Native American Terms – Fetish, Totem, Amulet, Talisman

Paula,
I wondered why in your web store you describe some Indian animal carvings and jewelry pieces as fetishes and others amulets or totems. Are they all the same thing? – Stuart

Stuart,
The terms fetish, amulet, totem and talisman are often used interchangeably to describe an object that provides good fortune and protects from evil. The exact meaning of any of these terms depend on the culture and location in which it is used. Briefly, here is how I see them:

Talisman

Alaskan Thunderbird Talisman by David Audette from Sitka, Alaska

A talisman is an object that is considered to possess supernatural or magical powers and is used especially to avert evils, disease, or death. A talisman is typically engraved or cut with figures or characters, constellations, planets, or other heavenly signs. It is often worn as an amulet or charm. From the Greek word “telein”, which means “to initiate into the mysteries”. The word talisman is often used synonymous with amulet.

Amulet

Turquoise and Sterling Silver Lucky Horseshoe Amulet by Navajo artist Wilbur Muskett Jr.

An amulet is a protecting charm – any object worn to bring good luck and to ward off evil, illness, and harm from supernatural powers and from other people. Amulets are typically carvings, stones (especially with naturally occurring holes), plants (such as sage, 4-leaf clover, shamrock), coins, and jewelry (crosses, horseshoes, gemstones).

Totem

Horse Totem on Horse Spirit Medicine Bag by Apache artist Cynthia Whitehawk

A totem is an object that symbolizes a person’s or a tribe’s animal guide. This could be a totem pole, an emblem or a small figurine or carving. Native American tradition holds that different animal guides come in and out of a person’s life depending on the direction that person is headed and the challenges he faces. A totem animal is the one animal that acts as the main guardian spirit and is with a person for life, both in the physical and spiritual world. Traditionally, it is the totem animal, such as an eagle, wolf, bear, horse or dragonfly, that finds the person, not the other way around.

Fetish

Bear Fetish by Zuni artist Emery Eriacho

A fetish is a sacred object used in religious ceremonies, for spiritual awakening and to communicate with and direct supernatural powers. A fetish can provide protection, promote healing and ensure success in ventures such as hunting or farming. A Native American fetish is most often a carving, usually of an animal, that has some sort of power, and is sometimes decorated with stones, shells, and feathers. A carving without power is merely a carving. A person’s own beliefs determine the difference between a fetish and a carving.

So, whether an object is a talisman, totem, amulet or fetish is up to you. Just as the beauty of an object is in the eye of the beholder, so the power of an object is in the belief of the seer or wearer.

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Lakota Ledger Art

Ledger Art evolved from Plains Indian hide painting. Traditionally Plains tribes decorated tipis, leggings, buffalo robes, shields and other clothing items with depictions of life events. The figures were usually drawn with a hard, dark outline and then filled in with color. The painting was done with bone or wood sticks that were dipped in naturally-occurring pigments.

Unknown artist Ledger Art

The women of the tribes often made designs while the men depicted scenes of war, hunting, other personal feats or historic events. Besides battles, the changing lifestyle of the Plains Indians and infusion of Euro-Americans was documented in the art – trains, covered wagons, guns, and even cameras.

Unknown artist Ledger Art

 

Ledger art began in the 1860s and continued to the 1930s and is experiencing a revival with a few contemporary Lakota artists today. It is called ledger art because instead of the paintings being on buffalo hides (which had become scarce from near extinction of the vast buffalo herds) the drawings were done on paper, often ledger book paper that was discarded by government agents, military officers, traders or missionaries. In addition to the new paper format, Plains artists also had access to pencils, pens, crayons and watercolor paints.

Ledger Paper medium


An 1884 crayon ledger drawing by Lakota artist Red Dog honoring the valor of a warrior named Low Dog.

Noted Lakota artists include Black Hawk and Sitting Bull. Black Hawk, in an effort to feed his family during the very harsh winter of 1880-81, agreed to draw a series of 76 pieces of art for an Indian trader that depicted one of Black Hawk’s visions. He was paid 50 cents a drawing. That book of 76 drawings sold in 1994 for nearly $400,000 dollars. Although not technically ledger art since the drawings were on new lined paper, not ledger paper, Black Hawk’s work are one of the finest examples of that style of Lakota art. Two examples of that series are shown below.

