By Margie Klein
Retired Interpretive Naturalist
Now doing environmental ed. and nature interpretation part-time at local public lands sites. She is also a writer and author of many articles in national magazines; co-author of a nation-wide curriculum; recipient of an award from a national professional society.




– Animal totem cards
– Note paper, pens or pencils
– Construction paper, scissors
– Markers or crayons
– Tape and glue
– Craft sticks and decorations
– Long sheet of butcher paper
– Ball of yarn

An Introduction to Totems

A totem is any being which watches over or assists a group of people. The concept is not limited
to Native American Culture, and can be found in cultures around the world, including Africa and China. Usually an animal is chosen as a totem for a clan. The totem has been used to identify tribes, for group pride, and for protection. In more recent times, individual totemism has become popular – that is, “adopting” an animal that a person believes to represent favorable traits of their own, either in behavior or appearance.

Totem animals show us how humans relate to nature. They are usually chosen for the qualities they represent. When choosing one, the individual has to become introspective, and look at all their behavior tendencies. Sometimes an animal is chosen for qualities that the individual would like to have. Totem animals can also be chosen for the way they look, or the place that they live.

Once a totem is chosen, it is used as a symbol of self. The purpose is to visualize the animal and its place in the environment in order to connect to a higher level of consciousness. The individual may ponder how the animal would react in a certain situation, similar to one that they are experiencing. In this way, the totem animal provides assistance.

A totem may be displayed at home, work, or school, as a reminder to quiet the mind and acknowledge self-confidence. Totems can be combined to show the diversity of community. This works especially well in classroom settings. Students will be able to discuss the relationships in both natural and human communities. It’s an ancient wisdom that important life lessons can be learned for nature. And through totem activities, respect for nature is achieved. Making a totem
is also a great artistic outlet. Children’s’ imaginations can fuel the creative representation of totems. More than anything else, the making of a totem is useful as a teaching tool, getting the children to inquire and think.

Totem cards can be obtained from a number of different sources. Some card decks come with a book on totem animals (see references below). Or you can check Native American or alternative gift shops for “medicine cards.” You can also obtain cards with animal depictions from most
nature – oriented retailers.

How do you find your totem?

Have the students answer these questions, and jot down their answers on their notepad.
1. What animal are you attracted to or interested in? Why? (Color, fur, scales, etc.)
2. Have you seen a TV show or movie about an animal that you liked?
3. When you go to the zoo, what animals are you most interested in seeing?
4. What animals do you see most often outside?
5. What animal do you hope to see when out in nature?
6. Do you ever have dreams about certain animals?
7. Have you ever tried to be friends with an animal?
8. What animal frightens you?
9. What animal traits do you like in certain animals? What traits are similar to your own?
10. How do you wish that you could be similar to an animal?
11. Is there an animal that you like to draw, write about, or talk about?

You may wish to take the children on a field trip to a nature center, a park, or even an art museum. Inspiration can be found in many places, from real-life animal sightings to taxidermy specimens or beautiful paintings. Don’t forget that animals can be mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

The children should be able to come up with an animal that they can relate to. Then ask the students to make a drawing of their favorite / totem animal. Ask them to draw the things that would usually be around that animal.

Examples of animal attributes

For reference, listed below are some of the better known animals that could be used for a totem project, along with the traits that are most commonly associated with them.

– Bear – strength, contemplation
– Beaver – busyness, working with others
– Buffalo – abundance, thankfulness for gifts
– Cougar – leadership, confidence
– Deer – gentleness, love, caring
– Dog – loyalty, a protector
– Eagle – spirit, healing
– Hawk – power of observation, informing others
– Horse – power, achievement
– Owl – wisdom, truth
– Squirrel – planning, gathering
– Swan – change, grace
– Turtle – nature, creativity
– Whale – rhythm, history
– Wolf – teaching, sharing knowledge

Making your totem

Have the children draw their totem animal on construction paper and cut it out. They should choose a color that is appropriate for the animal, then draw with markers or crayons to add detail to their animal. They can put their name on it, and things about the animal that they like, or the way the animal makes them feel. They can also be decorated with any number of craft decorations to give them more character.

Wrapping it up

Go around the room and ask each child to tell about their totem. Some children may have more than one totem animal. Ask them how the animals could work together.

As a class project, construct a totem pole made out of all the children’s’ totem animals. Paste it on the wall for all to see.

A variation for younger children is to make totem face masks out of construction paper, then glue a craft stick to the bottom for a handle. Instruct the children to have a “procession of animals,” acting out how the animal would behave.

Another project could be to lay out a long piece of butcher paper and have the children make simple drawings of their animals for a “petroglyph wall.” They would be so proud to have their artwork displayed in a school hallway!

Taking it one step further: Science and ecology

Create a wildlife food web, utilizing the totem animals that the children have chosen. Hopefully, you will have animals that show predator – prey relationships. You may even have a scavenger animal, better called a recycler! Of course you will have to add the elements: light, air, soil and water, as well as a few plants. The teacher could represent any or all of these last items. With a large ball of yarn, connect the elements and the plants to the animals that are herbivores or are prey to other animals. These animals then need to be connected to the predatory animals. Finally, if you have one present, connect the predators to a recycler. Now, “remove” one animal
from the web by having the child sit down. The pull that everyone feels on the yarn shows how all things in nature are connected. What happens if many of the animals are removed?

Taking it one step further: language and fine arts

Ask each child to come up with a short story about their totem animal. Have them write it down, and then find a way to demonstrate it. This could be with a painting, or a theatrical presentation. Let them be creative.

Taking it one step further: civics

Have older students contrast and compare the animals that they have chosen as their totems. Are there similarities? Differences? Why might this be?
How could all the totem animals make up a community? How would they work together, using their individual traits? Would it be beneficial to have these animals all together in a small community? What problems might be seen?
Finally, ask the students to use their totem community as an example for the real community they live in. How are all people the same? How are they different? How can everyone work together to make a better place?


Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals (book + cards)
by Jamie Sams, David Carson, Angela C. Werneke

Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children (book)
by Michael J. Caduto, Joseph Bruchac

Celtic Totem Animals (book + cards)
by John Matthews

Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small (book)
by Ted Andrews