A totem can be defined as a sacred object that serves as an emblem of a clan, family, or tribe. It's the latter sense that is relevant to the indigenous culture depicted in I Heard the Owl Call My Name.
For the Kwakiutl people, the owl is a totem that has great symbolic value. They believe that if you hear an owl call your name, your death cannot be far away. Mark Brian, the young Anglican vicar sent by his bishop to live among the Kwakiutl, is gravely ill but doesn't yet know it. One could say that he hasn't yet heard the owl. It is only when Mark finally hears the call of this sacred totem that he will fully comprehend the true significance of his death. In being made aware of his mortality, Mark will be better able to prepare for the inevitable fate that awaits him.