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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Hector Goodluck Monument Valley Fetish Necklace

Hi Paula,

I absolutely have fallen in love with your Monument Valley fetish necklace
($180.) I have never seen anything like it, and I traveled everywhere
throughout those areas 3 times and I loved the red rocks in Arches National
Park, Bryce,and Zion. Your beads are very spiritual to me and they tell me
many stories from my past experiences. My question is, would it be possible for me to buy just the beads of the necklace so I can string it myself? Thank you so much, Jan

Monument Valley Necklace by Hector Goodluck, Navajo

Hi Jan,

I know what you mean about those necklaces – they are unique and engaging. I believe Hector Goodluck is the only one who carves those images and makes a
Monument Valley necklace. I knew he made them but it took us about a year to be able to get them from him ! I just feel like I am “wearing the area” when I have mine on.
We only sell the artist’s work as is, but it would be easy to restring them to your liking. They come with earrings for $180, so there you have some additional beads for your custom project.


Paula

Fetishes & carvings include features of Navajo life in Monument Valley such as:
  • hogan
  • corn
  • mustang horse
  • mountain sheep
  • burro
  • jackrabbit
  • prairie dog,
  • sheep
  • horse
  • lizard
  • Window Rock
  • Mitten Butte
  • Camel Butte
  • Rain God Mesa.


Hi Paula,

Thanks for getting back to me. I will put the necklace at the top of my wish
list for Christmas presents. It has such depth and each fetish has its own
story to tell. So amazing! Jan


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Chip Inlay Belt Buckle – Identification Please?

Hello Paula,

I was poking around to try to identify a belt buckle which I bought based on it having been purchased on an Indian Reservation in the 1970s. It’s large and heavy and arrestingly designed so I thought I might be able to find the tribe and artist. I did find another similar buckle that had been sold and looks like it had been made by the same artist but there was no info on that one either. Would you be willing to take a look? Linda

Vintage Chip Inlay Belt Buckle

Thanks, Paula.

This is 4-1/8″ by 3″ and weighs 120 grams. Serious size.  There is turquoise, coral and a brown stone about which I’m not sure. Could be tiger’s eye but I’m really not sure. All set in black, larger pieces of stone than usual and the design seems exceptional. I found this buckle by googling, which may have been done by the same person. I’d love to identify at least which peublo or tribe, if not the artist. This
is the other one I found which looks to be the same artist:

Reference Chip Inlay Buckle

Information with the above reference buckle:

Beautiful heavily vintage 50’s-60’s turquoise and coral inlay Phoenix buckle! The buckle consists of a turquoise and coral large chip inlay. The artist continues decorating with multiple etched floral designs completely around the inlay and throughout the buckle. The artist finishes by attaching a stationary solid belt holder and pin on back.The buckle measures approximately 3″ by 2 7/16″ and weighs 69.6 grams (2.45 ounces or 2.24 troy ounces). It is unsigned and possibly Mexican Alpaca Silver. It does have a yellowish haze to it meaning the other metals are more copper than nickel. The buckle will accommodate up to a 2″ wide belt.

My buckle is much more lovely in person than the pics, but enough to give  you a good idea, I hope. Linda

Hi Linda,

Well you did most of the work here ! My job is easy. Before even seeing the photo and information on the reference buckle that you sent, I suspected this was a Mexican-made buckle. Although you didn’t send a photo of the back of the buckle, where one can see the effects of time on the metal, I suspect this is not sterling silver but Alpaca. If you suspect it could be sterling silver, a simple test at a jewelers will tell you whether it is or not. If it is sterling silver, due to its weight, it would be worth a lot more than if it was alpaca.

Alpaca is a term that is often stamped on Mexican (and German) pieces and sometimes it is called Alpaca Silver but it contains no silver at all. Alpaca is usually composed of 65% copper, 18% nickel and 17% zinc. It is similar to German Silver and Nickel Silver (read full article about silver here).

The stylized road runner design and the use of the large chips does not look Native American to me. Nor does the engraving which appears on both buckles. The chips seem to be made of turquoise, coral and perhaps faux tortoiseshell.

So when you say you purchased the buckle based on the fact it was purchased on an Indian Reservation in the 1970s, it sounds like it might have been misrepresented. But that is just my humble opinion !

The main thing is that if you like it, enjoy it ! Thanks for writing and best of luck.



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