Care and Feeding of Your Totem Animal Dance Tail

A while back I posted The Care and Feeding of Your Totem Animal Dance Costume. It’s a handout that I include with every full hide headdress and totem dance costume I make, to give provide physical and spiritual care instructions. I recently wrote one up to send out with tails, too, and thought I’d share it with my readers! (If you want to see the tails in question, check out the Tails, Ears and Horns section of my Etsy shop.)

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Thank you for your tail purchase! Please read through this care sheet for information on how to care for your tail physically and spiritually.

The Anatomy of a Tail

Even in life, many mammal tails are often fragile things—thin skin wrapped around a bit of muscle and connective tissues on a scaffolding made of the thinnest, smallest vertebrae in the body. Tails are meant to be flexible; they may be used in visual communication with other animals, as well as fly swatters and other pest removal. However, yanking on a mammal’s tail is never a good idea.

In the same way, you don’t want to yank on your tail. While the tail may look thick and full, much of that is hair or fur. The skin itself is actually a very thin strip of a very thin hide. If you look at the back of the tail, you’ll see a bare patch. Using your finger, you can trace it further down the tail’s length, and notice how it gets thinner the further down you go. Additionally, if the tan is older, such as on a vintage tail, the end may dry out a bit, making the tail more fragile. But with sensible care, your tail can last for many years!

Physical Tail Care

Keep your tail clean, cool, and dry. Repeatedly exposing your tail to moisture, such as rain, will cause the hide to deteriorate, as will too much heat. If your tail gets a bit dirty, just on the surface of the fur, wipe it off with a damp cloth; Pledge Wipes are very good at cleaning fur, especially old stains or dust and grime. If it gets really filthy and if the tail is not vintage, you can carefully hand-wash it in warm water and a gentle soap, and hang it out to dry immediately (do NOT apply heat). Make this your last resort, however.

The very worst thing you can do to your tail is pull on it. Touching, petting, and other gentle handling is fine, as is everyday wear and display—it won’t fall apart if you don’t treat it like glass. Just be careful to not sit on the tail or accidentally rest weight on it while getting up. Don’t let people yank on it—children may be especially enthusiastic about treating tails like toys, or their classmates may playfully tug on the tails if they wear them to school.

Sometimes accidents like the above happen, and that thin little strip of hide that Mother Nature made will break. This is hardly the end of your tail! I offer free repairs on everything I make, including tails, no matter the reason. If your tail breaks, don’t feel bad! Just send it back, and I’ll stitch it back together for you.

Spiritual Tail Care

While I’ve discussed this in more depth in this article here, here are some ways that, if you’re so inclined, you can connect with the spirit of the tail itself.

–When you first get the tail, spend some time sitting with it, smoothing or fluffing the fur as needed, and getting to know the physical attributes—color, etc.–that make your tail unique. As you’re doing so, see if you get any impressions of the personality of the tail. You may be used to speaking with spirits; if you haven’t, see what thoughts, emotions, or images cross your mind as you handle the tail. If you feel like you should keep it in a particular place, let that be the tail’s “home”.

–Before you put the tail on to wear it, ask the spirit of the tail for permission. If the tail seems to say “no”, then put it back in its place for a few days, and try again. Or ask why it doesn’t want to come out just yet. If you can wear the tail, thank the spirit; some people may also wish to create small rituals for putting on and/or removing the tail each time.

–Some people prefer to just wear tails as accessories. If you wish to have a deeper spiritual connection, spend time sitting with the tail as well as wearing it each week, or even every day if you wish, to get to know it better. You may also wish to research the animal it came from-where that species lives, what it does and eats, what its relationship to humans it, etc. In this way you can have a better idea of whose tail you’re wearing.

–You might even try dancing with the spirit of the tail, or otherwise actively interacting with it when you wear the tail itself. Try going to a park and pretending to be that animal species. Or if you’re ritually-minded, call the tail’s spirit to join you in a celebratory dance!

Cultural Appropriation 101 for Dead Critter Artists

In recent years, wearable art with animal parts has become downright trendy, particularly, though not exclusively, among twenty-something hipsters and their “ironic” ilk. Feathered earrings are all the rage, fox tails are on everyone’s purse and belt loop, and “hipster headdresses” are showing up everywhere from college campuses to Coachella.

Unfortunately, some artists are participating in an older, undesirable tradition: cultural appropriation. For decades, particularly since “going Native” became cool with the hippies in the 1960s, non-Native people have been grabbing bits and parts of various Native American cultures—or at least what they think “playing Indian” is supposed to be like. And there are those who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Native artists or purveyors of Native art, when they’re in actuality not associated with any tribe, and may even be reselling dreamcatchers and other things made in China.

So why is this a problem? Read on:

–What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the borrowing/theft of elements of one culture from another. More specifically, the culture doing the appropriating is generally more powerful than the one being borrowed from, and often there is a history of oppression and even genocide. Appropriators generally don’t think about the effects the appropriation could have because it’s part of their privilege to not have to think about things like that.

Anyone have a source for this? I got it from Native Appropriations, who were also looking for the source. Artist! We want to credit you!

Most commonly with regards to dead critter art, appropriators are cashing in on “Native American mystique”, either accidentally or intentionally misusing elements or perceived elements of Native American cultures in their art. This is not just a case of mistaken identity, as in happening to use animal parts in your work and having someone else accidentally assume it’s Native, but rather things like people “dressing up like Indians”, or mass-produced dreamcatcher car air fresheners. Hipster headdresses are an especially bad trend; these are quasi-Plains-tribe feathered headdresses, like old Indian “warbonnets” from 20th century Westerns, worn by (almost always white) hipsters for “irony”.

–Why does it matter?

There are a few reasons:

First, racial stereotyping. There are still entirely too many people who think that Indians are just imaginary beings that exist in some romanticized past, or are all horse-riding savages out on the plains, or are all unemployed alcoholics, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Artistic appropriators usually draw on the “noble savage” stereotype, where Native Americans are hyper-idealized as nature-loving, broken-English-speaking shaman-elders dispensing medicine to wide-eyed whites. That, or they draw on the “all natives wear feathers and buckskin” stereotype, drawing together some Hollywoodized smattering of supposed Plains Indian traits into a cultural trainwreck.