Black Hawk Ledger Art

Black Hawk Ledger Art

Contemporary Lakota artist Alan Monroe uses traditional ledger-style designs on rabbit skins.

Ledger-style Art on Rabbit Skin by Lakota artist Alan Monroe

 

Ledger-style Art on Rabbit Skin by Lakota artist Alan Monroe

 

Ledger-style Art on Rabbit Skin by Lakota artist Alan Monroe


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Native American Ceremonial Sticks – Lakota Horse Stick

Native American Ceremonial Sticks
©  2011 Horsekeeping   © Copyright Information

There are many types of sticks used in Native American ceremonies. The hai detoi is a stick of madrona wood with feathers on one end and a flint on the other – it is used by a Pomo (Northern California) shaman during healing ceremonies.

A hatcamuni is an Acoma Pueblo prayer stick. It is made by the individual (or an individual’s family member) that is requesting healing. It is cut from a live willow or cedar, may be notched or painted and might have feathers attached to it.

The Zuni bundle up a group of prayer sticks, kaetcine, offer them up to the spirits and then bury or deposit them in a prescribed location.

Lakota Horse Stick by Alan Monroe

Lakota Horse Stick – To the Lakota and other Plains Indians, the horse was a working partner that provided transportation when moving, and a heroic companion on hunts and raids and in battle.


When a warrior lost a horse, he would honor the horse by making a horse stick. The effigy would represent the likeness of the horse and be decorated with markings and adornments that recounted the life and achievements of the horse.


The horse stick would then be carried by the warrior in dances to pay tribute to the great horse before other tribal members, most notably those of the Horse Society. By making and carrying the stick, it was hoped that the spirit of the horse would follow the warrior in life and give him added strength and power.


The horse stick was usually made of wood and decorated with paint, leather, fur, feathers, beads and other items.



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Native American Healing, Ceremonial and Dance Rattles

NATIVE AMERICAN CEREMONIAL AND DANCE RATTLES

©  2010 Cherry Hill

Native American rattles have been and are used for many purposes including healing and other medicine uses, dancing for ceremony and celebration, commemorating birth and more. To First Nations people, shakers or rattles represent rain (for prayers of abundance and prosperity) and tears, especially those of emotional release. Tears of joy signifying when the mind, body, soul and spirit connect. Ceremonially, rattles are used in cleansing and purifying, spiritual guidance work, celebration and in thanks and respect to Ancestral Spirits.

Dragonfly Spirit Gourd Rattle by Cynthia Whitehawk, Apache

 

Rattles can be made of many materials including deer and elk hooves, rawhide, turtle shells, gourds, wood, buffalo parts (horn, hump bone, scrotum) bones, horns and antlers of all kinds, leather (cowhide, buckskin, elkskin).

Wolf Spirit Gourd Rattle by Apache Cynthia Whitehawk

 

The rattling items are either inside or outside. Rattles such as gourds might have small items inside such as beans, corn, small stones, or even the seeds native to the gourd itself.

Raven Spirit Gourd Rattle by Apache Cynthia Whitehawk

Rattles with external sound makers are adorned with pieces of metal, tinkle cones, bells, beads and more.

Lakota Horse Spirit Dance Rattle by Alan Monroe, Oglala Lakota

 

Generally, medicine rattles are made entirely of natural materials and the sound is more muted. Dance rattles are made of almost any materials, natural and otherwise. In fact, unusual items such as pieces of scrap metal, coins and other resonating materials are used to create a loud, crisp sound. Dance rattles are often made like a coup stick, using bone or wood with a handle on the end.

Horse Spirit Dance Rattle by Alan Monroe, Oglala Lakota

 

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Native American Symbols – Lakota Horse Stick

Lakota Horse Stick

Hand carved bone Horse Stick pendant

Oglala Lakota Horse Stick by Lonny and Michelle Cloud

The horse stick is a Lakota Sioux tradition used to honor a specific horse. Carved from bone and painted, the horses were then adorned with feathers, horse hair, animal claws and other items.

The horse stick pendant (above) made from bone was hand carved and painted by Lonny and Michelle Cloud.