In Siberia and North America, there is one particular animal which serves as a totem for that group of individuals we call shamans. This is the eagle, whom, as we have seen, dwells in the top branches of the World Tree, the land of the gods.
The Buryat (Siberians) say that in the beginning there were only the gods and the evil spirits. Humankind was created by the gods, but cursed with illness and death by the evil spirits. Therefore, the gods sent the eagle to act as a shaman for suffering humanity. The humans, in their ignorance, did not understand the eagle; nor were they able to accept a mere bird as their savior, so the eagle was given the power to grant shamanic abilities to the first person he encountered. This proved to be a young woman sleeping beneath a tree. The eagle mated with her and she gave birth to the first shaman–which, symbolically, tells us that shamanism is “born” from the union of the enlightened consciousness which dwells at the top of our own internal World Tree with the feminine potency that sleeps at its base.
Many Native American tribes also recognize the eagle as the most sacred of birds. The Shoshoni place him at the top of the central pole in the Sun Dance Lodge, another metaphor for the World Tree. Because the eagle flies the highest, his is the purest spirit; thus he is most admirable suited to help the shaman journey to the land of the gods, the topmost branches of the World Tree. Eagle feathers are a vitally important part of healing ceremonies in many tribes, for, as we have seen in the Siberian example, the eagle was sent to humankind to help heal the diseases with which the demons have cursed us.
Individuals may also have their own totem or power animals, quite independently of their birth clan, and though the eagle serves as the totem of shamans in general, and individual shaman or shamaness typically has an individual power animal as well. As we have already seen, many shamans are called to their vocations by spirits from the Other world; often that call comes from a spirit who has taken the form of a particular animal, one which will later become the shaman’s helper or guide. The famous Lakota medicine man Lame Deer received his call directly from the eagle, who tapped him on the shoulder with its wings and told him that “they” had been waiting for him, and that the eagle would now be with him always “as a ghost.”
Sometimes the call from an animal helper is an enormously rich and complex experience. Another Lakota, Crazy Horse (who was as much a shaman as he was a warrior), received a vision wherein his horse hobbled near the site of his vision quest, broke free, and began to run as if it were floating through light. It changed colors as it ran in a zigzag pattern, and Crazy Horse carefully watched its phantom rider, who wore a stone behind one ear, a lightning bolt painted on his face, and who had a hawk above him. From that time on, Crazy Horse always rode into battle in the same fashion–a stone behind his ear, a lightning bolt on his face, and a hawk feather in his hair. He rode his horse in a zigzag pattern, as in his vision. It was believed that no bullet could touch him as long as he was protected by his horse, his hawk and his stone. (In point of fact, he proved immune to bullets throughout his career; he was on foot when he was killed by a bayonet).
A power animal may reveal complex messages and visionary phenomena of various kinds to a seeker such as Crazy Horse; it may play a unique and overwhelming influence in one’s life. To the professional shaman, a power animal acts primarily as a guide upon the Other world journey.