Talking Sticks

Malcolm’s personalised Talking Sticks
– the story behind their creation

The story began with our interest in Native American culture, which made a big impression on both of us, especially the native tribes’ love and respect of Nature and their belief that everything is connected to everything else.  That inspired us to build our own Tipi here at Chater Valley (here’s a short time lapse video showing how we erected it ), which Lesley uses for her therapy work and for workshops and Retreats.

It was rewarding if time consuming being able to make our own tipi poles collected on the land here at Chater Valley. We selected the correct length poles – about 26 feet – cut them, used a traditional drawknife to peel off the bark, before leaving them to season for six months. We then removed all the knots before sanding the poles carefully to ensure any rain that made its way inside the Tipi would run smoothly down the pole and out onto the ground. Each Tipi pole took several hours to make but there was something ritualistic in the process. The Sioux ceremonial Tipi canvas cover was supplied by Nomadic Tipis in Oregon, America, who have been making Tipisfor nearly 50 years so they know what they’re doing.

Once our Tipi was erected we began splitting wood, stacking wood, tending fire, warming water, cooking, cleaning, arranging. And we began to realise that we were making the same moves, gestures and motions that were made hundreds of years ago by another culture. The more we learned, the more our respect for Nature and animals grew. When it came to choosing the adornments to furnish our Tipi, we bought some items from Native crafts people, but we felt we should also make some of them ourselves, but allowing their design to be influenced by Native American culture and beliefs.

One thing led to another, and before long, Lesley was making her own drums and I was making personalised Talking Sticks for friends and family. The following words attempt to describe how my Talking Sticks come in being.

First, I should say that whilst I call them “Talking Sticks”, they can also be referred to as “Journey” or “Healing Sticks”. One of the recipients of my Sticks even called it a “Wand”. The name doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they provide the Keeper of the Stick, with what they are looking for.

The crafting of each Stick usually begins with a series of questions put to the intended Keeper to try to identify what it is they intend to use the Stick for and “who they are”, so that the Stick can be really personalised to them. Questions usually include – What trees do you love and why? Month and day of your birth? Colours and flowers that have a special significance for you? Maybe there are stones and crystals you really like? What is your totem animal (if you have one)? This usually starts a conversation which helps to unearth the “theme” for the overall design of the Stick. Such themes have included the “Sensitive Hunter“, “Ruitheam nan Gràs” (Celtic for Rhythm of Grace); “Protector of the Spirit“; The “Power of Humility” and  ‘Rebirth of the Heart“.

I always try to keep in mind that my Sticks exist to help the intended Keeper with what I call “naturing the soul” – to get closer or reconnected to their authentic self. It’s amazing how many people lose their way in this modern world.

My Talking Sticks serve to act as reminders to always be true to your authentic self, and are meant to support the native tribes’  notion that everything is connected to everything else. Whilst inspired by the wisdom of Native American traditions, there are also influences from other cultures and beliefs which just meld together, fused by the creative input I try to apply in the crafting and evolution of each Stick.

I cannot fully explain how the eventual design of the Stick comes to be – it’s something of an alchemical, perhaps magical process, with the adornments finding their innate connections and organic balance. It begin with the choice of wood. Then the crafting and sanding to follow the natural grain, determines the eventual shape. This initial ‘working with the wood’ may influence the chosen theme for the Talking Stick, but my ongoing discussions with the intended Keeper will decide on that theme, which will be very much personalised to them and their needs.

Whilst my Talking Stick designs have been influenced by indigenous tribes I am not a Native American, and l have tried to sensitively adapt the design & use of the original Native tribe Talking Stick to something that is meaningful to me, my friends, and to the people who ask me to make one for them. That is not to say these Talking Sticks cannot be used in the traditional way – to call an important meeting with only the holder of the Stick speaking from the heart at any one time –  but it is primarily intended to help the Keeper nurture and nature their authentic self which is why they can be looked upon as much as “Healing” or “Journey Sticks”.

The evolution of each Stick means that each one is one of a kind. The woods l use are either native or exotic woods.  On occasions, I have joined two pieces of different woods to realise the combined benefits desired by the Keeper. I have found that when crafting and smoothing the woods, I do not need to apply any special finishes to bring out their natural beauty. So nothing gets in the way of feeling the natural texture of the wood, and when the Talking Stick is used for the first time, the natural oils pass from the Keeper to the surface of the wood, completing the personalisation of the stick to them.

Native American teachings speak wisely of trees as ‘The Standing People’, and of the special lessons and gifts each Standing Person has to give humankind, so the choice of wood used in the making of the Stick is very important. Whilst colour, design and the overall look is always a unique combination, I always urge the intended Keeper to consider how they wish to use their Talking Stick. Some leave the choice of wood to me, and I try to be guided by the symbolism and meaning generally associated with each wood so that it carefully matches their aspirations and dreams.

