Native American Totems & Their Spiritual Significance

Animal spirits guide an individual throughout life's journey.
... Jupiterimages/ Images

A common symbol of Native American art and culture is the totem pole. But in addition to being an artistic expression, the totem pole is also a symbol of a deeper belief, of a spiritual connection to animals. In Native American belief, animal spirits serve both as an individual's guide and as the connection between members of a clan.

1 Native American Totems

According to Native American tradition, the totem is a symbol of an individual. The belief is that throughout people's lives, nine different animals act as guides; the guides accompany them at different stages, depending on what spiritual guidance they need at that time. However, among the nine animal guardians, one spirit animal serves as the main guide, becoming that individual's totem. This guardian spirit accompanies the individual throughout his life and even into the next. However, people can only learn from their totem guides if they understand how to communicate with the animal.

2 Totem Poles

Totem poles are pieces of wood, usually cedar, carved with a person's totems. Carving totem poles is a tradition particular to American Indians on the Northwest Coast; Plains Indians and those in the Southwest did not have trees to supply the logs for carving. Totem poles are not religious symbols, rather they convey a family's or a tribe's history. Likewise the carver includes images to tell his own story, such as his standing within the tribe. A big celebration called a "potlatch" accompanies the raising of a totem pole. During the potlatch, tribe members sing and dance to drums while the pole is raised.

3 Totemism

The spiritual beliefs associated with having animal spirit guides is called "totemism." These beliefs stem from the idea that humans have a kinship or a spiritual relationship with spirit animals; such beliefs originate with cultures that have a tradition of hunting and gathering, such as Native Americans. Totemism expands to the level of the clan, meaning all members of the clan enjoy kinship with the same animal, which serves as their emblem. Members of the clan are not allowed to kill or eat their totemic animal.

4 Finding a Personal Totem

People do not have to practice totemism systematically to have an animal spirit guide. First, they start by simply opening themselves to the possibility of having a spiritual kinship with an animal. Next, they consider the interactions they've had with animals throughout their life, especially noting if any particular animal has always drawn their attention. A totem can also take the form of an animal that frightens the individual or recurs in his nightmares. Dogs, cheetahs, crows, bulls, bears and crocodiles are common spirit guides, though a person's totem is not restricted to these animals.

Nadia Archuleta has a B.A. in English writing. She spent five years working abroad and has traveled extensively. She has worked as an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher for 12 years.