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Beyond the Surface: The Complexities of the Term 'Totem'

How do we challenge prevailing narratives and advocate for informed discourse?

In this dialogue, researchers Ula Przybylska and Sylvia Rybak delve deep into the complexities surrounding the term totem — a word often overused and loaded with cultural implications. Their exchange underscores the importance of understanding the profound cultural significance behind terms that have been appropriated and misinterpreted in popular discourse.*

This dialogue represents the conversation surrounding the divide of Western and Indigenous language to further development of the Worlds of Us game with respect and consideration.


Ula: I recently delved into the digital initiative 'World of Us' and was intrigued by their initial concept of the 'Totem Space'. It was designed as an inclusive room where children could craft their own totems, symbolising their unique place in the virtual world. However, the term 'Totem' and its implications in such a context raised several questions for me.

Sylvia: Historically, totem has been appropriated and used in a reductionist manner, particularly in Western thought. For instance, Freudian psychology employed it to describe what they termed as primitive cultures, thereby perpetuating a superficial ethnographical understanding. Such usage not only oversimplifies but also exoticises the profound cultural significance of the term.

Ula: Indeed, and it's essential to trace back to the origins of such terms to grasp their depth. The term 'totem', for instance, is deeply rooted in the [Ojibwa](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Ojibwa) language, associated with the [Algonquian](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Algonquian) people around Lake Superior. It's rather disconcerting to observe how a term, which encapsulates such rich and varied traditions, has been condensed into a singular, often misinterpreted phrase in popular culture.

Sylvia: Your observation reminds me of the popularised term spirit animal. While it has become a casual catchphrase in contemporary culture, its origins in Indigenous traditions are profound, sacred, and varied. The commodification of such terms, without a nuanced understanding of their cultural significance, is a classic manifestation of cultural appropriation. Similarly, totem poles, monumental creations of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, have been misinterpreted and misused in popular discourse.

Ula: It's a poignant reflection of how language, when divorced from its cultural and historical context, can perpetuate stereotypes and erase the richness of its origins. The phrase lowest on the totem pole, for instance, is a glaring example. Contrary to popular belief, being carved low on a totem pole might be a position of honour in some First Nations communities.

Sylvia: Precisely. And it extends beyond just terms. Words like savage, which now bear a positive or semi-positive connotation in modern parlance, have origins steeped in colonial derogation of Indigenous, Black, and other people of colour. Even tribe, a term now casually employed in pop culture, can be perceived as dismissive and disrespectful to Indigenous communities, given its historical misuse.

Ula: It's heartening, though, to note that 'World of Us' chose to reflect upon and refrain from using the term totem. Their initiative to provide a glossary, urging users to approach such terms with sensitivity and awareness, is commendable. It underscores the importance of continuous learning and fostering a deeper understanding of the cultural significance of the language we use.

Sylvia: Indeed. As scholars, it's imperative for us to illuminate these nuances, challenge prevailing narratives, and advocate for a more informed and respectful discourse.

So, what have we learned? From this exchange alone the issue is clearly highlighted. There is an absence of understanding that allows people to acquire language without grasping the centuries of weight that it may carry. With this in mind, World of Us aspires to keep education at the forefront of its mission. The language we use should reflect cultural origins — and should not stray from its most authentic meaning for the sake of entertainment value.  We are dedicated to learning beyond our own spaces to create a world founded off placing cultural awareness and respect at its heart. 

*For readers looking to find original indigenous sources for this conversation and delve deeper in the topic, please see the following links: 

Merriam-Webster on Ojibwa

Merriam-Webster on Algonquian

CBC on Offensive English Language Terms

Well and Good on Spirit Animal

Critical Indigenous Theory Scholars:

Linda Tuhiwai - Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson - We Have Always Done 

Zoe Todd - An Indigenous Feminist's Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism

Aileen Moreton-Robinson - Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism


Sylvia Rybak is a Berlin-based visual artist from Warsaw, whose practice is based in mediums such as 3D engines and Virtual Reality. Their work explores ideations of digital spaces of embodiment, permeated by notions of the natural, unnatural and the alien. Outside of their artistic practice, Sylvia also has worked as a researcher within projects related to higher artistic education, social justice and technology theory and has assisted with production, communication and curation in a variety of artistic projects.

Ula Sowa Przybylska is a visual anthropologist and an XR artist, working with immersive environments and experimental narrative practices. She sees technology as a tool to bring people into a story.  Interested in utopias, feminism, social movements and collectivism, she is ready to explore the documentary potential of game-like experiences.

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