMS, PWNA annually provides TOMS shoes – and now socks donated by Bombas – to ensure students living in low-income households in rural and geographically isolated areas have access to basic items and are equipped and confident returning to school. With about 35 percent of back-to-school spending allocated to shoes and clothing, these resources are particularly important to families with financial limitations.

Schools and youth-serving organizations work with PWNA in tribal communities where poverty rates are higher for families than for their surrounding non-Native neighbors. Kym, a Family Service Manager of a Head Start program serving over 300 preschoolers shared the challenges faced by her community.

“There are parents who do not send their kids to school because they don’t have shoes, or their footwear is inappropriate – they may only have sandals because those are less expensive,” said Kym. “The poverty is so bad here. More than 38 percent of our students under age 18 live in poverty, and these [TOMS] are new! The students need shoes, and these are really good quality.”

A teacher in this same program explained, “You should see the happiness on their faces. It’s like Christmas time and it’s a big deal because these shoes are new, not hand-me-downs.’

Weeks before the school parking lots are jammed with busloads of bustling students, PWNA program partners are working meticulously to register students and offer outside resources to help equip their students for the coming school year. Gymnasiums, cafeterias, staff meeting rooms and even hallways are often transformed into personal shopping areas for the students. Supplies such as TOMS shoes and Bombas socks are on offer with nearby seating and sizing charts to get just the right fit. The commonly used “toe test,” typically administered by an adult, can easily supersede the sizing chart to ensure there is some room to grow.

Weeks before school parking lots are jammed with busloads of bustling students, PWNA program partners are working meticulously to register students and offer outside resources to help equip their students for the coming school year. Gymnasiums, cafeterias, staff meeting rooms and even hallways are often transformed into personal shopping areas for students. Supplies such as TOMS shoes and Bombas socks are distributed with nearby seating and sizing charts to get students the right fit. The commonly used “toe test,” typically administered by an adult, can easily supersede the sizing chart to ensure there is some room to grow.

I have attended many of these TOMS and Bombas distributions and seeing students being fitted for a new pair of shoes by their parents or grandparents never gets old. Children walk, skip, run and hopscotch their way out the door with something new to call their own. And the larger the family, the greater the financial impact.

One single mother in Nebraska had three school-aged children and an infant. Imagine being a single parent tasked with equipping three children at an average cost of $685 each…that’s over $2,000! I also asked one father what it would cost to purchase shoes and socks for his six children and he flatly replied, “I don’t even want to think about it.”

But, we all have to think about this reality. When families are too proud to send their kids to school because they don’t have the supplies they need, or when a child is being teased for the duct tape that keeps their hand-me-down shoes together, it’s hindering a child’s educational experience. We have to come together as a community to help families connect with helpful supplies and resources – such our TOMS and Bombas distributions and our annual Backpack Drive – so that children become confident learners who grow into caring adults.

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Summer Reading List

A good book can be hard to find, even more so one that’s Native-focused. When I was young and would get into trouble, my dad wouldn’t ground me. Instead, he’d often give me a topic to research or a book to read – always on Lakota culture – and have me write a short paper on what I learned. So, I have a couple of recommended books you might consider diving into this summer, an old favorite and a new release.

Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt is one of the first books I ever read and what I consider a cornerstone of Native works. Written in 1932 and sometimes referred to as a spiritual autobiography, the book is a recounting of conversations and interviews with Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man. Black Elk lived through an incredibly transforming period for Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

There are few easily accessible recordings, written or otherwise, of these past generations and their stories. I remember reading the Black Elk story and feeling like I was being told a story by my own grandfather – like I was sitting right in front of him listening. The events seem to have happened so long ago, yet only a handful of generations have passed since they occurred. The “retelling” creates a personal experience that brings more weight than most word-of-mouth stories. I’ve yet to find anyone who didn’t appreciate Black Elk’s recounting of these events, so if you haven’t already, I recommend you read “Black Elk Speaks.”

