Crow, Eagle, Buffalo, Bear, Beaver, Rabbit and even shaman with a headpiece on are easy to see (see this and subsequent drawings)


For more images of this ceremonial object, see Part 2


Interpretation of a 19th Century Iroquois Indian Medicine (Prayer) Stick.

A mid-to late-19th century prayer stick was researched, documented, and analyzed for its form and function. Animal spirits representations identified in the stick made use of beaver (probably linked to the 19th century struggling pelt industry), bears, bison and raven, with the latter animal spirit responsible for most of the artifact’s carved form and function. Bison bodies were depicted using a dark purplish red resin-rich paint-like material, in part drawn as lines and in part a sprayed or spattered dye liquids onto the main shaft of this stick. The image of the bear could be seen by the texture produced naturally by the rootcap burl form of this ceremonial object. The raven was depicted at the upper end of the medicine stick, which had root bases carved to form multiple raven heads viewed at multiple angles and pointing in all directions from the top-end of the medicine club.

4 images of the medicine stick - part 1

Images of the medicine stick – part 1 – Crows
4 images of the medicine stick - part 2

Images of the medicine stick – part 2 – Others
1.  Sun (earth) and moon – grandmother and grandfather
2.  Shaman and medicine stick – each talking to the other
3.  Two people, men and women–society, family
4.  Medicine wheel with center point/triangular dot, perhaps pointing to 11 o’clock (mayan-like)

A series of iconographs carved into the upper end of the stick depict the four methods for practicing “medicine.”

4 Levels of "Medicine"

4 Directions, 4 Levels of “Medicine”

1.  based on Creator/Universal Power and events

2.  based on Spiritual/metaphysical shamanic events

3.  based on social, sociocultural or family/friend influences and other interpersonal events (passing around the talking stick, engaged in sweat lodge with other elders, “getting married is for the good of society and the people”)

4.  based on your and the world’s various parts and other physical components (herbalism, channeling with/sensing minerals-earth people, communicating with animal spirit, finding clean water for the people and the crops, finding physical signs that are barely perceptible for local animals needed as food and clothing)

A separate iconograph depicts the use of the prayer stick to speak with ‘great spirit’ regarding human and natural ecological issues, and is carved into the lower end of this handle.

Prayer to Earth (planting-gathering)

Prayer to Earth (planting-gathering)

There is also a tribal community setting depicted on the shaft, consisting of two animal totems at an entrance to the settlement, which is situated just off a large red river, followed by the main fortress with tipis inside (a 16th-17th C Onondaga style fort), a tipi of tribal leaders to the lower left of the main establishment, and a smaller tipi atop an elevated section and separated from the main camp and fortress by a branch of the red river, which must be traversed before the shaman residing in that tipi can be approached.

Tribal Encampment Map, Red River(?) setting

Tribal Encampment Map, Red River(?) setting

A series of lines are also noted, depicting “trails” leading into the burly “head” of this prayer stick; these are interpreted as a map-like depiction of paths or routes into the woods, used to tell the shaman in possession of this ceremonial object how to make his way into the nearby foothills of a much larger mountain range, out of which flows a red river.

3 Maps.  A rough drawing of the paths to the spiritual sites; a rougher diagram of Bisons depicted using a dark resin-based paint; and an illustration of the bisons in relation to plains and woodland-fields from a journal.

The 3 Maps.
These depict:  1) a rough drawing of the paths to the spiritual sites according to the prayer stick;  I drew this a day or two after drawing the fine line pencil decpition above, 2) a cleaner image that appeared following a cleaning of the stick and a slight rub with olive oil, the end of the bisons appeared, depicted using a dark resin-based paint; and 3) an illustration of the bisons in relation to plains and woodland-fields from a journal confirming the geography of the area represented on this object (I found this drawing in a Canadian Anthropology Journal the day after I completed all of the above analyses (citation needed), due to happenstance of course).

