Medicine Cards – Sams and Carson

Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals
Jamie Sams and David Carson
St. Martin’s Press, 1999
240 pages plus cards

Note: This review primarily covers the book itself, since the book is necessary for deciphering the meaning of the cards as the authors created them.

Now I know why people warned me about this book.

This is one of the worst cases of cultural appropriation I’ve seen yet. From the overuse of “Medicine” and “Great Spirit” to the assertion that this is genuine Native American spirituality, the whole book is one big hyperromanticization of the “Noble Savage”. This is the idea that all Native Americans were and are still completely entwined with nature in everything they do, and everything is mystical and amazing and there’s of course NO problem whatsoever and everything is hunky-dorey (just ignore the problems on the reservations and in the U.S. legislature, folks!)

One of my biggest problems is that the authors keep referring to “Native American” this and that. However, they’re not specific about what tribe they’re talking about. On page 221, where the bios are, the authors have between them (or so they say) Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, Seneca, Mayan, Aztec and Choctaw learning and/or influence. Well, that’s a pretty wide variety of individual cultures there, not to mention the subdivisions within each of those tribes! I don’t believe I saw one single instance in the entire book where they referred to a specific tribe. There is no such thing as “Native American” anything–each tribe is a separate culture, not one big homogenized mass.

Of course, not only is the book lacking in-text citations, there’s not even a bibliography. How are we supposed to know where they’re getting their information? Just saying that “I learned it from so-and-so” isn’t good enough.

Additionally, there’s no indication that any of the tribes whose beliefs the authors are supposedly writing about are actually benefitting from the book and deck. Plastic shamanism as its best.

Feel free to read on for some specific examples….

“Every person has nine power or totem animals” (18)

Of course, they don’t say where they got this piece of rather generalized information.

Page 23 has a bunch of questionable mythology about how Native women are all incredibly intuitive and only men have egos.

p. 27 has a *Druidic* card layout (or so they say). What is this doing in a book that’s supposedly on “Native American totemism”?

“Thoth, the Atlantian who later returned as Hermes” (61)

I think that speaks for itself.

“Long ago, in tribal law…” (69)

Which tribe?

“This operation [of always paying for magical servies] is known as the law of the Lynx people, and is practiced by Native American. Gypsy, Sufi, and Egyptian cultures, among others. (109-110)

I’d say where they’re getting their information, but it wouldn’t be polite.

“All of our petroglyphs speak of the Motherland, Mu, and the disaster that brought the red race to North America…” (201)

Again, going to let this speak for itself.

I think you get the picture.

I do have to say that within the individual entries on different animals there are some motes of really good information. However, they’re buried in so much questionable material that I had to stop myself from throwing this book across the room a number of times. If you can swallow pseudo-Native garbage, go for it. Otherwise, avoid.

One plastic-coated pawprint out of five.

Want to buy this book/deck?



  1. John Jamison said,

    May 20, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    I’ve always thought it only fair to review reviewers. I’d like to know what the credentials of this reviewer are, for example. Or that she spent any time researching, looking for answers to the questions she posed, or if she just spent a little lazy time taking potshots. Or that they actually used the book in the way it is intended. There certainly are pretenders out there, who write books without any substantial background. Over a dozen years of using this work, I have found it provides a dead on tool for working with guidance from nature.

    So, again, I have to wonder if this Lupabitch is just living up to her name.

  2. lupabitch said,

    May 20, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    A reviewer is an individual person, brings hir background to each reading, and takes away what s/he finds useful. My background is in neopaganism, Chaos magic, and with an emphasis on good scholarship as well as practical information. You had a good experience with this particular resource, while I didn’t.

    My main issue with the system is that the research is shoddy, and that the authors appropriate elements of various Native American cultures, mix it with New Age material, and present it as authentic “Native American spirituality”. In the former case, I and many other pagans have grown sick of poorly researched material. Yes, spirituality is a personal path, but when you have authors advocating things that are factually inaccurate, not only does it perpetuate misinformation, but it also contributes to the mainstream seeing the esoteric as inherently flaky. In the latter case, Google “plastic shamanism” and you’ll find out why this sort of book hurts indigenous people.