A good friend of mine recently recommended “There There” by Tommy Orange, a creative writing instructor at The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This book was released last month and is already a New York Times Best Seller. “There There” follows Native Americans in California struggling with various challenges, and Orange uses traditional storytelling to hook readers in, before leading into more complex themes of the modern urban Indian.

The book goes beyond Native history and perceptions and into how we reconcile the past with the themes of today. Orange offered his perspective on telling these stories in a recent interview. I’m only a couple of chapters into it, but so far, it’s one of the better modern works of Indian life I’ve come across.

It’s more common to find romanticized versions of Native history and stories. These recommendations offer both a historical and modern theme that gives insight into present-day Native life. Happy Reading!

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Recently in Native News

Partnership With Native Americans has compiled some of the latest stories from the month of July as we aim to continuously educate and inform readers about news and cultures across Indian Country. Stay up to date with more articles by following us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

 A dozen heroes inducted into first Native American Hall of Fame via Indian Country Today

  • “After 10 years, 30 nominees and decades of discovery, the first National Native American Hall of Fame will induct 12 honorees in October. Many of the inductees, such as Olympic star Jim Thorpe, astronaut John Herrington and Maria Tallchief, the first Native American to be a prima ballerina, are well known and have been lauded with awards and honors. But something was still missing, said James Parker Shield, a member of the Chippewa Tribe and chief executive of the Native American Hall of Fame, who dreamed of the hall for a decade.”

Tracing the Native American Roots of Natural Icons in the U.S. via National Geographic

  • “Colorado resident Jaylyn Gough was tired of seeing the Native American roots of the outdoor spaces she loved being ignored. She knew each of these natural icons had a history — one that didn’t start with the person they were now named after. To trace these spots back to their ancestral foundations, she launched the ‘Whose Land Are We Exploring On’ campaign and set out to learn more about America’s most famous outdoor destinations. She started with Mount Evans — she’d already climbed the 14,271-foot peak and knew some of its history. ‘I knew it was the closest 14er to Denver and that it was named for an important man in Colorado’s history,’ Gough says. ‘It seemed like a good place to start.’ The information she discovered shocked and saddened her.”

Grants remove offensive Native American imagery via The Detroit News

  • “A [tribal coalition] fund is helping remove offensive depictions of Native Americans in city buildings, schools and monuments across Michigan. The Native American Heritage Fund awarded a nearly $335,000 grant Friday to the Belding school district to remove Redskin imagery formerly used as a mascot. The district switched to the Belding Black Knights mascot in March 2017 after a contentious debate over the new name. ’This will stir the pot a little bit again, getting this money, but I want everyone to know that our community is not racist,’ said Superintendent Brent Noskey. The school board dropped the Redskins name in 2016 after moving away from the Native American imagery for years.”

Elite Native American Crew Fights Fires, Serves Community via Statesman Journal

  • “Members of the Warm Springs Hotshots were getting ready to head home when the radio buzzed — a wildfire had started — and the elite crew launched into motion to tamp down the blaze in the sagebrush of eastern Oregon’s foothills. The blur of activity in late June would be familiar to every wildland firefighter, but the Warm Springs crew is one of only seven Hotshot crews based on a Native American reservation and overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s also one of only four administered directly by a Native American tribe. The country’s more than 100 Hotshot crews — consisting of about 20 members each — are trained to work in remote areas for long periods and often respond to large, high-priority wildfires. Members must pass arduous physical tests and undergo training in specialties like fire behavior.”
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2018 Backpack Drive – Providing School Supplies and Hope to Native Students

The new school year is right around the corner and that means students and parents all over the country are gathering up their supplies. Back-to-school shopping is typically a highly anticipated activity that arms students with pencils, backpacks and other critical supplies. Equally important, it brings excitement for the year ahead. Sadly though, many Native American students and families can’t afford to complete this essential task.

