"In pagan religions and systems, a spirit animal or totem is meant to be a representation of the traits and skills that you are supposed to learn or have." the urban dictionary
Here is an excerpt, to read more go to Legends of America.
Native beliefs further explain that a totem animal is one that is with you for life, both in the physical and spiritual world. Though people may identify with different animal guides throughout their lifetimes, it is this one totem animal that acts as the main guardian spirit.
With this one animal a connection is shared, either through interest in the animal, characteristics, dreams, or other interaction.
This Animal Guide offers power and wisdom to the individual when they 'communicate' with it, conveying their respect and trust. This does not necessarily mean that you actually pet or spend time with this animal, more that you are open to learning its lessons.
For some, knowing what is their totem animal is almost an innate process. It’s as if they’ve always known, inexplicably drawn to the animal or having a special feeling for the animal’s energy. For others, they wonder how to tell what their animal totem is."
The above photos are of totem poles in Ketchikan, Alaska. There's a great article on totem poles and heritage trees on Cathedral Grove "You don't know what you've got ... till it's gone".