Second, buying “native-inspired artwork” does nothing to help actual Native people. This includes artists who may have some Native blood in their background, but have absolutely no contact with any indigenous cultures. News flash: being 1/16 Cherokee does not predispose you to being able to work with dead animals in your art, nor does it make you an expert on your distant family’s culture if you’ve had no contact with your tribe. While certainly not all Native people live on reservations and not all are impoverished or struggling with addiction, the truth is that many reservations are among the poorest places in the United States and this all too often gets ignored and even encouraged by non-natives. The money that goes to non-Native artists posing as “Native” could be going to actual Native artists, either on or off the reservations.

Third, continuing to pander to stereotypes does nothing to help these issues or the people affected by them. Playing dress-up Indian just sends the message that Native people are stereotypes, costumes, images, and otherwise not real people. Additionally, the confusion can draw attention away from actual Native artists who are trying to get their work out there and clarify what is and isn’t genuine tribal artwork. “Hey! We’re over here! Someone pay attention?” often gets drowned out by “NEW NAVAJO NATIONS SHIRT ON SALE 50% OFF AT URBAN OUTFITTERS!!!!!” If we’re going to have any hope of turning these harmful trends around, we need to be paying better attention than we have been.

Now, for some more specific points:

–Why is it bad to associate feathers and antlers and furs with Native American art? Don’t they use these things in their work, too?

Some of them do, some of them don’t. The sort of indigenous artwork you’ll find in Guatemala is very different from what you’ll see in South Dakota, which is all different from what you’d find in British Columbia, and then on into Alaska. And while many modern Native artists do incorporate these things in their work, not all stick to traditional art forms and patterns; there’s just as much innovation of new designs among Native artists as anyone else. So just as there’s no such thing as a monolithic “Native American culture” or “Native American spirituality”, so there isn’t one single style of “Native American art”.

And as a side note, if you think about it, “Native American” as a general title is a remnant of what’s happened to a diversity of cultures over the past five centuries. Most non-Natives wouldn’t take the time to identify someone as Cherokee, or Salish, or Diné. And so to those non-Native people, “Native American” is as specific as they feel they need to get, effectively erasing cultural diversity even further. “Native American” as a concept didn’t exist 521 years ago.

Anyway, back to art—yes, some indigenous artists use animal parts in their work, but some don’t. And of those that do, the exact materials they use, and how they incorporate them, varies not just from tribe to tribe, but from artist to artist. Some tribes use almost nothing in the way of animal parts in their work, or none at all; others’ art looks very different from the buckskin shirts and feathers found in some Plains tribe artisanry. For example, weaving plays a significant part in a number of tribes’ art and culture, from Guatemalan sheepherding cultures, to the Chilkat weaving of Northwestern tribes. Woodcarving is also important in the Northwest and elsewhere, and far north the Inuit are known for intricate carving of bone and ivory.

Also, assuming that ANY art with animal parts is Native or stealing from Natives is itself a form of stereotyping. This essay was prompted in part by a situation where a neopagan artist was using very personalized designs in her art with animal parts, designs that anyone even barely familiar with actual Native art would know weren’t indigenous. Someone called her out as an appropriator simply because she had a piece with an antler and some feathers. That critic was furthering stereotypes herself, by automatically equating dead animal parts with Native art, as if that’s all that indigenous people ever use. I think I’ve made the point that “Native American art” is much more than antlers and feathers, and to continue the idea that antlers and feathers is all it is is just more limiting and stereotypical.

–“So why can’t I have my hipster headdress? It’s just ‘Native American INSPIRED’”.

It’s also racist. I’ve been sorely tempted on more than one occasion to ask someone in a hipster headdress “So, do you wear blackface on Tuesdays?” Think about that for a moment. American culture (other than a few pockets of pure ignorance) has rejected the stereotyping of black people by blackface performers. We see what’s wrong with it, and so we don’t do it anymore.

But in the same way that blackface was a farcical, marginalizing stereotype of African Americans, so hipster headdresses and similar “Native-inspired” art can do the same to Indians, yet fewer people are speaking out about it. Really, how does wearing chicken feathers on your head and acrylic paint on your face honor people whose homes were forcibly taken from them, whose numbers were drastically reduced to just a fraction of what they were by deliberate mass murder, and who today still often suffer the consequences of physical and cultural genocide?

Keep it classy. Source: http://arcj.blogspot.com/2007/09/cowboys-and-indians.html with hat tip to Native Appropriations

Unfortunately, indigenous people are still all too often made invisible in civil rights efforts. So most people don’t see what the issue is with chicken feather headdresses and “Pocahotties” at cowboy-and-Indian-themed frat parties because they haven’t encountered any opposition to it. The current hipster headdress trend doesn’t help this invisibility one bit; it simply reinforces the idea that “playing Indian” is somehow okay. (By the by, this is a MUCH more detailed and eloquent explanation of what’s wrong with hipster headdresses.)

–But so and so is Native American and they said my artwork was cool!

Well, yes. Native Americans aren’t one big group in full agreement on everything. Some are going to think that there’s nothing wrong with the made in China dreamcatchers and may just think the hipsters in headdresses are silly, nothing more. Others are more pissed off about the effects they see these things having on their people and other tribes.

It’s because some of them are upset that I feel it’s worth paying attention to. If Person A isn’t upset about something but Person B is, it doesn’t mean that I should just assume Person B is full of shit because it suits my personal interests to do so, especially in a situation where there has been definite damage done to the ancestors and cultures of both Persons A and B by people not listening to them. And, on top of it, as a person who is NOT a part of an indigenous culture, I have even less authority to decide that that complaint is worthless. Finally, given the history of white people NOT listening to Natives’ complaints, to include today, do I really want to continue in that tradition of not-listening?

–So what can I do to help?