    As to my credentials, I’ve been a pagan and magician for a little over a decade, and a voracious reader for most of my life. I do some writing of my own, and the practice of magic, to include various forms of animal magic, is a central part of my daily life.

    And that’s what I bring to the table here. Your mileage may vary.

  3. Ravynwolf said,

    September 7, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Good review.

    I actually own this book and cards, and I’ll be the first to tell you I have some major issues with it. Many of the same ones you citied. However, if you get past some of the really wonky stuff, there are a few pearls of wisdom in the animal entries themselves.

    What I do like, though, are the cards. They are very well done, seem to capture a lot of the energy of the animal they represent, and besides, who dosn’t like meditating on prairie chicken!

  4. Lora said,

    January 10, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! My mother swears by this book, and it’s actually one of the main reasons I’m pagan today, but…it’s still complete crap. I tried to like them, really I did. I just…couldn’t. Even when I was 8 and tried to read it I still found some stuff that make me go “…” *cough* Hummingbird *cough*. The only way I was able to get the cards to work is by completely disregarding the book, and using whatever spread system came to my head at the time. Writing down and researching the animals I drew seemed to work well. The cards are nice on their own, but the book makes me want to hurt things.

  5. Kevin said,

    August 14, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    Right-Wing Pagans. Never knew there was such a thing. You crack me up.

    Lora says it best in her comment: “The only way I was able to get the cards to work is by completely disregarding the book, and using whatever spread system came to my head at the time.” Which is exactly what the book encourages one to do.

    There is no claim made in the book that it adheres to any one tribe, or any one teaching. The cards are based on the animals, their attributes and power as teachers. The book is merely a guide. The spreads they include are mere suggestions.

    It is a wonderful resource for people who are less “perfectly Pagan” than you claim to be be, as an introduction to a realm many have never considered. If you are too narrow-minded to see the benefits of this work, or too stymied by your own self-importance to understand that Animal Medicine can not be claimed by any particular group/tribe/religion/ — that’s just sad.

    You expect cited sources for comments like: “Every person has nine power or totem animals.”


    If you disagree with this statement, fine. But for a self-proclaimed Pagan to demand documentation, citation and bibliography for a belief system seems like quite a stretch to me.

    Early Pagans believed the Sun was a chariot of fire. Any cited proof? Many Pagan beliefs to this day are centered around pre bronze-age myths (just like Christianity). All based on Belief, tradition and oral history.

    Medicine Cards is a way for people to connect with the animal energy that surrounds them. How is that a bad thing? You reviewed it as though it is a textbook or a bible. It is neither, and doesn’t claim to be.

    Get over yourselves.

  6. Ninshubur said,

    August 20, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    In the Medicine Cards, Sams and Carson offer teachings from animal medicine bringing together what they have learned from the animal kingdom and their teachers through out the years. The Authors have taken teachings from the Lakota, Aztec, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Cherokee and other tribes traditions to show us the doorway of understanding ones self with our connection to Mother Earth and have made no great secret of that cultural melting pot – which is the world we live in.

    I’ve been exploring my medicine cards ever since the 1988 edition which was just 44 animals but then 8 more were added in the 1999 edition so I replaced my much worn deck and yes I’ve made good use of the nine blank cards to add my own extra animals. The book Medicine Cards: The discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals reveals the gift of each animal and how that gift may be impacting in your life – contrary or reversed meanings included. I’ve never had a problem with that. Like tarot or any other medium it’s up to the reader to explore the inherent symbolism on an inner level and take that deeper, or not. The perceived shortfalls some may find shouldn’t detract from that progress. If anything it should encourage the development of your own interpretations. The artwork is impressive, the card stock is of good quality with an introductory book of interpretations better than the average LWB. In other words a good deck to have in your collection and a great for beginners. The cards are YOUR working tool not the other way around. For an accurate reading, bypass ego, it has no place there.

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