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 https://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
https://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.

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Some Thoughts on “Justice” and the WM3

Here is what is making me the most concerned about the West Memphis Three. Well, okay. There are a lot of things that concern me about the situation. But this is what’s been foremost on my mind.

One thing I learned from my internship working with women fighting both addiction and criminality: Being in the criminal justice system does not leave one unmarked. The very setting of a jail or prison can be highly traumatizing, even if the often-cited prison rapes never happen. On the one side, you have the authority figures monitoring your every move, dictating what you can and cannot do, restricting you to a crowded, depressing setting for years of your life, and eventually wearing away your ability to function as an independent entity. And on the other side, adding more pressure, you have the prison population, many individuals of whom may be manipulative, threatening, violent, and more viciously hierarchical due to being in such close quarters with so few resources. Every day your health, mental well-being (and mental illnesses are disproportionately represented in this population), and even life may be in danger.

When that happens in a war zone, we call one of the potential results PTSD and we seek help for the soldiers (sometimes–I have my own criticisms of the military’s abandonment of their people). But do we think about PTSD in relation to prison populations? Or do we just assume that because these are “bad people”, they’re just getting what they deserved for whatever “bad thing” they did?

To me, while I acknowledge the lack of guilt on the part of the WM3, it doesn’t really matter to me whether a person tossed into that milieu is guilty or innocent. I am concerned for all. Prisons aren’t for rehab. They’re for keeping people locked up and brainwashing the general populace into thinking they’re “safe” because all those drug addicts and prostitutes and thieves and murderers are off the streets. But removing people from society only fixes a symptom, and “fix” is relative. It does little for the base problems which contribute to the social dysfunctions that lead people into criminality in the first place. It’s just easier to lock someone away and pretend they no longer exist than to take the time to dig through what may be a mix of years of trauma and abuse, mental illness, poverty, and other complex and difficult factors in each and every person in the system.

So when I think about the WM3, I wonder what two decades of institutionalization does to a young–now no longer so young–mind. Sure, they’re young enough that, under the best circumstances, they have a few more decades to live. But they can’t just leave that experience behind. It doesn’t end here, and the fresh start is a lie.

In the Bins

Recently I hit up the Bins, the big Goodwill outlet south of Portland. Why is it called the Bins? Because there are bins there–dozens of them–full of stuff. The Bins are where the rejected items end up, either the ones that didn’t sell in the retail stores, or that never made it there in the first place due to damage or other problems. Most things, other than books and furniture and a few miscellany, are sold for a dollar and change per pound. You can get clothing, appliances, kitchenware, art and art supplies, even toiletries there. You just have to not be too choosy. Some people refuse to shop in any thrift store because they feel secondhand items are “dirty” or “worn out”. They’d never set foot in the Bins.

And yet, it’s one of my favorite places. I’ve found perfectly good clothing there–maybe it needs a tiny bit of repair and a good cleaning, but it’s not shabby. Many of my dishes and other housewares were salvaged from the Bins. And I find all sorts of random art supplies–this last time I found an old weathered wooden picture frame that I have plans for, and a small real mink fur stole. Sometimes I luck out and find a leather coat I can cut up for supply. Other times it’s a bag of yarn, or feathers. And there are so many other things I’ve had to turn away because I just don’t have enough time for all the art–books that beg for alteration, clothing that could be revamped, found objects to put together into amazing amalgams of art. It’s really a creative artist’s paradise, if you know what to look for.

However, I also found it to be incredibly sad on a certain level. For every item that I or other people took away with us, there were countless ones that met the end of the line, to be thrown out at the end of the day. Here’s a picture of many, but not all, of the Bins themselves, along with a fraction of the furniture:

And just a tiny number of the books:

Clothing and exercise equipment:

These pictures? Show just a tiny fraction of what goes through those bins every day. Every hour they’re switched out, with leftovers taken away, and new items rolled in. What you see is some of just one hour’s worth of stuff, in one day, out of seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, in just one Goodwill outlet store in one city. While occasional items may end up going through multiple owners and happening to end up back here a second time, generally everything you see here is on its first–and only–trip to the Bins.

In addition to all this, imagine how much stuff gets either bought or thrown out from Portland yard sales, or from other thrift stores. Think about damaged items, including food, that Fred Meyer and WinCo and WalMart toss out, just in one metro area. Consider all the perfectly usable items people throw away in this city every day, simply because they don’t want to get up and find a donation location, or because they feel that somehow these items are no good, or that they don’t want someone else owning something that was theirs (yes, I have run into this attitude before).

And then think about this in all the cities, towns and rural areas just across the U.S. Landfills. Incinerators. Illegal dumps.

What I picture above isn’t even a drop in the bucket. It probably isn’t even a molecule. And it’s immense in the face of what I was able to take home that day.