First and foremost: educate the fuck out of yourself. Check out the Native Appropriations blog at http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/ and read the archives, as well as checking out the blogroll. For a historical perspective, read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. If it seems like each chapter is just telling the same story over and over again but with different people in each, then that should tell you something about the consistency of how badly various tribes were treated. If you have a Netflix account, both Reel Injun and Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action are on instant queue. These are just a few tiny starting points, but even they can be good eye-openers.

Study up on actual Native artwork, too. Some art and history museums have collections (however ill-gotten) of artwork and artifacts of various tribes. Read up on various tribes’ artworks, both historical and contemporary. Head over to sites like http://www.nativeart.net/ and http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/native-american-art-entertainment. If you want to buy genuine Native American artwork, ask the artist about their tribal connections, and make sure you’re buying from the right people (powwows are a good starting place). Oh, and make yourself familiar with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

Second, take a good long look at your own artwork. Have you been trying to make Native-style artwork? Are you still developing your own style, and are there ways you can make it more your own rather than borrowing from others? I’ve been developing my own work for over a decade, and I still periodically look over what I’m doing to make sure that I’m not encroaching on someone’s traditional designs; it’s part of why I no longer use loomed and applique beadwork in my art, and why I no longer make dreamcatchers, as a couple of examples.

Wolf mask by Lupa, 2011.

Presentation is important, too. I have a big disclaimer on my artwork page on my website and in the main description of my Etsy store that specifically says I’m not Native and I’ve never claimed to be. I’m even wary of using certain key words in my Etsy listings; I’m okay with using the fairly generic “pagan” and “shaman” as they’re a part of my background as a neopagan since the 1990s. (However, I’m also aware of how neopagan culture has itself appropriated from indigenous cultures, as well as the troubled recent history of the word “shaman”.) I’m less okay with keywords like “medicine”, even though I know that people looking for generic little leather bags will use that term, which has been drawn further and further away from its origins much in the same way as “shaman” and “totem”. But I refuse to use “Native American” on my listings (with one exception) even though it would probably get me more hits from people who don’t know the difference between a Native American artist and someone who makes stuff out of deerskin.

Third: find your own balance. I’ve explained above how I have my boundaries currently set, and those may change over time. Even writing out this article has given me reason to test those boundaries and how I feel about them. You may not be as concerned as I am, and be okay with making dreamcatchers as a non-Native person, or not see an issue with using the term “Native-inspired”. Or, for that matter, you might be even stricter and see my calling myself a “shaman” or using the term “headdress” for the wearable animal hides I make as appropriative actions in and of themselves. I can’t decide for you where your boundaries are, though I will respect you more for at least giving them thought.

And that’s really where I want to leave this for now–something for people to chew on, and think about, and discuss further. Feel free to link to this, if you like; it’s a public post.

How Wolf Fed the Scavengers

Once, when this place was still new, a great famine struck the land. The sun broiled the earth, and the plants were so thirsty in the drought that they could barely keep their stems and trunks straight, never mind grow enough fruits and leaves for everyone to eat. The plant-eaters were always hungry and they grew thin, and the meat-eaters could barely find anything other than bones to gnaw on, their prey was so wasted away. All the animals grew desperate, and fell to fighting each other more than they ever had before.

So it was decided that the animals needed a king. This king would decide who got how much to eat. The plant eaters argued that because they were the closest to the plants, that they knew them better and should get to have control over who got what. The meat eaters opposed them, saying that as they were at the top of the food chain, they had a better view of the situation. Those who ate both plants and meat were split right down the middle, some siding with the plant eaters, and some with the meat eaters.

Bone stag wall hanging by Lupa, 2010

The arguing lasted for three days and three nights, until at the end Whitetail Deer was made the king. All the animals brought forth all the plants that were ready to eat. “Since I am king,” he said, “I will take the first portion since I need my wits about me to keep an eye on our food supply. Then the rest will be divided up among the plant eaters according to size. But the meat eaters may only eat those animals who die of starvation and disease; from now on, hunting will be banned.” This caused much dismay among the meat-eaters, but what could they do? He was their king, too, and he said these words while shaking his mighty antlers with their sharp points.

So the plant eaters were able to leave the meeting with as much food as they were able to get, and all the animals were to collect more plants as they were ready to harvest, even the smallest berry or seed. Each day the food would be brought to Deer’s home, where he would divide it up, and send the plant eaters home with food while the meat eaters only had a scant few bony carcasses to squabble over.

Then it was decided that the meat eaters were not even allowed to be at the food collection except to bring what they had gathered and pick at the bones of the starved, and the plant eaters began to venture out of Deer’s home only to bring the collected food in, protected by their king’s antlers. The only ones who stayed out were the dead, who were left on the edge of Deer’s home, and over time there were fewer and fewer carcasses left out each day.

Wolf totem headdress by Lupa, 2012

Soon the meat eaters began to hoard what food they could. The bigger ones, by bullying and stealing food from others, ended up with the most and stayed strongest, while the little scavengers grew more and more hungry over time. Only Timber Wolf did not participate in this; she only took enough to feed herself, her mate, and her pups, and often ate the least of all her family. She grew sadder as she saw how the animals fought each other over so little.

The little scavengers noticed that of all the big meat eaters, she was the only one to let them have their own food. So they sent Raven, who was the bravest of them, to go speak with Wolf and ask her for help, since she was a great hunter, swifter than all the other meat eaters, and perhaps she would know what to do. She was given the last of the scraps to take to Wolf as an offering.

Raven flew to Wolf’s home as quickly as her weakened wings would carry her. She landed at the front of Wolf’s den, and croaked to her, “Lady Wolf, great huntress, brave warrioress, I am here on behalf of all the little scavengers, those of us who are too small to hunt big game. We are hungry, and we are too weak to steal our food back from the other big meat-eaters. You have the greatest hunting skills, and you are powerful. Will you help us to get food so that we may not starve to death and all become food ourselves? Soon none of us will be left!”

Wolf, curled with her mate and pups in her den, heard Raven’s pleas, and it was enough for her. She was tired of seeing the little scavengers creeping around and crying. Her hackles raised, she stalked out of the den, and met Raven there.