A lack of resources at home and within tribal communities contributes to this reality. Consider the following statistics – today, 35 percent of Native American children live below the poverty line, making it almost impossible for their families to shoulder the financial investment of back-to-school season. As a parent, what would you do when facing a choice between food and pencils? Backpacks or shoes? Additionally, some reservations are so remote they simply do not have stores that carry backpacks and classroom supplies.

Securing the basic supplies needed for school can make all the difference in a child’s life – from having a successful school year to increasing their chances of graduating high school to making the next step toward college. Education is one of the most important cornerstones of self-sufficiency and quality of life in Native communities, and that starts with creating a positive, nurturing, fulfilling environment for young students.

The American Indian Education Fund (AIEF), a program of Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA), helps school partners tackle this issue by providing school supplies for K-12 students. In 2017, with your help, PWNA assisted more than 25,000 students through its annual Backpack Drive by delivering backpacks and school supplies to students across Indian Country.

This year’s Backpack Drive is once again an opportunity for you to support and encourage K-12 Native students and ensure a positive start to their school year. Please join our efforts to help provide backpacks, pencils, binders and more to those most in need. With your help today, many parents won’t have to face those difficult spending choices this year. Your donation will make the all the difference for a Native student and their family.

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Purple Heart Appreciation Day: Honoring Our Combat Veterans

The Purple Heart is America’s oldest military merit, originally created as the “Badge of Military Merit” more than 235 years ago to honor a soldier’s “singularly meritorious action.” The Order of the Purple Heart was established in 1932 and throughout history, more than 1.8 million brave soldiers have been awarded the Purple Heart in recognition of their sacrifices in combat and resilience as prisoners of war.

Indigenous peoples have contributed a high rate of representation to the armed forces and other branches for as long as the U.S. military has existed. Today, there are more than 31,000 Native Americans on active duty, and 140,000 American Indian veterans, many of which hold the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and/or Congressional Medal of Honor.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 19 percent of Native Americans serve in the military a higher rate than any other minority in America. One could attribute it to our own war-torn history, or the need to defend our homes and protect our people, or to honor our “peace and friendship” accords with the U.S. despite its many broken promises to Native communities. In some cases, the military can also offer an escape from joblessness or an uncertain future, and fulfill a need for purpose and contribution.

In the past, we introduced Lawrence Wright Jr, a combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and is now furthering his contribution to the defense of our country by pursuing a Master’s in Emergency Management and Homeland Security (with the support of our AIEF scholarship program). Despite incurring numerous injuries while on duty, Lawrence was not discouraged and today is motivated to make something of himself that he may honor his fellow Marines who sacrificed their lives in Iraq. Lawrence shared in a recent update that he completed his Emergency Management studies last month and will be starting law school at Arizona State University next month. 

Service in the military is a special kind of duty and giving. When all is said and done, those who are recipients of the Purple Heart are honored because they truly have given all they have — body and mind — to fight for their country. As Purple Heart Appreciation Day approaches on August 7, we honor all combat veterans and recipients who hold this badge of military merit, and remember their sacrifices for all of us.

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Op-Ed: Let’s Not Repeat History—Lessons Learned from Federal Separation of Children and Families

There is no more important story in the country right now than the thousands of parents and children being separated from each other at the border as they attempt to enter the United States by seeking asylum. Unfortunately, the trauma inflicted on these children separated from their parents will likely follow them for years to come.

The harm done to these children is irreversible.  The American Academy of Pediatrics warns us that prolonged exposure to serious stress can lead to lifelong health consequences. Consider, for example, the federally initiated separation of Native American children from their families and tribes.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced Native people to leave their homelands. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 created the Indian Reservation System and forced Native Americans into untenable lifestyles and economies. The Peace Policy of 1869 formalized the Indian boarding school system and removed children from their families, to attempt to eradicate their culture and experience as a people.

