The indigenous peoples of all lands once utilized (and many still do) shamanic practices to connect with the Earth around them and with the power of various animals. By observing the way each animal lived, located food, found mates and protected itself, the shaman was able to learn of the particular strengths and weaknesses of that animal. In dreams and visions, the shaman would connect with the primal spirit energy of that animal type – cougar-ness, bear-ness or deer-ness, etc. These energies could help the shaman learn the particular lesson of that animal species. It was believed that every person had a particular manitou (sometimes more than one) which they were especially attuned to. This was their personal animal totem. These totems were generally discovered through vision quests, although sometimes the totem made their choice known by more obvious methods. For example, if a person survived an attack by a wild animal it was believed that the animal had chosen them.
People can form relationships with the animals of the Otherworld through stillness, masks, dance and dream. They can also become active in the world through "action inspired by spirit."
Where there is an understanding that a person is made up of manifold identities, such a person is free to explore totemic identities. Achieving this requires that the person explore the depths of his imaginative life. He may then recognize experientially how he is a certain object, whether the object lives in some way or whether it possesses an inanimate existence (such as a stone undulating on a river bed, rain falling, or fire flaming from a tree). He is then able to partake of that existence in addition to his own, embarking on a manifold existence in keeping with a certain alter-ego as rich and mysterious as the identity that he conventionally allows to nest in himself. The person is then free to be both himself as conventionally recognized by others as well as an inhabitant of the imaginary world of any particular totem with which he identifies.
People identify with chosen totems because of the sense of enlarged life which they then enjoy and because of the imaginative vitality which this identification excites. The totemic condition allows the individual to partake of innumerable languages, free from the confinement of the logic inherent in word patterns. The individual finds for himself a new form of interior expression. This also implies a new kind of dialogue with nature, not one of classification and exploitation, but one that prefigures an inchoate courtesy more in keeping with the language of heraldry. The person becomes other than he normally understands himself. The totemic experience gives the individual access to other lives, fulfilling his own by inhabiting the realm conventionally known as that of the imagination.
For many people, working with `animal spirits' seems to be nothing more than fantasizing about a `power animal' encountered during a single pathworking, and seems to bear little or no relation to animals in `real life'.