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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Native American Hopi Overlay Symbols – Thanksgiving

Many Hopi symbols relate to nature. They depict plants, animals, feathers, land and rock formations, and weather…….including whirlwinds and especially clouds and rain which are so precious to the southwest cultures.

In addition, many Hopi designs are abstract. The beautiful Hopi necklace below shows a mixture of discernible symbols and abstract designs. What do you see? I’ll suggest what I see below.

Hopi Overlay Necklace

In the center of the above necklace is a large sunface which is a symbol of warmth and growth. When a sunface looks mask-like such as the one in this necklace, it is a sunface kachina – see the sunface kachina (shown below).

The head and headress of a Hopi Sunface Kachina

The next recognizable symbols on the two discs above the sunface are a corn plant in the middle, a hogan on the top, and a turkey across from one side to the other with his head on one side and his spread out fan tail on the other.

Turkey, also called Earth Eagle, is an important food source to the Pueblos and is mentioned in several Tewa Pueblo stories. Its feathers have many ritual uses. There is a Turkey Clan in one of the Hopi Phratries.

From Ancestral Art: In addition to hunting wild game, the Hopi raised domesticated turkeys. Given the number of turkey remains discovered, they must have been a food staple.

Turkey remains were found at Kokopnyama, an old Hopi ruin. Read more about the excavations here.

There are eleven bird kachinas for the chicken, duck, eagle, hummingbird, kit, mockingbird, owl, red-tailed hawk, roadrunner, snipe, and turkey. The turkey kachina uses turkey feathers to form a fan-shaped crest representing the spread tail of the male turkey.

In the six medallions above the turkey medallions, I think all or most are either landscape formations, stylized weather or abstract art. What do you think?

I’ve done some research on this piece found one like it on page 19 of “Indian Jewelry on the Market” Peter N. Schiffer, 1996 that says “A magnificent Hopi necklace with nine medallions. Klines Gallery $1200

 


The sterling silver medallions are beautiful and tell a unique story and are strung on a double set of sterling silver beads. Let me know what you see in this piece.

I can’t wait for Thanksgiving because I LOVE TURKEY (…and dressing) !!


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