Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Fetish and the Canadian Indian



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Fetish (Portuguese: feitiço , 'a charm,' 'sorcery', 'enchantment' - whence the English fetish-; adjective, 'made by art', 'artificial', 'skilfully contrived'; Latin factitious , 'made by art', 'artful by magic'). Among the American Indians an object, large or small, natural or artificial, regarded as possessing consciousness, volition and immortal life, and especially orenda or magic power, the essential characteristic, which enables the object to accomplish, in addition to those that are usual, abnormal results in a mysterious manner. Apparently in any specific case the distinctive function and sphere of action of the fetish depends largely on the nature of the object which is supposed to contain it. It is the imagined possession of this potent mysterious power that causes an object to be regarded as indispensable to the welfare of its possessor.


In the belief of the Indians, all things are animate and incarnate - men, beasts, lands, waters, rocks, plants, trees, stars, winds, clouds, and night - and all possess volition and immortal life; yet many of these are held in perpetual bondage by weird spells of some mighty enchantment. So, although lakes and seas may writhe in billows, they cannot traverse the earth, while brooks and rivers may run and bound over the land, yet even they may be held by the potent magic power of the god of winter. Mountains and hills may throb and quake with pain and grief, but they cannot travel over the earth because they are held in thraldom by the powerful spell of some potent enchanter. Thus it is that rocks, trees, roots, 'stocks and stones', bones, the limbs and parts of the body, and the various bodies of nature are verily the living tombs of diverse beings and spirits. Of such is the kingdom of the fetish, for even the least of these may be chosen. Moreover, a fetish is an object which may also represent a vision, a dream, a thought, or an action.


A fetish is acquired by a person, a family, or a people for the purpose of promoting welfare. In return, the fetish requires from its owner worship in the form of prayer, sacrifice, feasts, and protection, and from its votaries it receives ill or good treatment in accordance with the character of its behaviour toward them. Some fetishes are regarded as more efficacious than others. The fetish which loses its repute as a promoter of welfare gradually becomes useless and may degenerate into a sacred object - a charm, an amulet, or a talisman - and finally into a mere ornament. Then other fetishes are acquired, to be subjected to the same severe test of efficiency in promoting the well-being of their possessors.


The fetish is clearly segregated from the group of beings called tutelars, or guardian spirits, since it may be bought or sold, loaned or inherited, while, so far as known, the tutelar is never sold, loaned, or, with the Iroquois, inherited. Among the Santee and the Muskhogean and Iroquoian tribes the personal tutelar, having a different origin, is scrupulously discriminated from all those objects and beings which may be called fetishes. The tutelar has a particular name as a class of beings. Rev. John Eastman says that this is true of the Santee, and it is probably true of many other tribes. Some fetishes are inherited from kindred, while others are bought from neighbouring tribes at a great price, thus constituting a valuable article of intertribal commerce. It is also acquired by choice for multifarious reasons.


A person may have one or many fetishes. The name fetish is also applied to most of the articles found in the medicine sack of the shaman, the pindikosan of the Chippewa. These are commonly otter, snake, owl, bird, and other skins; roots, bark, and berries of many kinds; potent powders, and a heterogeneous collection of other things employed by the shaman.


A fetish is not a product of a definite phase of religious activity, much less is it the particular prerogative of any plane of human culture; for along with the adoration of the fetish goes the worship of the sun, moon, earth, life, trees, rivers, water, mountains, and storms as the embodiment of as many personalities. It is therefore erroneous to assign the fetish to the artificial stage of religion, sometimes called hecastotheism. The fetish must be carefully distinguished from the tutelar of every person. Among the Iroquois these are known by distinct names, indicative of their functions: ochina'ke n 'da' for fetish, and oiäro n ' for the tutelar.


Mooney says, in describing the fetish, that it may be "a bone, a feather, a carved or painted stick, a stone arrowhead, a curious fossil or concretion, a tuft of hair, a necklace of red berries, the stuffed skin of a lizard, the dried hand of an enemy, a small bag of pounded charcoal mixed with human blood - anything, in fact, which the owner's medicine dream or imagination might suggest, no matter how uncouth or unaccountable, provided it be crazily portable and attachable. The fetish might be the inspiration of a dream or the gift of a medicine-man, or even a trophy taken from a slain enemy, or a bird, animal, or reptile; but, however insignificant in itself, it had always, in the owner's mind at least, some symbolic connection with occult power. It might be fastened to the scalp-lock as a pendant, attached to some part of the dress, hung from the bridle bit, concealed between the covers of a shield, or guarded in a special repository in the dwelling. Mothers sometimes tied the fetish to the child's cradle."


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 164-165.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College