This medicine club is probably from the late 19th century (postbellum to 1890), and is probably not intended for sale as a tourist item due to the complexity of the symbolism and amount of carving required to produce the crow heads. It is probably made of a knotted trunk burl of a young large deciduous tress (maple, which is noted to have these burls) or a smaller tree with harder wood (in particular ironwood). Paint sources include deep red to purple dye (resinous, hard, slightly chipped material filling linear carving representing possible a red river), black to purple dye use to produce the bison bodies and depict a plains-like background.

The relic closely resembles Iroquois patterns of these types of carvings, but also resembles similar prayer sticks/war clubs of size and complexity produced by western New York to Ohioan/north Mississippian river communities of Native American origin, such as the prayer stick documented by 1790s to early 1800s travellers like Maximillian.

Medicine stick from travels through former New France region, ca. 1805-1810

Medicine stick from travels through former New France region, ca. 1790-1810

This lacks the characteristic adz-like stone-setting typical of Iroquois sticks and is much more complex in its carvings, suggesting a possible blending of these traditions typical of late 19th century government-ordered multi-tribal Indian/Native American communities.


Analysis of Meaning (added July 2011)

If you were to make your own prayer stick using the above anthropological object as a starting point, it helps to better understand the underlying philosophy and meaning of this art.    Without revealing anything too metaphysical about this object, which would be the case were photographs taken and presented, it is possible to use all of these drawings above to interpret its content and meaning as a ceremonial or sacred object.

This object and its philosophical content are truly more complete and complex than what is normally being distributed today, at local crafts and county fairs, metaphysical gatherings, and even pow wows.  Metaphysical interpretations, power and meaning do change significantly over the generations, even from one generation to the next.  A Native American recipe with burdock, chickory, dandelion, nearly all of the docks and trifolium species clovers, the non-native thistles, the plantagos, many chenopodiums, portulaca, chrysanthemum, and most caryophyllaceae species, are all based on introduced plants, not native plants.   These introduced plants were not part of any traditional native American script in 1500 or even 1600, because they didn’t exist here yet.

So too is the problem with some contemporary popularized books on Native American herbalism.  Not that the Indian take on Arctium lappa (burdock) is unimportant, only that it’s not truly historical, unless it was for the possible Arctium minus — a much smaller species, which could be a native plant.   The same is true for Plantago major and minor, both 17th and 18th century introductions, with Plantago major possibly introduced earlier in Canada via the Vikings, Russians around 1350, or very early pre-New France and pre- or new colonial explorations of Nova Scotia and St. Lawrence area.   It is no wonder the Plantago major is known as ‘white man’s foot’ due to this history.  It was the Mi’kmaq who realized this plant travelled along those roads and paths taken by missionaries and explorers through the woods, and so gave it this name.

A prime example of cross-culturalism in medicine involving American Indian philosophy is the Essiac Cancer remedy (‘Essiac’ = ‘Caisse’ backwards, so named by the person trying to popularize it about 1937, Rene Caisse).   Caisse claims this to be a remedy obtained from an Ojibway shaman or medicine man in lower Canada, who was then residing somewhere near the Great Lakes.  The four ingredients for this recipe are Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosa or acetosella), Burdock (Arctium lappa or minus), and Rhubarb (preferably Turkey-Rheum palmatum).  The Slippery Elm is American.  The Sorrel and Burdock are not; both were introduced from Western Europe between 1650 and 1750.  The Turkey Rhubarb is obviously from Turkey.

However, in a commonly referenced book on Caisse’s recipe there is a substitute for Sorrel recommended–the yellow dock (Rumex crispus)–this is a native plant.  But there is also the Oxalis species of sorrels which bear the same to nearly identical chemical features as the acetosa and acetosella species.  Only the ulmus is native, and has a long Native American history, which could be related to the cancer as a swollen mass, like and abscess or “tumor” related to infections and inflammation (not really any sort of true cancer; this is all detailed quite heavily in numerous other places in this blog–for example, see the Trappers’ intepretation of disease section). There is really no equivalent to Turkish Rhubarb native to North America, in terms of both appearance and chemistry.  Some aquatic Rumex species mimic it however and have been used much like it by about 1850 (see Oregon Trail notes).

