In the shamanic belief every thing is alive and carries with it power and wisdom. Power animals are an essential component of shamanic practice. They are the helping spirit which add to the power of the shaman and are essential for success in any venture undertaken by the shaman.
Shamans believe that everyone has power animals - animal spirits which reside with each individual adding to their power and protecting them from illness, acting similarly to a guardian angel. Each power animal that you have increases your power so that illnesses or negative energy cannot enter your body. The spirit also lends you the wisdom of its kind. A hawk spirit will give you hawk wisdom, and lend you some of the attributes of hawk.
Everyone is thought to have a few of these guardian power animals or it is thought that the individual could not survive childhood. Over the course of her or his life the person may have several. If a power animal leaves and one does not come to take its place the individual is considered, by the shaman, to be disempowered and therefore vulnerable to illness and bad luck.
Power animals do not have to be mammals and can be reptiles, insects or sea creatures. Any living creature can serve as a power animal. (Plants and trees can serve as plant spirit guides.) Domesticated animals are generally not considered power animals because they already in service to human beings. It is possible to have a domesticated animal, but it is more likely to have a wild untamed animal serve in the capacity of a power animal.
The gifts that a particular animal is thought to give an individual varies depending on the culture. Although there are certain consistencies for certain animals. A particular power animal can come to help you with an issue that is very specific for you. It is important not to lock each animal into a category, and be open to the gifts it may be coming to share with you.
It is important to honor your power animal. In many western cultures we are not taught to value animals or the gifts that they add to our life and the world around us. In shamanic work the power animal is essential, for a shaman who has no power - is not going to have very good results. On a personal level by honoring your power animal you let it know that its assistance is appreciated. The spirit of the animal is giving up its mobility in order to spend its time with you and assist you with your life. Also, by honoring the power animal we make a deeper connection with it. Honoring it can be as simple a saying a thank you inside yourself, or getting an object which represents it and putting it where you can see it as you go about your day.
Shamanic practice honors and acknowledges the life and wisdom that exists in all things. Everything is believed to have something to teach you and animals are thought to have a wealth of wisdom and protection to offer you.
If you would like to find out who your power animal is, consulting a shamanic practitioner is an option. But to discover this on you own, you can ask for a dream and see if anything comes up. You can ask the power animal to show itself to you and if you start seeing one or another animal frequently that would be its way of revealing itself to you. For instance you are flipping through the channels and see an elk on a nature program, then later you hear someone talking about going to Elk Grove Village to visit their cousin. You see a sign for an elks lodge. It is believed that the animal guide can communicate with you by drawing your attention to things around you, and a repetition such as that would be a way of communication.