Tens of thousands of indigenous children as young as 5 years old were separated from their parents and placed in distant government- and religious-run boarding schools where the motto “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Native children were stripped of their customs and identities and assimilated into the European way of life, under the premise of Manifest Destiny.

Many of the schools were riddled with disease, sexual abuse and child labor. Children often died of disease or disappeared, never to be seen again by their families. Others were so traumatized by the experience they were unable to reconnect with their Native lives once they did go home.

Generations of Native American parents were left powerless, anxious and upset at the dissolution of their families and tribal values. Some Hopi men who resisted having their children taken were imprisoned in Alcatraz. As a result of separating children from their families, many Native Americans still distrust the federal government, schools, religious organizations and non-Natives.

According to a recent report from Indian Country Today, modern science proves that epigenetics (trauma experienced by earlier generations) influences the structure of genes that create negative responses to stress and trauma. Today, Native American families and communities are still subjected to broken treaties and anti-tribal policies that continue to fuel a cycle of impoverishment, addiction and other mental health issues, and low graduation rates.

As we seek to resolve the crisis on our border, it is critical to recognize that our decisions today will impact generations to come, especially if we allow history to repeat itself. We must work together to ensure that this inhumane treatment does not happen to more children, regardless of their nationality. This includes those indigenous people who are also seeking asylum today. Our Constitution promises equality, justice and tranquility – but this is far from the reality many Native and foreign-born American citizens are experiencing. For those of us who have a voice, it’s our duty to care about this and speak on behalf of the children.

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5 Contemporary Native American Artists You Should Know

Native American art has developed over centuries, tracing back to cave paintings, stonework and earthenware. Typically linked to a deep connection with spirituality and Mother Earth, Native American art comes in many different styles and forms to reflect the unique cultures of diverse tribes — including beadwork, jewelry, weaving, basketry, pottery, carvings, kachinas, masks, totem poles, drums, flutes, pipes, dolls and more.

Artists, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, have fallen in love with and been influenced by Native American art, and some traditional Native artists are connecting their work with pop culture in the mainstream. Merritt Johnson, a multi-disciplinary artist affiliated with the Blackfeet and Kanienkehaka, has stated that most people think of “beads and feathers” when they hear the term “Native American art.” There are many contemporary Native artists breaking through these misconceptions with a variety of art forms; here’s a look at five.

  • Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1974, and raised on the Onandaga Reservation, Hyde juxtaposes 21st century pop culture images with symbols and themes from his Native American heritage. His vibrant, satirical, graphic paintings seek to dismantle stereotypes of Native American culture and replicate what he refers to as “the collective unconsciousness of the 21st century.”

    Of Apsáalooke (Crow) affiliation and born in Billings, Montana in 1981, Red Star is known for her funny, but biting self-portraits that poke fun at tendencies to misrepresent Native American history. Employing photography to navigate her experience growing up on the Crow Indian Reservation, juxtaposed with her experience of mainstream contemporary society, Red Star uses materials like Target-brand Halloween costumes and inflatable animals in her work.

    A photographer and storyteller affiliated with the Tulalip and Swinomish, Wilbur has traveled to over 300 sovereign nations to depict the vast diversity within and between indigenous communities. By taking portrait-style photographs of tribal citizens across the country, she hopes to reclaim the Native American image, and to effectually change the way that Native Americans are represented. 

    Pratt, of Cheyenne and Arapaho affiliation, is considered one of the leading forensic artists in the United States. Harvey has completed thousands of witness description drawings and hundreds of soft tissue reconstructions, having spent more than 50 years in law enforcement. Just recently, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian announced that Pratt’s Warriors’ Circle of Honor was the winning design for the National Native American Veterans Memorial.

    Greeves, who grew up on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, is known primarily for her use of traditional Kiowa beading. An art form learned from her Kiowa grandmother, Greeves’ figures are adorned with both traditional and contemporary clothing items, as a commentary on being a Native woman in the modern world. Her work appears in numerous public collections, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Heard Museum and more.