Now, if we relate the Eassiac remedy to the medicine stick lessons, we find that there might be four herbs=four directions meeting much of the traditional requirements for such.  This is not four humours.  The philosophy of the latter is based on a very different paradigm and philosophically is very different.

Applying this tetrad philosophy to Caisse’s remedies, we find Burdock = black, Rhubarb = red, Elm = white, and Rumex perhaps = yellow (esp. if R. crispus instead of R. acetosa; or if oxalis instead–oxalis stricta has yellow flowers).  So one could reproduce this recipe according to the medicine stick lesson of 4 directions.  What this tells us is that the Essiac remedy is not truly of any one culture in nature, philosophy and origin.  What we also find with Caisse’s recipe is the chance for some chemotherapeutic sense, due to the Rhubarb’s chemical content–Rhubarb has anthraquinones that are possibly chemotherapeutic, especially if they are complex enough to form dianthrones in large amounts as well–but this logic is detracting too much from the metaphysical basis for this four herbs recipes, replying too much upon the physical world in an attempt for us to explain how and why such a recipe might have possibly worked (the Occam’s razor problem typical for all modern herbal medicine).

The medicine prayer stick uses little to none of the ideology noted above, except when the fourth symbol is referred to–the medicine wheel.  Then, even though the medicine is physical, it still requires some metaphysical theory underlying some of its use.  In the most traditional Native American remedies of all, those which all herbalists, explorers, trappers, missionaries and ship captains write about, is the Snakeroot, which changes genus and species from one region to the next.  The Snakeroot is kind of a metaphysical medicine used to conjure up animal spirits, usually the snake spirit manifesting itself in your body following a venomous bite.  This philosophy is also very metaphysical however, as evidenced by the discussion of the spirit of the black snake influencing its prey or human victim, a story first told in writing some time around 1737 to 1743 by Cadwallader Colden   This is how the black snake, which is venomous, effectively charms its prey.

Unfortunately there is this loss or change in traditional American Indian knowledge that is partly due to lost cultural knowledge, in combination with the assimilation process, and the habit humans have of incorporating other traditions into their own.  Such cross-cultural events take place due to a sense of curiosity as much as due to a sense of any belief.  In the Hudsons Bay work I documented elsewhere, we see this happening in the review of medicine bag contents.  One medicine bag contained 7 traditional herbs, another I reviewed had kid’s playing cards as iconic symbols use to treat disease and health–likened to magic by the Europeans seeing this happen at the time–and the incorporation of the Dutch spices from other countries and island countries into one bag, like nutmeg, cinnamon and mace.   There is also this 1830s recipe in early Hudson Valley tradition, from a family Bible, that speaks of direction even more speifically–the Mahican recipe for uses of barks, with direction the most important part of scraping and gathering the bark–the Apple Tree bark on the north side of a tree–in that direction because the bark is darker and richer on that side perhaps, and therefore more representative of the fourth color.

If you are going to use the medicine stick to perform something ritualist and medical in nature, stick with medical philosophies and traditions of a purely Native American philosophy and performance nature.  The Euro-americanization of Indian philosophy and spirituality has impacts on the symbols put on or imagined for medicine, prayer sticks, less in terms of physical content, more in terms of cultural and philosophical meaning.  To even better understand New York Indian tradition and philosophy, we could also turn to the writings of New France and the Jesuits, and try to pull from these those words that are authentic, versus those that are culturally redefined and redescribed, or those that are totally reconstructed in some form of European or Euro-american construct of reality and metaphysical balances and associations.   For example, to liken the four directions with humours is a cross-cultural interpretion bound to end up with some scientific and metaphysical deduction errors coming into play with how a plant or object is used medicinally.  In a number of places where I reviewed herbal medicines with this in mind, I found this logic helped to explain a lot of the contemporary uses of herbs drawn up from early 19th century interpretations of 18th and 17th century interpretations of Native American plant medicine philosophy and use.   The Jesuit writings are full of these types of error.

