What’s in a Name?

A totem is a symbol of collective identity – emblematic of the notion that we are all more compelling, more complete, and more powerful together. The totem tells the story of the tribe.

The etymology of the word “totem” dates back to the mid-18th century, first used by the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe people of North America. What follows is a description of the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe from the “The Land of the Ojibwe” by the Minnesota Historical Society:

“The fundamental essence of Anishinabe life is unity. The oneness of all things. In our view history is expressed in the way that life is lived each day. Key to this is the belief that harmony with all created things has been achieved. The people cannot be separated from the land with its cycle of seasons or from the other mysterious cycles of living things - of birth and growth and death and new birth. The people know where they come from. The story is deep in their hearts. It has been told in legends and dances, in dreams and in symbols. It is in the songs a grandmother sings to the child in her arms and in the web of family names, stories, and memories that the child learns as he or she grows older. This is a story of the spirit - individual and collective.”

The story of the spirit - individual and collective. That’s what we set out to build with Totem when we first named our venture three years ago - a platform to preserve, promote, and power our community’s best face in the digital world. Over the years, Totem has had many faces (apologies for the inescapable pun); we’ve been different things to different people. But through our variant manifestations, our mission and our motive have not wavered, and our name has been an anchoring symbol that grounds it all. We want to make the world a better place. We really do mean that, and we actually think it’s important sometimes to say that out loud in a world that can feel increasingly cynical. We figured the most efficient and effective help improve our world was to make nonprofits (widely agreed to be the vehicles most apt for altruism) more efficient and effective themselves. In the intervening years we’ve weeded out some of our original assumptions, and landed in a place where Totem provides numerous software and consulting solutions for nonprofits under one roof.

The initial value we set out to imbue in our platform is reflected in the above description of the Anishinabe: strength in unity. We wanted to build a place where people could put on their best face, publicly and in unison: a digital gathering place for groups to both do good and tell others about it. Totem is a word that bespeaks our values: strength in sharing, non-zero-sumness, and the importance of putting forth what’s best in us. “To believe something creates an obligation to make that belief known and to act upon it in the arena.” - Jon Meacham, The Soul of America. Those were the things we believed, and so Totem became our arena for action.

The essence of the Anishabe culture is a model for how we viewed our own community - a web of mostly good individuals, associations, and organizations telling at once an individual and collective story, and working toward its happy ending. We think that’s an important thing to remember; that we’re all working toward a mutual good, and that we need each other to do it. That “each of us is carving a stone, erecting a column, or cutting a piece of stained glass in the construction of something much bigger than ourselves.” - Adrienne Clarkson. When we work together to build something greater than ourselves, then the opportunity to improve the world is potentially limitless. As Hugh MacLeod, co-founder and artistic director of Gapingvoid puts it, "the market for something to believe in is infinite."

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What’s in a Name?
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