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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Sterling Silver Knifewing Inlay Box – Help with Origin?

Paula..many years ago we aquired a silver box from an inheritance. It has what I’ve come to discover…a knife wing inlay on the top…the box is solid silver and measures approx 7 x 5 x 3….Can you give me any history on this? I see on your website that you have a very similar but smaller one so I thought maybe you could shed some light on this for me. Marsha

Hello Marsha,

Well, it is always difficult to determine anything from photos, especially if there are no hallmarks.

Knifewing is depicted in a number of styles but below is one of the most common Navajo inlay designs (the box from our store).

I couldn’t say much about your box except that it seems to have large repousse areas in the lid. Repousse is a silversmith technique to create raised shapes by hammering from the underside. I’ve never seen that type of repousse design on Native American pieces, however.

I’m not sure if the photos are throwing me off but the top view makes the metal look more like tin than sterling silver, but since you just said silver, perhaps you are just referring to a silver color and you haven’t had it tested for sterling.

If it is sterling silver, of course, it would be worth more than if it was not, no matter if it is Native American made or not.

I keep having this nagging feeling, though, that it might not even be Native American made……..of course if I had it in hand, it would be easier to tell. But here are some issues that concern me. One is the “feet” which seem to be solid balls of metal, something I would associate more with a non NA box. The Native American boxes I have seen either have no feet or feet like on the box in our shop.

Here’s what I’d do if I were you.

Have the box tested to see if it is sterling silver.

Think about the person from whom you inherited the box from……..would he or she have been more likely to obtain a Native American piece or a piece from an Asian culture?

Finally, have someone knowledgeable in Native American items appraise the box in person for you if you think it could be Native American made. If it is, it could be quite valuable.

If you are not interested in its value, perhaps you should just enjoy it for what it is !

Who is Knifewing?

Knifewing, also Knife Wing, is a half man – half eagle Zuni spirit or god with razor sharp feathers made of flint. He is the ultimate warrior.

Anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who lived with the Zunis from 1879-1884 described knifewing this way:

“This curious god is the hero of hundreds of folklore tales, the tutelary deity of several societies of Zuni. He is represented as possessing a human form, furnished with flint knife-feathered pinions, and tail. His dress consists of the conventional terraced cap (representative of his dwelling place among the clouds). His weapons are the Great Flint-Knife of War, the Bow of the Skies (the Rainbow), and the Arrow of Lightning. His guardians or warriors are the Great Mountain Lion of the North and that of the upper regions. He was doubtless the original War God of the Zunis.”

Horace Iule (also known for his crosses) is credited with creating the first knifewing design in the late 1920s, cut and filed out of wrought silver. Afterwards, other Zuni, Navajo and Pueblo began producing knifewing designs. The knifewing became one of the first designs that the Zuni inlaid with stones.

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Native American Symbols – Knifewing

Who is Knifewing?

Knifewing, also Knife Wing, is a half man – half eagle Zuni spirit or god with razor sharp feathers made of flint. He is the ultimate warrior.

Anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who lived with the Zunis from 1879-1884 described knifewing this way:

“This curious god is the hero of hundreds of folklore tales, the tutelary deity of several societies of Zuni. He is represented as possessing a human form, furnished with flint knife-feathered pinions, and tail. His dress consists of the conventional terraced cap (representative of his dwelling place among the clouds). His weapons are the Great Flint-Knife of War, the Bow of the Skies (the Rainbow), and the Arrow of Lightning. His guardians or warriors are the Great Mountain Lion of the North and that of the upper regions. He was doubtless the original War God of the Zunis.”

Horace Iule (also known for his crosses) is credited with creating the first knifewing design in the late 1920s, cut and filed out of wrought silver. Afterwards, other Zuni, Navajo and Pueblo began producing knifewing designs. The knifewing became one of the first designs that the Zuni inlaid with stones.

Knifewing Inlay Pin Pendant by Zuni artists Herbert and Ester Cellicion

Knifewing Inlay Pin Pendant by Zuni artists Herbert and Ester Cellicion

Knifewing Sterling Silver Inlay Box by Suzie James

Knifewing Sterling Silver Inlay Box by Suzie James