Derived from the term "ototeman" in the Ojibwe language, meaning "brother-sister kin," Totemism is an aspect of religious belief centered upon the veneration of sacred objects called totems. A totem is any animal, plant, or other object, natural or supernatural, which provides deeply symbolic meaning for a person or social group. In some cases, totems may imbue particular person with a feeling of power and energy. In other cases, a variety of totems can serve to demarcate particular groups or clans subsumed within larger tribes. Often, totems are seen as representative of desirable individual qualities, or the natural power from which a given social group has descended. Thus, totems help to explain the mythical origin of the clan while reinforcing clan identity and solidarity, and as such, killing, eating, and even touching a totem is often considered taboo. This form of religious activity is most commonly found within tribal cultures and it is frequently associated with shamanistic religions and their rituals. It is important to note that the concept is generated in the academy by scholars imbued with a sense that European culture is "more civilized." In fact all religions, including modern Christianity, have aspects to them that function precisely as do "totems" in what nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars called "primitive" societies.

Totemism can be said to characterize the religious beliefs of most indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States. The Sauk and Osage peoples of the northeastern United States, for example, assigned qualities of their clan totems through names to individual members. It was expected that those in clan of the Black Bear or the Wolf, among others, would develop some of the desirable traits of those animals. Among the Ojibwa people, from whose language the concept of totemism originated, people were divided into a number of clans called doodem named for various animals. Of the various totemic groups, the crane totem was considered the most vocal. The bear, since it was the largest, was sub-divided into various body parts that also became totemic symbols. These totems were then grouped according to habitat of the given animal, whether it is earth, air or water—and served as a means for governing and dividing labor among the various clans.

In addition, North American native peoples provide one of the most recognizable examples of totemism in all of human culture—the totem pole. Totem poles are monumental sculptures carved from great trees, typically Western Red cedar, by a number of indigenous peoples located along the Pacific northwest coast of North America. Some poles are erected to celebrate significant beliefs or events, while others are intended primarily for aesthetic presentation. Poles are also carved to illustrate stories, to commemorate historic persons, to represent shamanic powers, and to provide objects of public ridicule. Certain types of totem poles are part of mortuary structures incorporating grave boxes with carved supporting poles, or recessed backs in which grave boxes were placed. The totem poles of North America have many different designs featuring totemic animals such bears, birds, frogs, people, lizards, and often are endowed with arms, legs, and wings. Such designs themselves are generally considered to be the property of a particular clan or family group, and ownership is not transferable even if someone outside this clan or group possesses the pole. Despite common misconceptions, there has never been any ubiquitous meaning given to the vertical order of the images represented on the totem pole. On the contrary, many poles have significant figures on the top, while others place such figures bottom, or middle. While totem poles can be described as an example of totemism due to their representation of clan lineages, they were never used specifically as objects of worship. Hence, any associations made between "idol worship" and totem poles were introduced upon the arrival of Christian missionaries.