Using an animal as a symbol to designate a family or individual was a custom native to both Europe and North America. To Europeans, the animal (or plant) painted on a special background was known as a coat of arms.
To American Indians, it was a totem.
The word totem, from the Ojibwa language, was noted in traveler's report of the early 1770s, along with its similarity to English coats of arms: "To these are added his badge, called, in the Algonquin tongue, a totem, and which is in the nature of an armorial bearing."
But there were significant differences too.
The totem was more democratic than the coat of arms in that it applied to every member of the clan or tribal group, not just those belonging to the aristocracy. And it was not just a symbol but a way of life.
A writer of the 1790s explains the difference: Each Indian has "his totam, or favourite spirit,
which he believes watches over him.
This totam they conceive assumes the shape of some beast or other, and therefore they never kill, hunt, or eat the animal whose form they think this totam bears."
Totem proved such a distinctive word that we now use it to characterize any object held sacred by a group because of the bond the group feels with it. At the end of the twentieth century, this could be used to refer to any object that provides or symbolizes group identity.