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What is Native American Animal Medicine?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Animal medicine is a tradition passed down through generations of Native American tribes including Choctaw, Seneca, Aztec, Lakota, Yaqui, Cherokee, Cheyenne and Mayan civilizations. It is a belief in the ability to gain insight and understanding of our inner natures and life through careful observation of, and spiritual alignment with animals.

In its basic form animal medicine refers to the essence of each animal’s spirit in the animal kingdom, which, according to the tradition, relays a specific lesson for those with a desire to learn. In a broader sense every animal imparts many lessons. The “medicine” one gains aids in healing spirit, mind and body through expanding the awareness of self, and in doing so, of each person’s place on the "Medicine Wheel" of life.

Mountain lion medicine, for example, imparts lessons on leadership, or balancing power. The mountain lion is king of the jungle, but only kills what it needs to survive. It balances its power like it balances its body, gracefully leaping with perfect agility to land posed to strike or to observe. Ants, on the other hand, also impart medicine. Ant medicine speaks of the benefits of working in communities, of patience, and of knowing that little by little the job will get done. Each animal in the animal kingdom has its own essence.

Animal medicine tradition dictates that particular animals travel in spirit with each person as they make their “earth walk.” These are called personal “power animals” or “totem animals.” The nature of these animals indicates prime lessons the person will face and also talents or abilities they will have to help them conquer their personal challenges. A person’s power animals are divined by various means, with nine power animals in all. These are comprised of a totem animal for each direction (East, South, West North), an animal for above, below, within, the left side and the right side.

According to animal medicine each direction or place on the animal totem has its own lessons. For example, the animal of the East imparts lessons and insight into the person’s greatest spiritual challenge. If this power animal happens to be the mountain lion, this person will likely face a core challenge that evolves around power. This could be abuse of power, or an abject absence of power. In either case the core challenge will have to be conquered, and the mountain lion will hold keys to conquering that challenge.

Animal medicine speaks of the importance of dreamtime and how power animals will often impart their medicine (lessons) through appearing in dreams. However, according to animal medicine, no animal sighting, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is by chance. This applies as much to westerners living in cities as it does to tribal members. The passing of a butterfly, dragonfly, lizard, hummingbird or raven each hold different meanings and rich insights for those ascribing to animal medicine.

In a practical sense the application of animal medicine could be something as simple as noticing a hawk soaring overhead while out on a walk to cool off after an argument with a spouse. Hawk medicine involves receiving messages by being observant, as the hawk’s keen eyesight misses nothing, seeing “the big picture” from overhead. Someone who ascribes to animal medicine might see the hawk and realize that he or she has not been looking at the big picture in the context of the argument, or conversely, has not been “getting the message” that the relationship is over.

Native American tribes believe that all beings and nature itself comes from “The Great Spirit” and that by sharing lessons we can learn to live more gracefully and peacefully with ourselves, with each other, and with our environment. Animal medicine is still practiced today by many tribal people and by those Westerners who are attracted to the natural essence and poetic beauty of this insightful tradition.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By umbra21 — On May 22, 2011

I've heard of totem animals but I had never heard that you have one for each direction. I had heard that if you were searching for a totem animal, you would begin to see them everywhere. If, for example you started seeing frogs all over the place, on TV, in paintings, or real frogs in the grass or whatever, you might have to claim the frog as your totem animal.

I also heard that it can change over time, so you might not always have the frog, at some point it might change to a beetle or something.

When I was a kid I always hoped I would have a scary totem animal so I could feel like it was protecting me. Now I think I would be quite happy with a frog.

By Mor — On May 20, 2011

I think this is a beautiful and peaceful tradition and it reminds me a little bit of tarot cards, simply because it encourages interpretation of random symbols which can bring out things that a person might already know, deep inside.

I also respect people who take the whole religion and follow it. But there are a lot of people who take the bits they like and just bandy those around and they can be annoying, or even disrespectful. These are the kinds of people who never have the ant as a totem animal, they are always a "lone wolf" or a "beautiful butterfly".

I suppose if they find something enlightening about it, it can't be all bad.

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