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Addressing Food Insecurity and Nutrition Education Through Grant Funding

Partnership With Native Americans was recently awarded a $150,000 grant from Newman’s Own Foundation to address Native American nutrition and food insecurity.

“Newman’s Own Foundation has been supporting food and nutrition programs for 35 years. Too little attention has been paid to the Native American population, and we’re pleased to see Partnership With Native Americans and its partners addressing the needs of fresh food access and nutrition education,” said Bob Forrester, CEO and President, Newman’s Own Foundation.

“More than 23 percent of Native American families are impacted by food insecurity, and many reservation communities face high rates of impoverishment, putting them at greater risk for diabetes, obesity and other nutrition-related illnesses,” as PWNA President/CEO Robbi Rice Dietrich notes. “With support from Newman’s Own Foundation, PWNA aids Native Americans in developing sustainable nutrition initiatives within tribal communities, such as access to fresh food and training to prepare healthier meals.”

Additionally, PWNA has joined Newman’s Own Foundation as one of nine nonprofit organizations selected for their Native American Nutrition Cohort. The cohort will convene several times over the next three years for peer learning and collaboration toward greater impact on Native nutrition systems.

Last year, PWNA also received a $258,000 grant awarded by Walmart Foundation to help strengthen food access and nutrition training in local communities. With the support from the Walmart Foundation, PWNA supported Native nutrition and food security through Project Grow, Mobile Nutrition Education and Train the Trainer (T3) programs.

For more information, please visit our News Center for the complete press release.

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Recently in Native News

As part of our continued endeavor to inform readers of the news and culture relating to Native American communities from across the country, Partnership With Native Americans has compiled our favorite stories from the month of June. Stay up to date with more articles by following us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

How this man is helping Native Americans gain energy independence via Climate Connections

  • “For the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe, the sun is more than a source of energy. Red Cloud: ‘Native people’s way of life – language, song, dance, ceremonies – are all focused around the sun. So we’re looking to that energy to help us to create a more sustainable lifestyle.’ Henry Red Cloud is the founder of Lakota Solar Enterprises. The company manufactures and installs solar-powered furnaces for Native American families on reservations across the Great Plains. When tribes outside the region expressed an interest in learning about his solar furnaces, Red Cloud partnered with a non-profit called Trees, Water & People to create the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.”

Nike announces its newest N7 ambassador, professional volleyballer Lauren Schad via Indian Country Today

  • “Nike N7 has just named the latest successful Native person to its roster of N7 ambassadors, professional female volleyball player and model Lauren Schad. Schad is a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She began playing at age 14, then played for the University of San Diego until her professional career began in 2016. N7 ambassadors are athletes reflect the Native American and Aboriginal community and influencers who choose to use their voice to inspire future generations and to celebrate the power of native youth, Nike says.”

Decades after destruction, Yosemite welcomes home Native Americans via The Fresno Bee

  • “It’s been 41 years since Les James and Jay Johnson first asked the National Park Service for Yosemite’s last Native American village back. Leveled by the park service by 1969, the village site is located just down the road from Yosemite Lodge in Yosemite Valley. On Friday, the native elders watched with pride as Yosemite’s new superintendent, Michael Reynolds, signed an agreement giving them permission to use the site for the next 30 years. The agreement also green lights remaining construction of a roundhouse, what will become the spiritual heart of the village.”

‘Looking for someone like me’: JJ Nakai blazes trail for younger Native American basketball players via Cronkite News

  • “JJ Nakai misses her days playing electrifying basketball on the reservation. But the jam-packed gymnasiums, the thunderous crowds – united by heritage, momentarily divided by team colors – the breakneck pace of play and the irresponsibly creative trick passes are more than just memories. They provide the framework for how she plays, the fabric of her game, infused in her basketball DNA, and part of why she’s one of the highest-rated junior-college basketball players in the country, with dreams of playing Division I.”
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