"For many Native American cultures, living in close understanding with nonhuman beings is essential to becoming fully human. For humans to become what we are, we need the possibility of contrasting ourselves with nonhuman beings. Each animal has qualities that are counterparts to qualities within the human soul, and it is only through attentiveness to animals that we can come to realize all these aspects within our own selves. For examples, the Lakota have observed that the red-throated woodpecker listens very carefully when it searches for food within a tree. People encourage their children to notice this trait, for it is also important for humans to be attentive to the messages around them. Through this type of intense and frequent contact with the powers and qualities of the animals and, eventually, all forms of life, humankind is awakened to, and thus may realize, all that an individual potentially is as a human person. Human completion, wholeness, or religious awakening depends on this receptive opening up to the potentialities and sacred mysteries in the immediate natural environment.

"Over time, the animal qualities that help humans meet their potential have become encoded into the value system of many Native American cultures. Animal traits are studied and observed not simply because they may help in food gathering or healing but also because they express admirable values toward which humans may strive. When a bison calf is orphaned, the cows of the herd immediately adopt it. They shower the calf with care and affection by licking its coat with their rough tongues until the calf's hair becomes as fine and silky as a beaver skin. The Lakota respect this display of nurturing and have translated it into their own culture. All children are raised by many clan members. Sometimes, however, one child may show signs of great potential as a quill worker, a warrior, or a healer. He or she is designated as one who will receive extra attention, knowledge, and gifts. Thus, following the example of the bison cows, the Lakota sustain and encourage the unique child.

"Many Northwest Coast cultures also try to emulate the traits of animals. Among these tribes, entire clans are identified with the qualitative aspects of one specific animal. The animal is most often painted around the doorway to the clan house so that, as one enters the house, one enters into the spirit animal that dominates the clan. In addition to the visual representation of esteemed animal traits, many cultures rely on animal-inspired stories, clothing, and movements to invoke the power of specific animals. These powers help carry and support the sacred values, moral norms, and ethical procedures that constitute what it means to be human."