“Yes, I will help you. Let us go to our king, and ask him why we are unable to hunt. Let us ask him why we are not allowed to be at the food collection any more, other than to bring what we spend our days collecting in the hopes that we will be given bones to gnaw. My young cry for food, and your young barely live. It is too much.”

So they shared the scraps so Raven could recoup her strength from her flight, and Wolf could be ready for the trip. Raven perched on Wolf’s back, and they went to Deer’s home. When they got there, all the plant-eaters were inside, and no one was guarding the door since all the meat eaters were so weak that no one thought they could get in.

But Wolf got in, and Raven with her, and before anyone could speak or stop them, Wolf strode straight to where Deer sat, one antler shed and lying on the ground, the other shaking on top of his head. He was surrounded by all manner of food. The stores were piled from the floor to the ceiling; there were enough plant eaters that had died that even the small amount the famine-stricken plants could produce was more than what they could all eat. She looked at Deer, and all the plant eaters around him, and noticed how fat all of them were. And she grew enraged.

“How dare you?” she cried. “How dare you leave us out here to starve? You threw out all of those who nibbled at the edges of your leavings, and you only gave us your dead. Now that so many of you have died and you have more than enough food for all who remain, you keep it locked away here! You are no fit king!” And with this she fell upon them all, with bared teeth and fiery eyes.

She slew a tenth of the rabbits, and a tenth of the wild sheep, and a tenth of the elk. She hunted and killed a tenth of all the plant eaters, and the smell of the blood brought all the meat eaters together to feed. Then Deer himself, huge and fat and no longer so fierce without his antlers, got up and ran away, and Wolf chased him, with the little scavengers in their wake.

She chased him through the forest, and she tore away his toe, and the weasels fed upon it. Then she chased him through the mountains, and in a clearing she tore away his tail, and all the ravens came to take a piece of it. Then she chased him through the desert, and she tore away his remaining antler, and all the mice came and chewed at it.

Detail from wolf totem headdress by Lupa, 2012

And finally they circled back around to the mountains, where Wolf chased Deer all the way to the top of the highest peak, and there she overtook him and slew him. And his coppery blood rushed down the mountain in all directions, and he had grown so big that there were great, gushing rivers of it. The blood flooded all the land, from the mountains to the desert to the forest, and such was its power that it brought an end to the famine, and the plants thrived again.

And when Wolf came down from the mountain she brought Deer with her. She fed her young and her mate and herself and she tore what was left of Deer to pieces and gave all the little scavengers enough to feed themselves and their families.

Then she addressed all the animals, “I have killed our king, which makes me queen. I have only one decree—that we all go back to the way things were before the famine so that plant-eaters eat only what plants they gather, and meat-eaters eat only what meat they hunt or find.” And so it was.

But all the little scavengers followed Wolf around from that day on, for whenever she made a kill, she remembered their plight and how their food had been stolen from them, and always left them something to eat. And for her part in bringing back balance, Raven and her children were allowed to eat with Wolf and her kin for the rest of time.

The Epic Saga of the Icelandic Pony Hide

So. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that working with dead critters is a HUGE part of my practice. (Look! Relevant archives!) However, the vast, vast majority of the animal parts in my home are destined to move on to other people, primarily as ritual tools and other sacred art. My own personal collection is really quite small; less than two dozen skulls of various species, a few hides, a couple of rawhide drums, and a bit of small miscellany. Over the years, I have primarily functioned as a guide to the skin spirits, helping them on to new homes, my own home a temporary shelter and place of healing. However, on rare occasion I come across a skin spirit who really, deeply resonates with me. This actually hasn’t happened in a while, but a few days ago I had one of those moments where the connection was so strong it nearly knocked me to my knees.

See, I was fortunate to acquire an Icelandic horse hide. It’s actually not that easy to find whole horse hides of any breed; tails are about the most common parts you’ll find. However, someone I know had one up for sale from their personal collection, and I had some extra cash set aside for purchasing dead things art supplies, so I took that opportunity. I had grand artistic plans for it, and was even drawing up patterns in my mind while waiting for the package to arrive. You know how these things go, right?

There was this big, long epic saga, appropriately enough, involved in getting the hide here. See, the package accidentally got sent to my old address–which happens from time to time. The tracking number showed it was “still in transit”, but due for delivery by the end of the day–and it was already 4pm. I called the post office, and since I had put in a forwarding address when I moved earlier in the year, if the package got returned by my old abode’s resident, it’d make it back to me.

I felt that was a BIG if, though. I mean, what IF they decided to keep it? Somehow, the idea of this particular package not making it to me was unconscionable. So I set off to go rescue the package myself, come hell or high water.

Thankfully, I had to go all of a block and a half.

Because that’s as far as I moved from my old place.

(Sadly, it still was one of my more difficult moves, logistically speaking, but that’s a story for another time.)

(Back to the pony saga.)

With a friendly note with my contact info in hand, I marched over to my old apartment and knocked on the door. Almost immediately I was greeted by a rather pleasant young man who informed me that there were actually two packages waiting for me (one of which did not have a horse hide, the other one which should have, but might not, thank you Schrodinger). He was relieved to not have to try and trace the proper home of the packages (I told you he was nice!) and I was relieved to have my packages! And so having left my contact information with him in case of future mis-deliveries, I headed home with my prize.

And of course, the first thing I did when I got home was to open the bigger box. Out of it I drew this magnificent, long-furred, heavy white hide, much larger than I expected–it seemed as though I was pulling impossible amounts of horsehide out of this box of holding! And I laid it out on the futon in my art area, and just sat, my mouth agape, amazed. It was as though the spirit of this horse had leaped out of the box, and now stood before me, over the remains of its–or, rather, his–skin. The spirit shook his mane as if to shake off the indignity of his uncomfortable trip here, and it seemed as though even the few wrinkles in the hide smoothed out and relaxed. Most spirits, even those of my personal retinue, take a little while to settle into their new surroundings. This horse, on the other hand, made himself right at home on the couch and declared he was staying.