This illustrates how we inherently want to change the knowledge of dealing with some medicine to better fit our paradigms in life and health.  Snake spirits in the body, to the Indian, was something brought on by animal spirits, not necessarily venom.  This is what I am referring to when I refer to the “Occam’s razor” effect in herbal medicine evolution.  When we look at the effects due to a poisonous snake bite, and relate this to the use of the same plant the Indians used to treat with, placing it into our perspective of reality, we completely rewrite the logic, make it fit our interpretation of health and treating and illness, and then modify this belief time and time again slightly to make it better fit our newest and most recent paradigm on how and why a plant might be working.  With time, we modify a metaphysical belief into something that is more physical and chemical based.  The most modern takes on this same argument result in a desciption of pharmacological effects upon a particular tissue, cell or enzyme in the body, involving complex proteins, enzyme systems and even DNA and RNA–the Occam’s razor effect in full force.

As examples, that is how we took the black snakeroot and made it into a uterine cure for uterine cramping, or the copperhead spirit treatment of scullcap and paralleled it with Porta’s phytognomics interpretations of the same plant and in turn decided that this plant worked on seizures because they were a result of the snakebite, nothing pertaining to animal spirit invasion concepts.  Likewise, the symbolism of the medicine prayer stick is made by many, added to the object in the form of feathers, line drawings, spiritual essences and such, but perhaps only added in as much detail as the carver of the Ram’s Head medicine stick that was used in the early 1900s was provided with its healing powers.  It is the powers of the maker and user of that object that makes it work, not necessarily to physical objects that are used to make it an effective remedy.

With the medical stick I have reviewed here, even though this object may have been produced some time between 1865 or 1880, upwards to 1930 or even 1940, there is enough evidence in its depictions to tell me that the philosophy underlying its form is a fairly complex rendering of old and recent cultural traditions, with little of the influences we see today being generated by idealized western European derived readings of the prayer stick.  The symbolism was understandable, and with a “cleaning of the object” (physically and metaphysically), the map and bison that were revealed, along with everything else, made that object work as a clue to past knowledge.  In the end, all five senses, plus one perhaps, had to be incorporated into interpreting the symbols, shape and form.   Even after 15 or 20 years of not seeing it, its meaning only took a short while to become clear, once all the necessary pre-medcical research was done in the field of Native American/American Indian philosophy and history of medicine.

I have had nearly 30 years now to work on the meaning of this medicine or prayer stick.   This is an object that provides a lot more insight into the philosophy of local Native American traditions for New York.  This stick is certainly not an archaic or considerably old and even antique relic object from the past, nor is it a simplified and modernized as all the healing and ceremonial objects currently popularized by the post-modern era Native American medicine movement (1960 forward).

An Interpretation

The individual who produced this object had a very detailed knowledge of the traditions and philosophy, and could have generated it from scratch on his or her own, but probably generated this object as a result of reflecting upon past elders’ traditions and philosophies.  It is for this reason that I consider this to be a fairly unique research object, one which fills in the gap between very traditional and original Native American philosophy and the more recently produced conflagrations of modern Native Americanism now out there, produced by semi- or complete Native American philosophers.  If the original culture that first conceived of it still existed today, that culture rightfully should probably get this object back (which is still possible I think), and in accordance with the new international laws and policies out there regarding sacred objects.

Either consciously and philosophically, or subconsciously and unknowingly, the artist of this stick who carved the four symbols carved in one on top of the other probably knew about their meaning and order–Creator (God, Universe)-Shaman (communicator and stargazer)-People (Families/Society, connections within or between the shaman and society)-Physical World (physical world, materialism and connection to its realms of existence).  This individual had unknowingly provided us with some additional details about how to make the best use of this object, and the order of the spiritual meaning that went into producing its content.

