A form of religious and social organization among tribal
peoples that associates groups of persons with particular animals
or objects. The term derives from the language and practice
of the Ojibway tribe of Native Americans, but the Ojibways’
own form of totemism was not typical of the use of the term as
adopted by anthropologists. A totemic tribe consists of a number
of totem groups, each closely related to a totem, which may
be an animal or an inanimate object. That totem is specific for
that particular group, thus while every member of the tribe has
a characteristic totem, it will differ from those of other totem
groups within the same tribes in the same area. Plants are used
as totems in some parts of the world, and other totems are
sometimes only a token part of an animal (i.e., a buffalo tongue
instead of a buffalo).
A totem implies some kinship between the animal or object
and the members of the group, sometimes a belief in descent
from an animal totem. Masks and images may reinforce this association.
Members of a particular totemic group respect the
animal or object used as totem, and place a taboo on its being
destroyed by members of that group, although their taboo does
not apply to other members of the tribe.
Totemism is practiced around the world, among Australian
aborigines, some African societies, certain North and South
American Indian tribes, and among the peoples of Indonesia
and Melanesia. Among Australian aborigines, totemism is related
to a belief in the constant reincarnation of the spirits of
primary animal forms into human beings.
In North America, the totem pole, used by Native American
tribes of the Northwest coast of Canada and the United States,
is the most widely recognized example of totemism. These
poles or pillars are carved and painted with symbolic animals
or spirits to represent ancestry or to tell family legends.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
Reprint, New York Collier, 1961.
Frazer, James G. Totemism and Exogamy. 4 vols. N.p., 1910.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York Random
House, 1960.
Tedlock, Dennis. Teachings from the American Earth Indian
Religion and Philosophy. New York Liveright, 1975.