Here are some of the specific meanings of the “Standing People” as spoken by the First Nation tribes. White Pine is the Peace Tree, Birch symbolises truth, Evergreens represent the continued growth of all things. Cedar is associated with cleansing. Aspen is the symbol for seeing clearly since there are many eye shapes on the truth. Maple represents gentleness. Elm is used for wisdom; Mountain Ash for protection; Oak for strength; Cherry for expression, high emotion, or love. Fruit woods are for abundance and Walnut or Pecan for gathering of energy or beginning new projects. I have also used Driftwood which is an expression of freedom, and 3,000 year old Bog Oak which comes with deep memories and strong connections to the immensity of times gone by. The centuries move on, wars may have been won and lost, but these marvellous Oak pieces can be reborn to show their timeless beauty and spirit. Ultimately the choice of wood is a personal one for the intended Keeper to make. For my part, l endeavour to rely on ethical sources to supply the favoured wood if it’s not possible to source here on our farm, which l do when l can.

The “adornments” individually chosen for each stick all have their meaning, and come together to create the theme for each personalised stick. All the Sticks have at least one feather attached. This “Answering Feather” was traditionally taken from a Bald Eagle, which represents high ideals, truth and the freedom that comes from speaking total truth to the best of one’s ability. The Eagle is almost universally considered by both Native Americans and Aboriginal people in Canada, to be the ruler of the Sky with a connection to the creator.

It’s not always possible to source Eagle feathers, although I have used naturally-moulted feathers from Raptors that live here on (or near to) our farm including the beautiful Red Kite, Buzzard, and the fastest bird on the planet, Peregrine Falcon. Other bird feathers have come from the Wild Turkey, the Peace Eagle of the south, which brings peaceful attitudes as well as the give and take necessary in successful completion of disputes. In the Tribe that sees the Owl as good medicine, the Owl feather may also be used to stop deception from entering the Sacred Space of the Council. It is always good to consider long and hard what might be a meaningful bird feather for the intended Keeper.

Feathers, animal skins & hairs were traditionally the most frequent adornments to Native american Talking Sticks, and these were intended to bring the abilities, talents, gifts and medicine of those creatures to the holder in a variety of ways. Buffalo would have been chosen to bring abundance; Elk for physical fitness and stamina; Deer for gentleness; Rabbit for sensitivity and its ability to listen; hair from a Horse’s tail or mane was associated with perseverance and added connection to the earth and to the spirits of the wind. The themes chosen for the Talking Sticks l make guide the choice of these adornments, so the Stick can be seen as a tool that teaches each of us to honour the Sacred Point of View of every living creature.

Colours have their special meaning too. In the Lakotah tradition, Red is for life, Yellow is for knowledge, Blue is for prayer and wisdom, White is for spirit, Purple is for healing, Orange is for feeling kinship with all living things, and Black is for clarity and focus. I believe there is great symbolism in adding coloured beads or stones that emulate the four colours of the Medicine Wheel – Red, Black, Yellow and White – representing the four cardinal directions of South, West, East and North, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth and Spirit Tree – all of which symbolise dimensions and the cycle of life. Although interpretations of the significance of the Wheel are diverse, they provide an interesting and personally meaningful template for thinking about the need for harmony and balance, both within ourselves and with all creatures and groups on earth. It also provides a reminder that change is inevitable, that life is a development process, and that seeking wholeness is a worthy goal.

I find that beads and cord from natural materials, semi-precious stones and crystals make ideal partners in the making of my personalised Talking Sticks; they further allow me to individualise the Stick to the intended Keeper and their chosen theme, and to emphasise the symbolism against which the Stick has been crafted.

For many people, their birth stone has particular significance; this is a helpful place to start. l have also sourced rare and unusual stones such as meteorites to represent the vastness of our Universe and the notion that everything is connected to everything else. I have used Amber and its younger cousin Copal, which are not stones at all but fossilised resins, which are often associated with balancing the emotions, clearing and mind and releasing negative energy. Jade, Onyx, Agate, Turquoise, Opals, Jasper and even Sea Glass all have their place – it depends on the chosen theme. 

There are no limits to what can be embraced within the design of a personalised Talking Stick; the only limits are in our minds.

If we refer back to tradition, the First Nation people believed whoever holds the Talking Stick has within their hands the Sacred Power of Words:

“He should not forget that he carries within him a sacred spark of the Great Spirit, and therefore he is also sacred. If he feels he cannot honour the Talking Stick with his words, he should refrain from speaking so he will not dishonour himself. When he is again in control of his words, the stick will be returned to him.”

So if you are present at a ceremony, or you initiate a meeting that involves a Talking Stick, please try to appreciate the spirituality, history and tradition that has gone into its creation, and the significance of you being included in a meeting so heavy infused with tradition.