The totem of an Eskimo or Indian tribal group symbolized, or related the group to, their ancestors. This does not mean the persons within the group thought they descended from the emblematic animal featured on the totem, but they were related to a hero or heroes associated by legend with the animal. Totems were similar to the European feudal system. The population of a village might vary from two hundred, or less, to a thousand people, the totem was a way of social organization, similar to the clans of Scotland.
People placed the totem emblem upon their clothing, houses, and so on. The carving of the totem on a pole, the totem pole, became an important social custom. It designated the people as there were the Bear people, the Killer Whale people, the Cannibal Spirit people, the Salmon people, the Beaver people, and so on. When strangers came from another village visiting they could readily find members of a particular totemic group by looking for their own totem. Within that group they could expect to find protection, food, and shelter. They were treated as kin and supported against other tribal groups who were at war with them or strangers trying to raid them. This was important in that it kept alive ancient traditions and myths and fostered new ones. A.G.H.
Burland, Cottie. North American Indian Mythology. Middlesex, England. Hamlyn Publishing Group. 1968. p. 24