Meditations on totems and clans

By Kristen Lindquist | Dec 24, 2011

A friend of mine believes the fox has special meaning for his family. Right after the birth of each of his daughters, three years apart, he saw a fox out the window. One of his daughters is now old enough to tell the story herself. I have no doubt that she’ll carry this affinity with foxes throughout her life, sharing the story with her own children one day, perpetuating a family legend.

If my friend were a member of the Tlingit tribe, the fox would probably become part of his family’s totem pole. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest still create family totem poles, the stacked elements of which tell their stories and commemorate various events within family history. Perhaps the family ancestor was a seal woman. She’d be on there. Or maybe Great-Uncle was once lost in the woods and guided home by an eagle flying overhead, so there’s an eagle. While some family legends might be familiar enough that other tribe members would recognize their representation on the totem pole, others are highly personal to each family and known only to them. A family’s totem pole isn’t magic or an object of worship, but rather, a tangible connection to the surrounding natural world, as well as a visual, everyday reminder of the family’s long history, many stories, and place within the larger tribe.

For non-natives, associating yourself with a totemic symbol isn’t just some romanticized notion appropriated by New Age types. Many of us, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, form non-familial clans often centered on a symbolic animal. If you’re a football lover from the Philadelphia area, you might be an Eagles fan. If you went to Middlebury College like I did, you’re a Panther. Think of all the sports teams, from high school up to pro-level, that are Lions, Tigers, and Bears. As a team member, you want to identify yourself with and draw upon your team animal’s ferocity and strength. (My high school was the Windjammers — an inanimate mascot that, while unique and reflective of coastal Maine’s heritage, was challenging to align with on a personal level.) We flaunt the team image on our clothing. We cheer on the mascot. The Texas Longhorns trot out a live steer named Bevo on occasion. University of Oregon, my graduate school alma mater, unfortunately has Donald Duck for its mascot. It’s hard to get behind a big cartoon duck wearing a sailor suit. But you’ll still hear me cheer, “Go, Ducks!” right along with the rest of the alumni when the football team makes it to a bowl game. As a member of a sports team “clan,” you forge interesting bonds with strangers. You might find yourself, for example, clinking glasses with the one other guy in an out-of-town bar also sporting a blue jay on his baseball cap.

Many astrological systems also help us align ourselves with animals, if in a slightly different way. With astrology, the luck of your birth determines what “team” you’re on. Because of the year in which I was born, my Chinese zodiac sign is sheep or goat. My husband is a snake; fortunately, he loves snakes, or he might find that kind of creepy. (I’m just thankful neither of us is a rat.) As a goat, I’m supposed to be creative, high-strung, and neurotic. (I would not want to be a member of the Goat Clan — we’d all make each other crazy.) In classical Western astrology, my birth date makes me a Pisces, the fish. Perhaps that’s why my husband, an avid fly-fisherman, was drawn to me. Then again, he’s an Aries, the ram, so maybe he innately recognized our cross-cultural astrological link as split-hoofed herbivores.

There’s something about thinking of yourself as a fish, scorpion, or lion that reaffirms an age-old tie, however tenuous, to the natural world. And, as noted in the case of sports teams, some part of the association might be motivated by a desire to take on the characteristics of other animals. We soft-skinned, flabby humans have something to gain from just about any other animal out there: the falcon’s swiftness, the turtle’s self-protection, the strength of an elephant, the dolphin’s grace, the guile of the wily coyote….

We get more personal with this, too, and I don’t just mean identifying yourself as a cat person or dog person, although I know some people who are very intense about that one. My husband and I feel such a strong connection to ravens that they were the theme of our wedding and explain our odd black wedding rings. If an animal happens to be part of your name, it’s natural to adopt it as your family symbol.

A former roommate with the last name Wolf regarded the animal as her family totem, and for that reason alone, chose to keep her name when she married. My sister married into the van Otterloo family — as a big fan of otters, I’m rather envious of that animal association. She got a good one. I also know several people who have had defining life experiences or significant dreams involving particular animals — frog, hummingbird, horse, monkey — such that they now consider these creatures personal totems. Some of them collect representations of the animal to maintain the personal link. It’s as if we’ve never been able to shake those earliest, most primal relationships with other animals. We’re still reaching out to them to cultivate facets of ourselves, still touching upon that bit of wildness that remains within us all as members of the human clan.

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