This is what gets me going again. I am dismayed by the waste. I am angered by the gross materialism. I am disgusted by the snobbery that says “secondhand is trash, I deserve the BEST”.

So I live my ideals to the best of my ability. Maybe a dozen items in my wardrobe beyond underwear were purchased new. Almost all my books (other than some textbooks that I had to buy new) are secondhand. After my divorce last year, I restocked my kitchen in Goodwill’s aisles. And my art supplies? Sure, there are the pretty fox tails and wolf hides that are byproducts, but most of what I have comes from fur and leather coats, secondhand jewelry, random reclaimed tchotchkes, and the like. If I don’t get it from thrift stores or SCRAP, I’m buying other crafters’ leftovers. Almost everything I make has at least some secondhand component to it. Hell, sometimes I even buy supplies at the Bins to donate to SCRAP, just so someone gets to use it.

And yet, my efforts don’t even really register in the grand scheme of things, which is why I need to look at a more local, starfish story level just to keep from getting all despondent and overwhelmed by it all. But sometimes it’s good for us to get overwhelmed a little, to realize just how much there is to do and why it’s so urgent. We are wasting resources to an unprecedented degree–and it all comes down to the choices of individuals that add up cumulatively.

So: is there a trip to the Bins or their equivalent in your future?

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.

Bear Work and What Grad School Taught Me About Being a Shaman

So we’re down to the line here as far as grad school goes. In a week and a half I will be done with my internship, and with luck by the middle of September I will be able to put M.A. after my name!

It’s been incredibly stressful–not all bad stress, but still, stress has an effect. I haven’t had as much time to do a lot of my usual self-care techniques, but I have taken up meditation again. Brown Bear, who has always been my help with healing both myself and others, has been guiding me in meditation with small affirmations. These affirmations are to help me remember certain checks and balances against the negative effects of stress and other pressures. I have a small antique ceramic bowl in my ritual area that I’ve filled with small slips of paper with the affirmations written on them. I try to meditate at least once a day, though if I feel the need for more, the meditation is a brief break to help me ground and re-center myself.

Bear is coming back into my life more strongly, too. Not that s/he ever left, but school had a way of draining me to where I didn’t always have the energy to maintain my totemic and other spiritual connections as much as I’d like. Bear is patient with me, though, and that patience has been invaluable during this time. It’s not just that I appreciate being the receipient; it’s also good modeling to remind me to be patient myself, with myself and with others. I feel pretty confident that our work is going to continue and deepen as I enter this new phase of my life.

This sort of small, simple practice, while it certainly doesn’t replace more intense journeying, is just one of the things I’ve learned to appreciate more in the past few years. One of the main reasons I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in counseling psychology was that I wanted to be able to help more people. Outside of indigenous culture, the United States doesn’t really have a central shamanic role. There are, however, some professions that I consider to be analogous, to include counselor, and rather than trying to shoehorn post-industrial nonindigenous Americans into quasi-indigenous, pseudo-tribal artificially created pigeonholes, I see there being the greatest value in A) adopting those analogous roles, and B) if we feel the need for some archetypal shaman role, that we create it ourselves based on where we are, not where we wish we were. So for me, my training as a shaman hasn’t been at the hands of indigenous people, trying to convince them that this white girl is worthy of their amazing spiritual secrets, but instead in an education that is more tailored to what I’m used to. Not that it isolates me; on the contrary, my internship at a high-risk inpatient addictions treatment center has brought me into contact with an unprecedented variety of women from all sorts of racial, cultural, spiritual, familial and other personal backgrounds. I doubt I would have met any of them if I’d just hung up a “shaman” shingle and waited for people to show up.

Because let’s face it. Most Americans of all races wouldn’t go to a “shaman”, either because their religion forbids it, or they feel that sort of animistic practice is nutzoid. Native Americans are more likely to go to their own holy people and other such community figures. Most of the people who would come to me as a shaman are going to be similar to me–white, middle-class in origin, college-educated to some extent, and either neopagan or New Age of some flavor. However, people from numerous walks of life go to counselors, sometimes mandated by courts, but also often voluntarily. And I want to be accessible to all of these.

Even though I intend to go into private practice as a counselor once I graduate and get my degree, I am still going to keep my hand in on the community level, with some low-cost slots for the uninsured, as well as doing some research that I hope will benefit my internship site as well as the clients who use it. Yes, to an extent shamanism is about offering myself, but I can’t just go in saying “Here, take this!” As with any counseling or shamanism, it’s about finding out, collaboratively, what the client needs, and going from there. With counseling, I can offer a much wider set of possibilities to a broader range of clients.

And that’s one of the most valuable lessons I learned.

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!