Well, who was I to argue with that? Sure, I’d have to find some other way to make up the money I spent on him (subliminalmessagebuymyart/subliminalmessage); I very, very rarely spend large amounts of money on myself these days other than for necessities. But just as I know other pagan folk who have temporarily tightened their belts to be able to buy some artistic altar piece or ritual tool that a deity or spirit they worked with wanted, I knew that this was one of those occasions where spirit needed to win out over practicality. And since this wasn’t going to put me at risk of not being able to pay essential bills, and I have ways to make up the funds, and he’ll earn his keep through his help with shamanism, I happily acquiesced.

It doesn’t end there, of course. I had declared that day to be an artwork day, and since I am on a late-night schedule I found myself still awake at 2am. I was a little tired, but wanted to keep working, so I decided to lie down on the futon a bit to rest my eyes before continuing. Of course, this NEVER EVER works out that way, and I fell asleep. And yes, I did sleep on the horse hide, as he invited me to do so. As I found myself drifting into lucid dreams, the spirit took the opportunity to introduce himself more formally, and we spoke a bit about his place here.

He told me that he wants to be part of my shamanic work, that he wants to help carry me to where I journey, and that when I do drum journeys where I sit or lay down, he wants to be my support. He still hasn’t told me his name; I think he’s waiting for the right time. I have yet to introduce him to my primary journeying drum (who is also horse hide), to see what she thinks of all this, though he certainly seems confident. I get the feeling that he’s an old spirit, or at least a stronger connection to the totem of that breed of Horse than most. Such is often the way of things with the skin spirits who stay with me permanently (though also with many who end up going to others through my work). We’ve yet to work together, as I’m still adjusting to his energy and he to mine, but soon enough.

In doing more research, I read about how horse hides, especially white ones, are connected to a variety of shamanic and other spiritual traditions. It hadn’t been something really in the forefront of my mind, just one of those things noted while researching at some point in the past and stuck in the back recesses of my brain. Maybe that’s part of why we connected so strongly–partly due to that recognition, and also just to who he is as a spirit. Either way, he’s staying.

And here’s a picture of the hide itself, right where he decided to settle himself right down at home (click the picture for a larger view):

The Goddess Anput

While I’ve been creating ritual costumery and other tools out of hides, bones and the like for over a decade, more recently I’ve been getting into more elaborate projects. One of my most recent endeavors was a ritual costume in which I had a surprise spiritual experience–well, unexpected, but not entirely surprising. Here’s what I wrote about the experience at the time, just about a month ago:

Tonight, a Goddess found me.

For many years, I have acknowledged Anubis–Anpu–Yinepu–as the God of dead things, related to my art with the remains of animals. And he has watched over my work in the background, quietly, only occasionally coming forth to speak if he feels the need to add a bit of guidance. But still…so distant.

Then the day came when the hide of a black coyote came into my possession. Even having lived and died a half a world away and thousands of years past the jackals of Egypt that gave their form to the God, this coyote carried that energy, inexplicably and completely.

Almost.

Except this coyote was female, and held onto that beyond death almost defiantly. And through that skin spirit, Anput made Herself known to me. Where Anpu had been distant, though not uncaring, Anput settled Herself down in front of me, and in the same way Artemis had done so long ago when I was younger, She looked at me and said “Doesn’t something look familiar?”

Familiar? How could I even know what to look for, when I knew not Whom I beheld? I knew scant little of her, as did anyone today–the feminine aspect–some said wife–of the better-known Anpu, had had little surviving lore and few adherents today. “Goddess of the 17th nome of Egypt, with the standard of the jackal” told me little.

And so I returned to Her, perplexed. And before I could say a word, She saw my confusion, and She spoke. “I am the Goddess of funerary arts. When the stones were carved into the faces of pharaohs long-dead, My hand guided the chisel. When each set of canopic jars was formed, I shaped each detail and applied every stroke of the brush. And now, when you weave hide and bone into sacred art, My hands wrap around yours, and I see the work through your eyes”.

The black coyote then wrapped around my shoulders, wishing that I would prepare her to move on to the next person in her afterlife, for, as for so many, I am only a threshold, a transitional point. And so we enmeshed ourselves, for three days and nights, in the sacred preparation and creation of what would carry a piece of each of us.

And at the end of the three days and three nights, I wore a cloak upon my shoulders, with the sacred mantle and hood as the Goddess directed me and as the black coyote concurred and as I created. Khepri stretched his wings wide, and the name and standard of Anpu—Input—cascaded in hieroglyphs.

This, then, was our inauguration, the Goddess and I. The black coyote would go forth as Her emissary while I would remain here and continue the sacred work as I always had, only with the consciousness of She who guided me.

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This headdress is dedicated to Anput, the female counterpart to Anubis. It is in no way meant to be an authentic replication of any traditional Egyptian creations, but is instead a hybrid of my own style mixed with elements inspired by a very general Egyptian aesthetic, guided by sacred inspiration (and many pictures of old statues and paintings from various dynasties!).

This headdress is based around a black (melanistic) coyote hide; this is a rare, but naturally occurring mutation in this species. This particular hide came from a small female, black with a white blaze on her chest. She is complete with all four paws and claws; the only piece missing is her lower jaw, which was removed for the purpose of this project. Her ears and face have been reshaped to a more natural appearance; they were originally rather flat and misshapen, as many hides are after tanning. Her face has been given painted details, to include hold around the eyes, and gold accents on her nose. I inserted gold and black leather in her ears to mimic the striping often found in the ears of depictions of Anubis.

The leather is one whole tanned lambskin hide, dyed black, and then with an overlay of gold on one side. It forms the side panels of the hood, again striped, as homage to the Nemes headdress that Anubis and other deities were commonly depicted wearing; there are very few images of Anput Herself that remain, and as I was working on this inspired piece this is what She indicated She wanted.

The mantle over the shoulders was the most difficult portion of this. I drew out the scarab and wings with a black fine tipped paint pen, and then colored it in with acrylic and oil paint pens in two shades of blue, green, and red, and detailed in gold. I tested all these on a scrap of the same leather to be sure of the colorfastness. The hieroglyphs descending from the mantle read “Input”, an alternate of Anput’s name, and below that is the standard of 17th nome (district) of Egypt, over which She reigned.

