Kinship and Totemism

Across generations and marriages, bifurcate merging becomes more complicated. For example, you (as male ego) would refer to your daughter’s husband and your married sister’s son by the same kin term, but they would not be members of your kin group, nor members of your band. However, your daughter and your sister would always belong to your patrilineage. You would also use one kin term for both your son’s wife and your brother’s unmarried daughter, who would be coresiding with you in your band until such a time as your brother’s daughter married. Bifurcate merging kinship terminology had the effect of dividing a regional population into moieties, or halves, each half eligible for marriage with the other. Thus, Algonquian social structure was not based on membership in a clan.8

Lineages and moieties were identified with totems, sacred animal representations of the founders of lineages and the guardian spirits of kin groups. The word totem comes from the Algonquian word doodem.9 Traditionally, Abenaki totems included the turtle, beaver, bear, otter, and partridge. Other Algonquians included as totems the thunderbird, wolf, crane, loon, raccoon, fish, snake, and other animals, but the turtle and the bear were most common to all Algonquians, suggesting that these symbols may represent the original moieties of the founding population that first migrated to New England. The expression of totemism extended to individuals as well as to lineages. In a rite of passage linked with puberty, boys went alone on a vision quest or spirit quest to receive guidance from the spirit world and to identify a personal totem that would serve as a lifelong guardian spirit.10

Colonial depictions of Native Americans show body paint with totemic symbols. In a drawing by a French missionary (on the left), the snake and other marks on the Micmac hunter’s chest and arms represented his spirit animal and Eastern Abenaki kinship identification. John White’s 1585 watercolor of an Algonquian hunter at Roanoke, Virginia (on the right) faithfully records the body paint, dress, and accessories that identified the hunter’s lineage, affiliation, and accomplishments.11

Algonquians did not make totem poles, but used totemic symbols in their art and painted symbols of their spirit animal on their bodies. Artistic representations also included petroglyphs carved on boulders, sculpted soapstone, woven designs, and painted symbols on objects of daily use. Ceremonial dances with costumes, masks, and props honoring kin group totems were a feature of Algonquian culture. Algonquian totems also were associated with character traits and social roles or occupational tasks. For example, members of the martens might be reputed as clever or strategic thinkers, while raccoon members might be renowned for curiosity or creativity. Members with a moose, elk, or beaver totem might be responsible for scouting, hunting, and gathering, while members with a fish, turtle, or snake totem might be responsible for teaching and healing. Bear and wolf members were warriors and defenders, and so on. In addition to sharing social roles within a band, because of exogamous marriage, individuals with the same totem retained a special bond independent of any particular band they belonged to. Such a kinship system is optimal for societies composed of small groups that depend on far-flung alliances for survival.


This figurine of a sitting bear in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, is Pawtucket from the 16th Century and almost certainly represents the animal totem of one of the most prominent native lineages in New England.12 Today, the flag of the Abenaki reservation of Odanak, Canada, where some descendants of the Cape Ann Pawtucket live today, includes the turtle, the bear, and the thunderbird totemic symbols along with Canada’s national symbol of the maple leaf.13