Native American Tarot by Laura Tuan; Artwork by Sergio Tiselli
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

Even before I looked at the cards in this deck, I was predisposed to admire it because of the packaging. One shouldn't judge a deck by its cover, but this one is quite clever; the sides of the box are threaded with the American Indian design that also borders the card backs. The bold image of The Magician on the back complements The Moon, in all its mystery, which adorns the front. Even the selection of those particular cards seems meaningful, in terms of Native American spirituality, the masculine and feminine energies book-ending the deck, in some fashion.

The artwork on the cards didn't just impress me, it moved me. Some of the images are haunting and/or poignant and/or simply lovely. And they're often quite powerful. However, they don't always exemplify traditional tarot or even the descriptions. The Magician is described as a "shaman god" in the little white booklet (LWB), but he looks more like a warrior chieftain to me. The High Priestess cradles a baby, which is atypical of this virginal archetype. The Empress and Emperor each denote gender-based initiations and, taken as a unit, are even more potent than they are individually, which strikes me as apropos. 

The Hierophant is a medicine man with two brightly-colored masked acolytes, of sorts. He may perform his ritual outdoors, but is as rooted in tradition and passed-on lore as any priest.  The Lovers card (at top) shows what looked to me like a couple building sandcastles while a fertility goddess oversees the scene, encouraging a romance that will lead to procreation and new life. However, the LWB says that "The twins create the earth by moving the mud and nourish it with the plant of continuity." Twins aren't usually lovers, so the card should be renamed if the intention is so vastly different from the title. However, it's a powerful card--it literally seems to emit light from the glow of the twin suns that illuminate the scene below. The play of light upon the water literally reflects nature, the core of Native American spirituality.

Another card that is rather mysterious in nature is the Hanged Man, who pours water upon the earth from a painted vessel. No mention of this water or its meaning is to be found in the LWB, and the emphasis on the card is the tree itself (Wagachun, the two-faced tree). I find this image and the description somewhat mystifying--and not in a good way.

The Death card is one of my favorites--it depicts a shaman going on a transformative journey of the mind. Judgment continues the this passage with a vision of the Cosmic Buffalo, but the LWB doesn't note the connection. Actually, the LWB describes the Death card as "the Calendar" and focuses on various symbols of the passage of time. This description does not accurately encapsulate the card image.

For the most part, I can easily work with the Major Arcana, despite the disconnect between the LWB and the images. In fact, I find the different shades and nuances add to my readings, not detract or distract from them. The Minor Arcana have been greatly revisioned, however, and most readers whose card meanings are based on  Golden Dawn iconology might find themselves a bit lost.

The Native American Tarot Minor Arcana are primarily based on animals, akin to the Australian Animal Tarot and Ted Andrews' Animal Wise Tarot. Wands correspond to fire and objects, primarily magical tools like Calumet and Drum--and the Shipapu (medicine staff), which unfortunately is too linguistically similar to Buddy Hackett's Shapoopie for me to bring the appropriate reverence to the term. Cups are zodiacal and water animals, including Beaver and Snake and Swords are totemic animals and air, ie., birds. Pentacles are things of the earth, including elements and plants (Tobacco, Sunflower). These categories make "tarot sense" but there are some odd crossovers; Hawk, Crow, and Owl--all birds and therefore air-like--fall under the Cups aegis, and Fire and Water, as elements of the earth, are assigned to Pentacles. These aren't isolated inconsistencies. The Six of Swords, for example, is Turtle--a totem, yes, but also often seen as representative of Water, or even Earth (the slow but steady Aesop's Fable character).

The Cup and Sword Court Cards are animal-based, as well, but the even the Wands and Pentacles Court often contain animals. While Shell is the attribution for the Knave of Pentacles, the symbol shares space with what looks like a large rat.  This is not your Uncle Arthur's Page of Pentacles, for sure. I am unsure why the term Knave is used in connection with these particular Court Cards--Beaver (Cups), Coyote (Swords), and Dreamcatcher (Wands) are not really knaves, are they?

In addition to the usual 78 cards, Tuan includes two extras. These are our "Celestial Parents"--Father Sky and Mother Earth. These are the equivalent of deities in many Native American spiritual systems, but Mother Earth could easily have played Empress to Father Sky's Emperor. I am unsure why Tuan felt the need to differentiate them from the other 78 cards, except that she seems to place the Major Arcana within the circle of humanity, as opposed to the higher strata populated by these two divinities.

The LWB offers a two paragraph mishmash of information about various North American tribes and spirituality, then three sentence definitions of the Major Arcana and briefer interpretations for the Minors. A five card "Spread of Sacred Space for Spiritual Evolution" in the shape of a star is also provided. There's a degree of irony in that there are more words in the spread title than there are cards for the spread, as Native Americans are not known for their volubility.

This isn't the only irony. There is no one Native American spirituality, and the various tribes, customs, and specific totems and myths are all dumped into this deck with what appears to be a shallow understanding of all of these tribes. While I don't hold to the idea that no one but a Native American should create or work within a Native American framework, I do think respect for the culture you are claiming to focus on requires serious research and knowledge.

That said, I love the artwork in this deck. It's evocative, haunting, mysterious, and powerful. The colors are subtle--colorful, but not gaudy; the images finely wrought and sensitively done. Amazingly, the cards often transcend the LWB and occasionally weird attributions. When I do readings with this deck, I find they are similar enough to the RWS for me to draw upon that knowledge in interpretations, but also add something different that adds a new dimension or insight to the issue at hand. The Star card, for example, shows a beautiful woman with an arrow in her heart. This seemed odd to me, even after I read the explanation in the LWB--but then, during a reading, this particular detail provided a powerful personal message that no other Star card would have provided.

I recommend this deck to those who are interested in Native American spirituality, as well as collectors and fans of haunting, evocative art.

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

Native American Tarot by Laura Tuan; Artwork by Sergio Tiselli
Publisher: Lo Scarabeo
ISBN#: 0738705985

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI   X
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions X  
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                   X  
Smaller than standard                                            
Larger than standard                                                 

Images 2004 Lo Scarabeo
Review and page 2004 Diane Wilkes