The beaded accents on these leather pieces are a combination of new (reproduction) faience scarabs, and genuine old Egyptian faience beads (exact dynasty unknown). Each one of these dangles is about 1 1/8” long.

The headdress ties on with straps under the chin, and the forelegs also are tied together with more leather strappage. It is one size fits most; for scale, I am 5’4” and 115 pounds.

This project did take me the better part of three days and nights with only small breaks. It is by far one of the most ambitious pieces I have done, and represents a shift to more elaborate and involved crafted artwork.

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In the weeks since I created this headdress, Anput has been a quiet but strong presence in my workspace, and she has actually brought Anpu Himself forward more as well, not that I should be surprised. The feeling I get is that they are aspects of each other, rather than spouses, though perhaps the distinction isn’t so strict. Sometimes I work with them both, sometimes Her alone.

And as I work with the Divine in my art, I am beginning to feel the inklings of others who wish to have creations in their honor. I have long done this work with totems; every piece I create has been a tribute to the species’ totem as well as the individual animal spirit, whether a full dance costume, or a simple leather pouch. But there are other beings stepping forward now, adding yet another layer to what I am creating.

And I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this will take us all.

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Just as a side note, the Anput headdress is not meant to stay with me, nor are the rest of the creations I will be making. The Anput headdress may be found here on Etsy. If you are interested in giving this work a home, or in commissioning your own art, please feel free to contact me.

Finally, Something For Myself

So–there’s a new post I did over at No Unsacred Place, about my work with skin spirits both as art, and as a funereal process. Go, take a look, and then come back here.

For someone who works with dead critters as much as I do, I really don’t have very many that I keep for myself. My job has primarily been to help these sacred remains and skin spirits to a better “afterlife”, generally with other people.

But I do have a few. I have my wolf skins, and a few other hides and ritual tools I’ve made. I even have the old antler-handled knife I bought as a ritual blade way back at the beginning of my paganism in the mid-90s. And I have my tail.

Well, okay. It’s one of two tails. I have an Arctic wolf tail that’s part of my formal shamanic costumery. But then I also have my “wear-ever” tail, a big grey wolf tail that I’ve had for years. And despite the increasingly varied sorts of attachments I’ve been making for tails over the years, my poor wolf tail’s been stuck with a couple of straps of leather that I stitched on hastily, and which have broken several times (hence why the belts I make for tails I sell are braided).

My most recent “flavor” of tail has been a belt tail with a matched pair of belt pouches. I decided that I liked this design so much that I wanted my own tail to have that setup.

But I didn’t want to use just any leather. Instead, I decided to make use of my old, beat-up, now-retired-and-replaced leather biker jacket that I’ve been wearing around–and wearing out–for over a decade (after getting it from Goodwill, mind you). I saved the painted panel on the back, which is going to get hung up on the wall with the various pins I wore on the coat. And then I went to town with the leather shears.

And, a couple of hours later, I had this:

I’m rather pleased with it. I used a pair of wolf toe bones for the toggle-clasps on the pouches, and all the leather is from that old coat. Given that the coat had been damaged and repaired so often as to be unwearable, I was happy to be able to keep making use of the leather for such a special project–and my own wolf tail no longer had to go around with just a couple crappy strips of worn out leather :)

I’ve been wearing it all weekend at vending events and OryCon, and have already gotten compliments. Plus it’s just a fun thing to wear about. If I decide I want to wear a skirt, I can still have pockets. If I want to incorporate it into festival garb, I get pockets AND a tail! I’m all pleased an’ stuff, in case you couldn’t tell ;)

I don’t keep very much for myself, but when I do, it has to be something very dear to me. This definitely counts.

The Care and Feeding of Your Totem Animal Dance Costume

I’ve been giving people information for years on basic care for the dance hides and such that they buy from me; however, I finally wrote up something to send off with orders, and I thought it would be worth sharing, just for informational purposes. (If you’re interested in seeing the art itself and what I offer, this is my website, this is my Etsy shop, and this is my online archive at deviantArt.)

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The Care and Feeding of Your
Totem Animal Dance Costume
By Lupa

Thank you for bringing home your new totem animal dance costume! As I’m sure you intend to have a long relationship with this new spiritual companion, please allow me to give you some information on how to care for real animal fur over time.

Over time, hides can dry out and become more fragile. I recommend treating the hide with mink oil or another leather conditioner; cremes are easier to work with than liquids. Carefully rub the conditioner into the skin side of the hide, and then lay it out skin side up for a few days to let the conditioner dry. If you live in a dry climate or if you dance with your skin around fires, you may want to do this twice a year; less often otherwise. You may also wish to carefully apply a vacuum brush attachment to the fur side every few months to remove dust and other debris.

Keep your dance skin out of overly humid places. If it gets wet, such as in the rain, dry it out immediately. If you have a newer skin, and it becomes excessively dirty, you can wash it in water and gentle soap, but again, dry it out as quickly as you can. Hang it out to dry; do not apply a hair dryer or put it in a clothes dryer. Older skins* should not be bathed, and need to be dried out if they get accidentally wet. Small amounts of dirt may be removed from most skins with a damp washcloth.

Spiritual care tends to be much more personalized. The most important thing is to know what the spirit of the skin itself wants. If you’ve never done this before, I have a basic tutorial available for free at http://therioshamanism.com/2011/04/04/how-to-talk-to-dead-things/. I do a full ritual purification on everything I make with animal parts, and a portion of the money I make goes to groups like the Defenders of Wildlife or Wolf Haven International, among others.

If you’re looking for more ideas on how to dance with your skin, please see
http://therioshamanism.com/2011/08/20/skindancing-shapeshifting-dance/.

I do free repairs on everything I make, as has always been my policy. If you ever need a strap replaced (or even more significant repair), or if you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me at whishthound@gmail.com

* In addition to skins from indigenous and subsistance trappers, I work with a range of vintage and reclaimed hides and furs; generally, “reclaimed” means hides that I have procured from other artists & collectors or discards from the fur industry, so they may not be technically secondhand in the way a recycled old fur rug would be. You are welcome to ask about the origin of your particular hide.