The fifth design on this object is very Paracelsian in nature, to use a European parallel of this search of the fifth element; it represents the metaphysical world involving the prior four lvels combined into a process–praying to the earth.  This is in a separate part of the handle and placed very well relative to the eye of the shaman using it.  This means it has has a separate kind of application, such as blessing the crops, the forest, the fields, the animals in the woods, the fish in the streams, etc.  Notice how it is placed lower on the stick and there perhaps might also have some more physical meanings attached to its uses.   To its right is the lower end of the map of the great plains or bison area, level with where the bison’s head would be (its rump is above this symbol), or is possibly looking down onto (as the white buffalo in the metaphysical world).

Between the four symbols and the fifth nature prayer symbol is the map to the people and their living environment, which itself is stratified into a “holy place” so to speak, where the shaman’s place is located across a stream, uphill from the peoples’ main place of stay, and uphill some more from the separated leader’s place of meetings and consultation; this latter place could also be associated with ceremonial activities. Reflecting back upon some work I did trying to make sense of the Moravian Missions map of Shekomeko, NY, there is this same separation of the Native leaders from the people, from the main mission’s buildings in the map produced by one of the leaders who visited this site in 1745.

(See Moravian Missions section for more on this story)

So even though there are these differences between cultures in Mahican versus non-Mahican, and Iroquois vs. non-Iroquois some portions of their distinct philosophies are shared; alternatively, this parallel could be another effect of the assimilation process and the merging of Native American cultures taking place in missionary settings.  In the case of Shekomeko, Algonkins from across the river were residing and interacting a lot with Mahicans and several other small tribes residing along the New York-Connecticut border.   This medicine club does have similar possibilities for this cross cultural type of influence, between Indians and between Christians and Indians, due to the possibility it was produced by someone residing in a Native American federally-established reservation setting.

Another important feature of the medicine stick are the long trails that lead into the mountains.  These tell the user of the stick, and perhaps other people, where to engage in your personal ceremony–“to be one with the Creator’ so to speak, or to seek out your messages, etc.   This is very much a northern North American tradition, again suggesting links to the Great Lakes region eastward–those communities interacting with the forest and the local waters.   There may also be some hunting-related meaning for these trails as well, or clues to how to make your way through the high elevation regions with hard to climb rock-ridden areas typical of most mountain and even small mountain ranges.  The rear of the buffalo sticking out and back at your from the east in interesting.  Since the animal is a physical object, its placement so close to the tip of the stick or the symbolic end of these trails when heading east suggest that is very unlikely to be the meaning for these routes that are portrayed.   Spiritual world is expressed at the top of this object, and physical world by the base of its shaft or handle.  The bison that remained in past times were once in New York; they are there no more by the time the late 1700s came around.

[image, NY hx series]

Also note how, due to the burling and small rootlet protuberances, the most sacred part at its top is full of symbols of animal spirits, particularly crows, but also bisons, etc.–they are there for a reason.

The reddish and purple lines down below, have some for the stream, some for the butt of a bison and perhaps other animals.  These are placed closer to the middle of the stick, adjacent to the environmental prayer symbol.

There is a spattering of black spots around the handle, as if placed there by dipping your hands in a dye solution and spraying the shaft or handle portion with the dye from the tips of your fingers.   This pointillism appears between the streams leading to the tribal setting entrance, and in and around the Bison’s living domain.

All of the burly parts or knots along the handle or shaft were from old branches.  These too even have some reason attached to them based on their positions.  The flow of the stream, the entrance to the tribal setting passing through the two animal spirits portrayed, either turtle or beaver, are due to this feature and represent something as well.

