I am a practitioner of holistic health and wellbeing. I am also part Native-American, a descendent of the Lakota and Choctaw Indians. My desire to research and know my Native American roots began with my search for unity in a world that prides itself on creating differences by class, gender, and race. This search evolved over a period of years of spiritual practice that included the study of animal totem, otherwise known as animal medicine. In the Native American tradition, humankind and animals live side-by-side as equals with mutual respect. This attitude towards animal life allows us two-leggeds to receive help and guidance from animals. I didn’t always respect the creature beings, as they are called in my tradition. I had to be taught by an animal.
It was the day before my twelfth birthday. It was an okay day, just okay because I still had to go to school. My parents were struggling and arguing as usual, but I was consoled by the fact that my birthday was right around the corner. Only one more day to go before all those great birthday gifts. I could hardly wait.
Next door to me was a cat that embodied everything I was not. Cunning, quick, obstinate, and very sure of itself, this cat didn’t care what people thought of her. It used to sniff around in my knapsack if I left it unattended for a minute, and didn’t think twice about taking my sandwich. This had been a regular ritual. So, on the day before my birthday, I decided to mess with that cat. Odds were if I left my knapsack on the curb and hid behind the hedge, I could catch her in the act of pillaging and hang her by the tail. Yes, payback time for those little wet circles I sometimes found around the edges of my book bag.
While keeping watch on my knapsack, I felt this cold damp nose on my ankle. I looked down to see the cat sniffing around at my foot. Unbelievable. What gall! Then she ran off. But not a sprint, mind you. More like a slow trot, as if to say, “Come and get me!” I chased that cat down the street, through the back yard, into a parking lot and right up to the door to the office of the old Rockledge Manor motel where the cat’s owner worked.
The cat and I both stopped and looked at each other. I had the thing cornered by the closed door, the sweetness of revenge palpable on my lips. As I lunged forward, that cat plun-ged head-first through the bottom glass pane of that door! Following the path she had just cut through the glass, I thrust my arm after her…the rest I don’t remember. Except the embarrassment of coming to moments later, lying in a pool of blood, with an ambulance driver standing over me saying, “The cat’s fine. It’s this one we got to worry about.”
About six years ago, I started dreaming of animals on a regular basis: horses, buffalo, deer, lizards, swans, crows (a lot of crows), eagles, and spiders. I first chalked the visions up to sleep-hazed reveries of pets from my youth, but I never had any of these dream creatures as pets.
Around that same time I began exploring my Native-American roots. I started to research the ways of my ancestors, the Choctaw and Lakota Sioux. I spent time in the company of a Medicine Man, Wichasha Wakan, and experienced the divine principle of the Aborigine way— unity with all our relations. “The animals are reaching out to you in your dreams,” Wichasha Wakan told me. “Learn their medicine.” Medicine has a different meaning in our tradition. Jamie Sams, Medicine Woman of the Wolf Clan and a great teacher in animal totem, describes it this way: “Medicine is anything that improves one’s connection to the Great Mystery and all of life.”
Wichasha Wakan uses the unseen force that drives all of nature to discern that which is hidden, and to heal. This is known as the Medicine Path among Native American tribes. Through my study of the Medicine Path, I was taught that animals carry medicine to help humans on their search for unity with all our relations (which is all living things). Our fellow creatures, the animals, emulate characteristics and personality traits of us two-leggeds. Every creature being reflects tendencies within people that can be transformed into life-altering usefulness, if you’re willing to look and listen.
Back to that damn cat. I have since discovered that the cat of my youth was telegraphing the message of an even bigger cat, the mountain lion. The lone mountain lion signifies the qualities of leadership, courage, strength and the knowing of secrets. A mountain lion is a leader, one without followers when necessary. The message of mountain lion for me was to stand by my personal truths and vision for my life, even when that meant losing the support of seemingly good friends and associates.
That cat knew something I didn’t: I was going to need courage and independence. Two days after that twelfth birthday, my father moved out. A little while later, my parents divorced. Their break-up was a big secret from my brother and me, and the divorce hit me like a ton of bricks. Soon after, I decided to take up the violin after receiving one as a gift from my father. All my friends felt I had morphed into a sissy. I chose the violin over them anyway, thereby ensuring my “leadership without followers” for many months to come. However, I did find the courage I needed to be alone during that time, which I believe was the gift of my encounter with that cat.