Skindancing: Shapeshifting Dance

You know how I got into making totem dance costumes in the first place? It’s because I wanted to dance in my own wolf skin! My old grey wolf skin, shown in this post, has been with me since about 1999. However, I didn’t start dancing with him until 2002, when I started going to pagan festivals. I had no one to show me how to wear him, so through a process of trial and error I figured out how to properly split him to wrap him around me, plus trying to find the best places to put the various leather straps to distribute the weight. And then I had to figure out that whole shapeshifting thing–not physically, of course, but allowing the spirit of the skin to “ride” my body, even as I felt, for the moment of the dance, what it was like to see through the eyes of a wolf. And I want to be able to share that with you, so here’s a brief tutorial on how to make it happen.

First, you need to know what skin you’re going to dance. You may, like me, prefer full skin dance costumes. However, that’s not necessary; you may be working with a headdress or tail, or even just a small skin pouch. You don’t even need actual animal parts–even vegans may participate in skindancing! What’s important is how you connect with the skin spirits, regardless of their “housing”.

If you’ve never talked with the skin spirits before, I wrote out my own method here; it may be useful to you, though you may find your own personalized way as well. Being able to connect with the spirit, whether you see it as a literal being or not, is crucial to shapeshifting dance. So before trying this more advanced practice, spend some time getting to know the skin you’re going to dance with. It’s especially important to be able to tell when the spirit is or isn’t wanting to work with you at a given time, because you’ll want to ask permission each time you want to dance with it or otherwise work with it.

Once you have a good working relationship with the spirit, it’s time to try it on for size. A pouch will probably hang with no problem around your neck or from a belt, though it’s best to have at least some physical contact with it. However, something larger may take a little practice to get it to fit just right–every person’s body is shaped differently, and so one person may have to wear the same headdress further back or forward on their head than another one. So before you even get out to the dance circle, spend some time just wearing the skin in your home and learn to adjust its fastenings and your movements as needed.

If you haven’t danced much before, or you’re not feeling quite sure of yourself, you can try dancing at home as well. One thing I recommend to people is to either watch the actual living animals in the wild or at a zoo or wildlife park, or watch videos of them, to see how they move. Then imitate that to the best of your ability. In many cases we simply aren’t able to move in the same way–we can’t fly, for example–and you may have physical limitations particular to you that need to be factored in. Never fear–it’s not about perfection! Again, the connection is what’s important.

And that’s the other half of this practicing–you want to invite the spirit to be a part of you, and allow you to be a part of it, during this dance. For a while, it may just be you moving around, concentrating on just “getting it right”. However, eventually you may find that you can feel the spiritual boundaries between you and the skin melting away. (This is why I don’t line any of the dance costumes I make, other than as needed to strengthen older hides. Direct physical contact with the skin helps facilitate spiritual connection as well!) Take some time to keep practicing and getting to know each other as dance partners.

You may also find that the totem of the species you are dancing, as well as the individual spirit of the skin, may come to dance with you. This can be a VERY powerful experience, but it can also differ from just dancing with the skin spirit. It’s easier to get overwhelmed, but it’s also good practice in deeper spiritual connections and invocation. Have a plan to get out of the trance and ground yourself if things get to be too intense; generally speaking, a totem will leave if asked politely, at least in my experience.

Once you feel ready to do this in a group setting, such as a drum circle at a pagan gathering, there are a few things to be aware of. You may find yourself distracted the first few times you do this, either by trying to not get stepped on by other dancers, or being overwhelmed by all the drumming, or overheated by the fire. (If you’re wearing a full skin dance costume, wear as little clothing as you can and still be decent in the given setting–a swimsuit, for example. Yes, even in cool weather–fur and fire will make you warm in no time!) Don’t worry; it happened to me when I was first starting out, and I still have recent experiences where someone bumped into me and knocked me out of trance. That’s another thing–know who you can go to if you need some help grounding. Taking the skin off breaks the connection, but it won’t necessarily get you back to your baseline headspace. If there are no professional fire tenders, have a friend or two there who can help you come back to yourself.

An important note: Be aware of the animal’s behavior versus your own preconceived notions! I have seen people use skindancing and other shapeshifting practices to act out–basically using the imagery of Wolf to excuse their inability to control their own anger and aggression, for example. How much of yourself are you projecting onto the animal? How much aggression does the animal actually use on a daily basis versus what popular media states? Wolves can be aggressive, but they’re also highly social, and the pack hierarchy is much more relaxed in the wild, as opposed to in the sorts of captive refuge situations where a lot of observation has taken place. (Captive wolves tend to exaggerate the hierarchy due to being in such close quarters.) So dancing Wolf isn’t just about being a snarling beast embodying all the animal qualities we humans tend to repress; it’s also about being loving and playful and sleeping a lot after a big meal!

You don’t have to restrict yourself to just one animal, either. I primarily dance Wolf, but I have also dance Bear, Deer, Buffalo, Leopard, and many others. And even if you dance multiple skins of the same species, get to know them as individuals. Some like dancing more than others, and some just prefer special occasions.

There’s a lot more to this, but these are the basics. If you want to know more about my work with skin spirits, feel free to read more of the entries in the Skin Spirits category of this blog. You may also purchase a copy of my book, Skin Spirits, in the bookstore portion of my website. And I’m always happy to answer questions and give feedback as my time allows :)

Death and Skin Spirits and Ethics

I know, I know–I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. But there’s a lot to chew on, so bear with me here.

So the other day, when I was talking about dead critters, I mentioned some of the ethics surrounding the use of animal parts in my art and spiritual practice. Specifically in that post I discussed the ethics of honesty in admitting the source of said parts, especially the issue of people misrepresenting supposedly vintage or otherwise secondhand parts. However, the ethics go much further than just how we represent what we offer.

As mentioned in the earlier post, one of the important reasons for accurate representation is because there are a lot of buyers out there, either of animal parts or things made of them, who restrict themselves on what they may or may not buy for ethical reasons. Some only want secondhand/vintage. Others only want parts from natural deaths, or even only shed antlers or molted fur and feathers. For these people it is imperative to know that what they offer didn’t come from a fur farm or otherwise have a bad life and/or death.

