Totemism and Brother Bear

Brother Bear uses totems as a big plot point in the movie. While the movie got the basics correct, we wanted to give you, even more, information to this Inuit belief. 

Kenai and Koda teach us some important lessons such as don’t judge a person until you’ve been in their situation and that you can love people like family even if they’re not blood. While these are good lessons and the animators got the look and feel of the Inuits accurate, they could have done more educating when it comes to Totemism. So let’s get to it!

Totemism is a system of belief in which humans are said to have kinship or a mystical relationship with a spirit-being, such as an animal or plant. The entity, or totem, is thought to interact with a given kin group or an individual and to serve as their emblem or symbol. This is reflected in the Disney film with a slight twist that to become a man someone receives their totem which represents a specific aspect of their life that they to learn.

While this is reflected in the Disney film, there a slight twist that to become a man someone receives their totem which represents a specific trait that person has to live by to fully become an adult. This sounds more of a mix between a vision quest and a totem.

The term totem is derived from the Ojibwa word ototeman, meaning “one’s brother-sister kin.” The grammatical root, ote, signifies a blood relationship between brothers and sisters who have the same mother and who may not marry each other. In English, the word totem was introduced in 1791 by a British merchant and translator who gave it a false meaning in the belief that it designated the guardian spirit of an individual, who appeared in the form of an animal. This is probably how spirit animal became more of a term used and distributed by the Europen expanse and the misinformation of native cultures and religion.

Although totems are often the focus of ritual behavior, it is generally agreed that totemism is not a religion. Totemism can certainly include religious elements in varying degrees, just as it can appear conjoined with magic. Totemism is frequently mixed with different kinds of other beliefs, such as ancestor worship, ideas of the soul, or animism. Such mixtures have historically made the understanding of particular totemistic forms difficult. The movie uses the spirit world a lot and because of the nature of Totemism having magic elements and ancestor worship, it’s hard to know if the use of this religious place was in good taste or accurate.

There are two types of Totemism: Group and Individual. Group Totemism includes one or more of several features, such as the mystic association of animal and plant species, natural phenomena, or created objects with unilineal related groups (lineages, clans, tribes, moieties, phratries) or with local groups and families; the hereditary transmission of the totems (patrilineal or matrilineal); group and personal names that are based either directly or indirectly on the totem; the use of totemistic emblems and symbols; or taboos and prohibitions that may apply to the species itself or can be limited to parts of animals and plants.

Individual totemism is expressed in an intimate relationship of friendship and protection between a person and a particular animal or a natural object (sometimes between a person and a species of animal); the natural object can grant special power to its owner. Frequently connected with individual totemism are definite ideas about the human soul. Here is the example in which Brother Bear’s plot is based in. Kenai’s totem is a bear while his brothers’ are different animals. Although, the only power granted in the movie was to Sitka after his death to use the spirit world to change Kenai.

It is obvious that some research went into the movie but perhaps if they spoke with more tribal leaders and used native actors and songwriters, the movie would have felt a lot more authentic. If you want to read more about the history of the term spirit animals and it’s appropriation, visit here. It’s a great article that hits a lot of important points and has roots in confusion of totemism.

Information from Encyclopedia

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