Who would have guessed that a “common” house pet could offer such wisdom and guidance? The fact that we have domesticated some of these creatures should not fool us into believing that they are anything other than powerful beings (trapped in a body, as we are) with the ability to completely enrich our lives. One of the best stories of animal medicine comes from the memoir of Leonard Crow Dog, the only surviving Wichasha Wakan of the present day Lakota Brules. His name is actually Crow Coyote, but a census-taker wrote the name he mistranslated the Brule word for coyote and wrote “dog” instead. In his book Crow Dog, he relates the true story of how four generations of medicine men got their names. His grandfather, Jerome Crow Coyote, took a party of fellow tribes people on a vision quest ceremony. Halfway to the site, they were ambushed. Jerome was badly injured and left under a stink wood bush (an ancient symbol for the coyote) to die. Bleeding and hungry, Jerome heard coyotes calling. They appeared, one by one, until an entire family of them had come to help him. The coyotes gathered herbs from the forest and, with their cheeks full of cleansing sage, gathered water from a nearby creek. They gave Jerome water, herbs and raw vegetables they gathered until he was strong enough to move. They tended to his wounds with taopi tawote, herbs that they chewed up in their mouths and then applied to his injuries.
Jerome could walk, but he was badly disoriented and had no way of finding his village. At that moment, a crow appeared in the sky and the crow and those coyotes led him back to his village. The tribes-people held a great celebration and named the entire tribe Crow Coyote after this magical event.
The way I approach my practice has been totally altered by my connection to animal totem. I utilize readings (very much like an astrological reading or Tarot, only more accurate) that are based on the qualities and characteristics of animals. I use a combination of these systems to provide my clients with readings that give them information to improve the quality of their lives. Every animal, from a bird to a snake, has a primary set of characteristics and behavior that when emulated by us, can improve this earth walk that we are all on.
For instance, the Buffalo signifies the answer to prayer, which is manifested by the appearance of a white buffalo Lakota woman who taught her people of the earth how to use one’s resources to survive and move forward. Buffalo medicine is very powerful. It suggests that whoever perceives buffalo should see how he or she could serve the common good and become open to receiving abundance. Crow is a totem for the supernatural. (And the crow is also my favorite animal. I visit my family of crows upstate on a regular basis.) It’s a signal to follow the sacred law, to learn to discriminate between who the world says you are and who you really are inside, and to make your world reflect your deeper values and personal truths.
The eagle is the representation of the Great Spirit, what some think of as God and others conceive of as Nature, but really they are the same thing. Eagle medicine helps you to balance the mundane activities of this world with spiritual consciousness in a way that you come to understand that Great Spirit and this world are one in the same. Eagle is the invitation to look at the bigger picture so that you don’t become attached to appearances, that behind everything is an equality that ties us all together.
Dogs represent loyalty, complete dedication to your own personal truths and happiness, and complete loyalty to those people with whom you have true friendships. When a dog comes into your life it forces you to contemplate who your friends are. You also have to look at what kind of friend you are since dogs signify compassion. Recently, this last lesson played out for my brother, actor Giancarlo Esposito. Between grueling shoots for Homicide and the film Monkey Bone, his favorite dog, Hiro, died. He decided to find a new friend, a Bernese mountain dog whom he named Satchmo, after Louis Armstrong, the jazz legend.
Satchmo comes from a long lineage of “kings” who worked in the fierce snow of the Swiss Alps. “He’s a very lovable dog with a spiritual vibe,” says Giancarlo. “All he seems to want is to share love. I love how Satchmo moves. And I’m convinced that he hears my emotions.”
Giancarlo started their relationship in a somewhat typical fashion, by setting out to show Satchmo who the boss is. However, the lesson has been his. “Satchmo has the ability to give love so freely and to ask for it when he needs it,” says Giancarlo. “I have a difficult time with that in my life and I’m definitely learning this from him. I’m not as compassionate as I can be. I don’t always want to be in that space of compassion and he seems to want to be in that space all the time. Satchmo takes the time to really sense things, to sense when others are sad, happy or in need. I want to strive for those qualities in my relationships.”
I received some of my most critical lessons from cats and crows. I believe that animals are deities in disguise, carrying messages whispered softly to anyone who will listen. Although I did not realize it when I was a lonely twelve-year-old boy, teased for playing the violin and whose parents were about to split up, I see now that I discovered my humanity through the healing power of animals.
– Vincent Kedar