I don’t restrict myself that much. I am an equal opportunity spirit worker when it comes to skin spirits. The only limitations I make are regarding legalities, which is why I put so much effort in trying to educate myself on the laws. I don’t support poaching, and I don’t support other illegal acts. Beyond that, though, I don’t discriminate.

Why? Because all the skin spirits deserve attention and honor, as do their remains. And, in my experience, it’s the ones that have had the worst deaths that need the most spiritual help and cleansing. I do a full purification ritual on everything I make with animal parts, and part of that includes talking with the spirit of the skin or bone I’m working with to be sure it’s ready to go to a new home. Some of them? They’re just not there yet, and I respect that.

And? It’s all death, one way or another. No matter how it happened, or at what point in the lifetime, some animal lost its unique vehicle for interacting with this world. The soul moves on; the “spirits” that are left are more impressions, haunts, though they may have strong personalities. The death doesn’t change, either. A farmed fox tail from fifty years ago is still from a fox that lived and was killed on a fur farm. The vintage status doesn’t change that. Any way the death happened, whether through snare or bullet or gas or electrocution or roadkill or parasitic disease, the end result is a carcass. And that’s where my work starts.

Yes, I try to balance my works with donations and volunteering to help animals and their habitats. But I still own that my art, and my income, rest directly on the backs of hundreds of deaths, and I can never forget that. To do so would be to the detriment of everything I have done for the past 13 years.

On Dead Critters

So after my last post about strip-mined crystals and sustainability, it got me thinking more about the animal remains I use in my spirituality and artwork.

One of the things that I have always tried to do, ever since I started doing artistic and spiritual things with animal parts in the 1990s, is to try and use secondhand ones as much as possible. Early on while still in the Midwest, I haunted antique shops for old mink fur coats, and one of my best finds ever was a very old bear skin rug for $50! Since then, I’ve found more sources for old fur garments, taxidermy, even old Davy Crockett hats with real raccoon tails stitched to fabric tops. And I still generally prefer secondhand over new.

However, there are different degrees of “secondhand”. There’s secondhand as in the antique bobcat rug that I turned into a dance costume. And then there are the tails I use in my art, which mostly come from furriers, who don’t generally use the heads, tails or feet of hides, so other people like me make stuff out of them. And that’s a different sort of re-use.

See, if something is left over from food or subsistence hunting/trapping or the garment industry and never had a specific post-death use before, it’s really just a discard. Whoever had it first (other than the animal who wore it) didn’t actually do anything with it other than toss it away, or offer it to be sold to craftspeople like me. That’s using every part of the animal, but saying it’s secondhand is like saying that the bags of dried corn husks left over from food-grade corn that are used for tamales or crafts are secondhand. Yes, it’s great that the processor of the corn can sell the husks instead of tossing them, but they’re still technically a new product. In the same ways, the bundles of fox and other tails that are left over when fur coats are made are new as well. Granted, they’re not being incinerated or tossed in a landfill, but I wouldn’t call them secondhand.

So what do I consider more properly secondhand?

–Old fur and leather coats that I cut up to make into other stuff
–Taxidermy bought from a taxidermist’s private customer, not the taxidermist directly
–Animal parts that were owned by another private individual as part of a collection, or destashed from art supplies
–Other random items that were previously owned by another private individual, ranging from real-feather feather dusters to novelty armadillo purses

Why is this important? Because some people feel very strongly for spiritual and/or ethical reasons that the animal parts they work with in their spirituality should be secondhand. Leftovers from the fur industry are great to be reused, and I am happy to incorporate them in my work, but they are still new, not secondhand. And for some people, that’s not far-enough removed for their comfort, which I can certainly understand.

I feel it is important to make the distinction between discard and secondhand for honesty’s sake. I have seen sellers of animal parts at various places on the internet claiming that the heads, tails and other new discards they get from the same sources I do are “secondhand”. And, caveat emptor, there are sellers who will even claim something is not only secondhand but vintage in order to try to seem more ethical. Not all sellers do this, of course, and there are some people who do offer genuine vintage and otherwise secondhand animal parts; additionally, honest misidentification can happen. However, I feel those who are deliberately misrepresenting things with dubious stories are doing a huge disservice to the customers who trust them as well as to the spirits of the animals they misrepresent.**

And that latter part, about the animal spirits, is especially important to me. My whole reason for starting this form of artwork over a decade ago was to give the skin spirits and their remains a better afterlife than being a trophy or status symbol, and that is still one of the central goals of my work. If I deliberately sell a farmed fox tail as wild–or for that matter, as a “natural death”***–or a new one as vintage, it dishonors the spirit, the customer, and my art. It is both a spiritual and ethical issue, one that I feel needs more discussion.

**It might be enough to make some go vegan!

***A postscript on that whole “natural death” thing and related topics: I occasionally will have people contact me and ask whether I have any animal remains from animals–such as wolves–that died naturally, either in the wild or a zoo or other facility, or at the very least were accidental roadkill, or were “nuisance kills”. If an animal dies in the wild, it will almost always become food immediately; the best you can hope for is to find bones and maybe a scrap of rotted hide, for the most part. Zoos and wildlife preserves generally don’t sell the remains of their deceased inmates; they are usually either cremated or donated to science (and here’s a great article about dead zoo animals for your reading pleasure!). Roadkill often is too beat up to do more than salvage some bones, and enough states have laws against picking up roadkill that it’s a legal risk anyway. As to nuisance kills? Well, sure, there may be some use to killing a coyote as part of population control, but hunters and trappers help keep the population down, too–”population control” is just another term for “officially enacted hunting and trapping”. Ethically, it’s really not much better than regular trophy or food hunting.

****Somewhat related, and continuing the discussion on ethically-sourced art supplies, is this great bit of research on Fire Mountain Gems’ suppliers. Since a lot of people buy jewelry supplies from them, to include stone and metal beads and findings, this is good info to have!