A Totem is the animal sign each ‘clan’ or societal group associates with. Many American Indian cultures are divided into clans, some of which are: deer, elk, otter, and eagle. Within this clan or totem relationship is an underlying recognition of the deep spiritual connection between humans and nature.
In Native American traditional cosmology there are 3 worlds: the physical, subtle, and spiritual. In order to understand the totemic symbolism it is important to first be able to understand these three levels or worlds. Versluis states that the “totems ultimate significance derives from its archetypal significance in the subtle world, or real realm of souls.” He uses the bear totem to explain this more clearly. To be a member of the bear clan this means a number of things. For example, it is most likely that your cultural artifacts, like medicine pouches, clothing, and carvings, will reflect this relationship. You would also be prohibited from marrying anyone else within the clan.
Closely related to this totemic symbolism is the idea of a Guardian Spirit. In some cases they may also be the totemic spirits of one’s clan. These relationships are found throughout the Americas and may either be placed with the child at birth or acquired through fasting and vision seeking. The medicine bundle is the symbol or mark of this special relationship. The bundle is regarded as sacred and may contain plant or animal objects associated with the guardian spirit.