There is a considerable amount of confusion about totems, power animals and animal spirit guides. And little in the way of any universally accepted, authentic, credible sources to shed reliable light when it comes to the ancient wisdom and practices of Native North American spiritualities. Nonetheless, I shall provide here what I learned from my Ojibwe teacher and his apprentice.
First and foremost, a totem is a symbol of identity. Although individuals can have a personal totem -- usually gained through some exceptional feat of bravery -- it is common for a totem to be a kind of clan spirit. Totems are the embodiment of beliefs about who you and your people are.
In my family tree, for example, I have relatives who are identified as Bird Clan, and another who is Wolf Clan. Bird may refer to or include the Thunderbird, pictured above. Both Bird and Wolf are clan totems for the Cherokee.
The totem poles of the Pacific Northwest peoples showed their connection to legendary events and lessons of survival or tragedy. They were in essence a statement of this is who we are, this is what we have endured, this is your warning and your welcome should you enter our homeland. They are a way of remembering what the village or clans' ancestors have experienced.
Traditionally speaking, unless you grew up in a family that was part of a clan system with its own totems, you likely would not have a totem animal. The popular so-called "native american astrology" schema of conferring of animal totems based on your birthday -- born in late June? oh then Deer is your totem animal -- has little validity, but is fun to think about.
I was taught that spirit guides choose us, we don't choose them. They volunteer to guard and guide, some for a lifetime, some while you inhabit a particular location, and others to serve a particular purpose until a lesson is completed. Usually one acquires their spirit guides in vision quests or shamanic journeys where they make themselves known to you, sometimes by presenting you with a test or challenge you must pass.
If you are walking a shamanic path, your spirit guides will most likely be animal archetypes rather than angels, which aren't part of most Native North American cosmologies. I personally call them shamanic spirit guides, to make that important distinction.
If you are attuned to the natural world, as any shamanic practitioner is, it's typical to have at least 7 spirit guides -- one for each of the 4 cardinal directions, and one for each of the 3 worlds.
Some systems say 9 spirit guides are the full complement. Another system which I have been unable to yet verify as being grounded in a specific tribal culture (and which sounds too neatly new agey to me) suggests that there are 4 types of animal guides:
Messenger guide -- temporary and sometimes corporeal, not archetypal
Shadow guide -- presents repetitive fierce lessons to overcome fear
Journey guide -- helps through a difficult chapter of life, not a shamanic journey
Life or spirit guide -- lifetime reflection of your inner self
I suppose whether one follows a more traditionally shamanic way of thinking of spirit guides or a more eclectic, free-wheeling method is simply a sign of what kind of spiritual belief system you want to follow. Those who are more eclectic leaning may want to read my post on Mixed Pantheons here.
Core Shamanism founder Michael Harner is reported to have been the first to coin the phrase power animal. It is a concept I have found to be somewhat misunderstood by the general non-native public.
I have heard many new agey teachers talk about power animals as if they are simple substitutes for spirit guides. This is a profound misunderstanding of what they are. A power animal is not just a superduper better-than-the-rest spirit guide. It is a spirit animal that allows a medicine person to merge with it, or that deigns to merge with a medicine person / shamanic practitioner, for the purpose of allowing its own medicine power to be used for healing, or for traveling through dangerous situations in the LowerWorld or Middle World.
Like the shamanic spirit guides who choose you, power animals also choose who they will work with, and when. It is of vital importance to cultivate a strong, close relationship with a power animal because trust is essential when one lends or borrows archetypal power.
As a shamanic practitioner who experiences the merger of several of my spirit guides -- who in those times then are acting as power animals -- I can tell you that it is an extraordinary and deeply bodily-felt experience. At times I have felt myself enter the chest of the power animal to become one with it, and see the world from its perspective, hunting as it hunts, tasting what it eats, moving as it moves. At others times I have the power animal enter me through the back of my skull or where the neck joins the back. It steps into my brain-space and looks out from my eyes while my sense of self shrinks and retreats to what I call the back wall of my mind. The power animal then uses my hands to conduct various ritual healings. This is not something anyone would be advised to attempt without a lot of supervised training,
The Thunderbird, depicted above, is one of a few cross cultural symbols, appearing in the lore of the Dakota, Lakota, Oglala, Ojibwe, Cherokee, Navajo, Hidatsa, Iroquois, Shawnee and others.