Among the shamanic or medicine teachings of the traditional Native Americans, the totem animal represents the physical form of one's spirit helper, the guide, who will lead the shaman into the spirit world and return him or her safely to the physical world. Contrary to the misinterpretations of early missionaries, the native people did not worship these animal representations of their guides as gods.
Latvian ethnologist Ivar Lissner stated in his Man, God, and Magic (1961) that his 17 years of expeditions among the shamans and people of the Tungus, Polynesians, Malaysians, Australian Aborigines, Ainus, Chinese, Mongols, and North American tribes demonstrated to him quite clearly that totemism is not religion. While all these diverse people lived in a world filled with animate beings, they all believed in a single supreme deity.
Aside from a few Venus-type mother-goddess statuettes, there remains a rather strange collection of ghostly creatures and a great variety of two-legged beings with the heads of animals and birds. Why, so many anthropologists have wondered, did these cave painters, despite their remarkable artistic gifts, never pass on an accurate idea of their features? Why did they confine themselves to portraying beings that were half-human, half-animal?
And then Lissner has an inspiration. It is quite possible that the Stone-Age artists really were portraying themselves, but in something more than in human shape. Perhaps they were depicting themselves "…in the guise of intermediary beings who were stronger than common men and able to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of fate, that unfathomable interrelationship between animals, men, and gods." Lissner suggests that what the ancient cave painters may have been relaying is that the "road to supernatural powers is easier to follow in animal shape and that spirits can only be reached with an animal's assistance." The ancient artists may have been portraying themselves after all, but in animal guise, shamanistically.
The spirit guides, appearing as totemic animals, guide the shamans to the mysterious, transcendent reality beyond the material world and lead them into another dimension of time and space wherein dwell the inhabitants of the spirit world. It is through such a portal that mediumistic shamans must pass to gain their contact with the grandfathers and grandmothers who reside there. With their spirit guide at their side in the form of a totem animal, they can communicate with the spirits and derive wisdom and knowledge which will serve their tribe or those who have come to seek specific information from the world beyond death.