Native Indian Tribe


Definition of Totemism: What is Totemism? Totemism is belief in the kinship of a group of people with a common totem. The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) word 'odoodem' meaning "his kinship group" signifying a blood relationship. Totemism was the the practice of having a natural object or animate being, such as as a bird or animal, as the emblem of a family, clan, or tribe.

Totemism encompassed a system of tribal organization according to totems. A totem was believed to be mystically related to the group and therefore not to be hunted.

Totemism and Family Connections
The totem adopted by a clan or family, most often an animal, is an object of religious veneration for the tribal community that bears the name of the totem refer to Animal Totems. The groupís members are therefore forbidden to hunt, kill, or eat the totem. Because of the family connections to the same totem, they are also forbidden to marry one another.

Totemism and Religious Beliefs
Groups, clans or families that practise Totemism believe that the totem bestows and protects lifeís blessings. Their conviction in their beliefs involves rituals and ceremonies intended to celebrate and honor the totem. The term 'Totemism' is often used to characterize  specific traits in the social organisation and religion of different types of people. It applies to several Native American tribes located in the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. The term 'Totemism' is most commonly applied to groups of hunter gatherers. Native American Totem Poles or totem posts are sculptures that are carved into large tress by cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America that practise Totemism. 

Totemism and Native American Indians
Totemism was a belief encompassed by six tribes who carved and painted vertical logs called Totem Poles. The names of the Tribes who followed the culture and belief of Totemism were as follows:

  • Tlingit
  • Haida
  • Bella Coola
  • Kwakiutl
  • Tsimshian
  • West Coast

Totem poles were erected in the front of a Native Indian's home and would show the ancestry and the social rank of the family. The figures carved on the Totem poles might be humans, animals, or other creatures and might also display mythological and legendary images, usually Animal Spirits, whose significance was their association with the lineage of the tribe. Each figure carved on a Totem Pole represented a type of family crest or family legend in the form of pictographs that were particularly relevant to Totemism.

At this point it should be emphasised that Totem Poles were not worshipped within the belief of Totemism. Totem poles were made to fill a variety of needs, but their primary purposes were to commemorate specific people or special events. Authentic totem poles were carved by special carvers who follow the old rules of traditional symbols, legends, stories and family crests. The decision and design to create a Totem Pole and the raising of a completed Totem Pole was accompanied by rituals such as the Potlatch ceremony, Totem Pole Raising ceremonies, funeral ceremonies and Spiritual Healing ceremonies. 

Totemism encompassed in a range of beliefs
The idea and concept behind Totemism is that people have a spiritual connection or kinship with creatures or objects in nature, making the practice very similar to Animism. Totemism was part of a range of beliefs of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians of North America that also included:

  • Animism - Animism is a belief based on the spiritual idea that the universe, and all natural objects within the universe, have souls or spirits. It is believed that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, trees, rocks etc. - refer to Animal Totems and Power Animals
  • Ritualism & Ceremonialism the use of ancient practises, rituals and ceremonies to further existing beliefs
  • Shamanism - A range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world in which a religious leader, like a Shaman, enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community including sickness

The concepts of Totemism, Animism, Ritualism and Shamanism should all be considered to gain a full understanding of the religious beliefs of the Native American tribes who practised Totemism.

Examples of Totemism
Totemism is not a religion as such but is mixed with other beliefs that, taken as a whole have strong religious connotations. The people of the Tlingit Native American tribe all bear the name of a bird or an animal. Totemism is belief in the kinship of a group of people with a common totem. An example of Totemism among the Tlingit is as follows:

  • The Tlingit tribe have 18 great families
  • The names of the first 9 families, or clans, are wolf, bear, eagle, whale, shark, porpoise, puffin, orca and orca-bear and members are considered to be related to each other
  • The names of the last 9 families, or clans, are raven, frog, goose, beaver, owl, sea-lion, salmon, dogfish and crow and their members are considered to be related to each other
  • A man may not marry a woman of his own animal name or totem
  • Neither can a man marry one of the 9 related families
  • Totemism  example: A man of the Bear Clan could not marry a woman who was also from the Bear Clan
  • Totemism example: Neither could a man of the Bear Clan marry a woman from the first 9 families such as a shark or a wolf
  • Totemism  example: A man of the Bear Clan might marry a woman from the last 9 families such as a raven or a beaver

Children always take the name of the mother. If a Bear man married a beaver woman then all the children would be beavers, who would be their totem animal. Every one believes that the animal that is his totem can help him, and he pays it great respect.

Native American Culture
Native Indian Tribes Index

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