If this animal greeting you on your way into the living space is the turtle, then the general myth of Turtle Island and the creation of the earth is being portrayed, for people who lived on buffalo in the summer and resided near the forests during the winter.  If it is the beaver, then the people being portray are New Yorkers and Canadians and other beaver-dependent cultures in descent.

But the bison presence suggests western New York, eastern Ohio, (but maybe really old-time western New York bison habitats before colonization as well.)  This suggests either very old world New York ecology or colonized New York-Ohio ecology (when was the last bison killed in western NY, early 1800s?).  So perhaps this stick’s design has further western origins of its symbols and their messages.  Since it is Iroquois-like in nature, this suggest it came from a place where Iroquois were living near Ohio, perhaps even with Northern Great Plains Indians, or those of Canadian origin, whose philosophies might also fit this item.  This also ties back in with the notes made by Maximilian on such ceremonial objects briefly mentioned above.

Personalizing the Object

To personalize this method of producing the prayer stick, you do this by choosing your animal spirit-object association by interpreting the physical form of the object being searched form or decided upon for use in producing this kind of ceremonial object.  In other words, assume you are walking along a stream edge or sandy shoreline place where the tree roots are exposed, and you see a piece of old tree, of the right type and in the right form relative to lack of decay, as well as too much life, seemingly ready to be collected for the use you have in mind.  The personality of that object should become more apparent as you look at it.  There should be some sort of message portrayed in its form–evident in the shape of its roots and adventitiousness, the face or silhouette of some  animal spirit.

The only parts of this stick that are purposeful and repeated from one object to the next are the four symbols, the fifth symbol, the presence of a map with people’s places and dwellings, the environment, and places you need to be able to recollect or know (the trails leading into the mountains for example).    The first five symbols are static, the rest is more personal, the last part very personal, almost hidden.

Colors are the best way to portray individuality once the shape and form are decided.  Your colors can come from industrial sources, like the traditional paints used today.  But this stick possibly had that option, but its artist instead used resin to produce the colors, and dyes that could penetrate the wood and not change color too quickly.  The red river is red due to some unidentified dye or pigment, and is protected by a resin that was plant based–like a lacquer or shellac (Rhus derived) or some sort of artist’s traditional copal or dammar (see the Mayan versions of these for example).  The very small black spots sprayed onto the stick by fingerstips are possibly of some metal based dye or maybe a very effective complex tannin–like that from oak.  Some Indian spiritual leaders are earth-based in their traditions, in touch with the minerals, gems, etc.,  These kinds of people would use the natural metals, mineral and salts, or even crystals and gems and crystal/gem powders to produce their artistry and add color to their symbols.

Those very water based might chose stable plant pigments extractable in water, like the dyes of some wild docks and apocynum stems. (however, these are a bit more chemically complex to manipulate, using mordants).  Standard carotenoids and flavonoids are very unstable in light; complex tannins are less unstable; minerals and inorganic dyes are most stable.    Berry pigments should be tested, since many of these are due to flavonoids that will brown with time.  I tested a number phytopigments about 30 years ago on a walking stick I had, and found that (if you have the time and patience, see a dye book for more on this)

  • hydrastinine/berberine blends are very stable [the berberine or benzylisoquinoline (biq) alkaloids are reviewed extensively elsewhere]; these alkaloids come in numerous colors and are found in ranunculaceae/ranunculales, berberidaceae, papaveraceae latex (chelidonium and sanguinaria), and some fo the chemotaxonomic allies of the this part of the plant world, like the biq-producing non-Magnolia Subclass allies, like xanthoxylum.
  • complex tannins (dark brown to black) of  trees like oak, witchhazel, etc, not the flavo-tannins of herbs we often hear about
  • pokeweed berry’s color are fairly stable [anthraquinones], suggesting other anthraquinones (sp?) may be the same
  • chlorophyll green is unstable and browns the fastest
  • Carotenoids are often very unstable; however, perhaps dark orange chantrelle mushroom colors are stable
  • Rosaceae flavonoids, even the darker ones are unstable without the right mordants–i.e. raspberry and black cherry

We can try to apply the color then to the medical theme by chosing pigments with medicinal values or related to plants with medicinal values.  With regard to using such a method for choosing your colors, metal-related colors and berberine alkaloid pigments are very interesting due to the philosophy in mind.  The berberine or  benzylisoquinoline (biq) alkaloids in particular have very interesting medicinal values with many of these uses directly related to disease types, organ systems and clinical effects.   For biqs, consider for a moment the following:

  • sanguinarine–red; Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadense)–anti-bacterial/fungal, anticancer
  • chelidonine–orange-yellow; Celandine Poppy (Chelidonium majus)–antibacterial, etc.
  • coptisine–light yellow; Goldthread (Coptis sp.)–numerous uses
  • berberine–yellow; Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)–numerous uses
  • hydrastine-gold; goldenseal (Hydrastis canadense)–numerous uses; including special use due to production of hydrastinine

The hydrastine gold color of goldenseal is unstable, which adds an effect that few if any really know about I reckon (this is based on a personal discovery back in the late 1980s).  When the hydrastine oxidizes into hydrastinine it takes on a colorless form that glows under ultraviolet.    One can “paint” a handle yellow, and then “etch” into it a series of hydrastinine lines, that under the right lighting are seen as a new symbol or form of the object.  To accomplish this sort of nighttime shamanic use for a plant pigment, you first have to try to purify the yellow color of goldenseal somewhat (I used ethanol:acetic acid, 9:1 or 9.5:1 ratio for the solvent in a column separator); one could find a hydrastine rich root powder that is very gold and try it alone, by spreading out the powdered root onto a sheet, in an airless place (that powder will blow away very easily) and then overly exposing it to sunlight until it browns out.  The hydrastinine-rich powder naturally bears the hydrastinine produced by excess sun rays; the older the powder and the more exposed it is to air and light it is, and in turn the more of a mix of the two pigments hydrastine and hydrastinine you end up with.  That which has more hydrastinine will be more reactive to shortwave UV, due to amounts and concentration of hydrastinine.  The purest form should reflect and nearly glow a rich sky blue color when damp with the ethanol:acetic acid mix.  Painted on and absorbed by the wood, it should do the same, even if dry, so long as the concentration in the wood is high enough.  Incidentally, it is the chemical structure of hydrastine that is responsible for this, so this doesn’t work so well with other yellow pigments from these plants, such as Barberry (berberine) and Coptis (coptisine).


In essence, one’s entire life could be made to be told by this very personal object.  You are told where to live, hunt, fish, gather your foods, engage in the community sweat lodge, or take a personal retreat into the mountains.

This ceremonial object is very different from the other prayer stick that accompanied it at Captain Ahab(?)’s antique store in Port Jefferson, NY, back in 1982 when I first saw it as some sort of happenstance, as the storkeeper was palcing in his window for the first time.  The stick accompanying it was one with a mountain ram’s head, bearing red horns and a deep purplish-black head carved into the upper end.  There were no symbols whatsoever painted or carved along the shaft of this ceremonial piece, which sold for almost twice the amount of the first Iroquois piece I reviewed.  The ram’s head symbolized the animal spirit that individual was related to.  This medicine piece was carved out of a single piece of wood, again with the root form determining the animal spirit that was felt to be potentially possessed and produced with the prayer stick it could be carved into.

So we do get an insight into how the prayer sticks are developed and philosophized–the picker of the tree or shrub base looks into the object, begins to imaging the spirits possessed within it based upon it shape and form, and perhaps original location or habitat, and then makes it into what it is.  Why were there no symbols were on the ram’s head stick shaft?  This may be because the wood lacked knots once it was smoothed out–no map could be imagined in the piece.  So the method of properly preparing these items in some sacred fashion is also revealed to us by knowing this part of this Iroquois prayer’s stick history.

For a related page, see