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Totems: Elk

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


Here in the high country, the dance of life continues unhindered by the mores of your world. I am the Alpha Elk, the Wise One of my herd. I call my mate to me for primordial passion that overtakes us. For that is the continuation of all that is truly wild, free and instinctual. In the moment of conception, we are as we were created: healthy, strong, bristling with lust and natural knowing. Do not try to tame us. You would lose the gift of our significance.

It was late July, 1983. I had spent the entire day driving in the Rockies north of Denver. My cousin Valerie was sound asleep beside me. I rounded a curve and screeched to a halt on the mountain road. In a magnificent spectacle, two bull elks were bellowing loudly, as they got ready to lock antlers. Eyes were cloudy with testosterone, lust and desire for combat. Every muscle tensed and quivered. I shook Val (as though anyone could sleep through the deafening sound) and turned the motor off. We weren’t going anywhere. Fascinated, we sat in the proverbial front row, while the earth shook, and two male elks battled for supremacy. So intense was their rut, (mating impulse) they paid no attention to us, pounding antlers together, wrestling until one pushed the other back in a kind of dance. In Native tradition, elk is a dancer. Elk teeth decorated clothing for long life. The Shawnee named elk wapiti (white) for the color of their rump patch.

There are periods in everyone’s life when stress mounts higher and higher no matter what one does to alter the pattern. A loved one may be incapacitated from age or illness and you are thrown into extreme caretaking. Perhaps you’ve been laid off from your job, are experiencing change, financial worry, and trying to find a new job among so many. A serious health diagnosis or long-term illness creates an intense journey. Moving, marriage or divorce, a child leaving home for school or their own marriage can all produce long-term effects and be a strain on one’s physical, mental and emotional faculties. This is the time to investigate the qualities of elk to get you through. You need elk medicine to outlast the tough times. Climbing steep, high country trails to escape the jaws of cougar, bear and wolf, elk’s stamina bests them in the long run. Elk has to act fast to survive, by being highly sensitive and vigilant. Wapiti used to roam over the whole US, even eastern states. Herds are now relegated to mountain woodlands out West.

Elk has certainly been a totem for me to call upon the last few years. As my medicine dog, Thunder has gotten older he has had to go out at night, first once, then twice or more a night. The spirit is so willing, but the flesh suffers, dragging itself out of bed on hearing the call. In order to survive sleep deprivation over that length of time, I have had to do the long dance of elk, begging for its stamina to maintain myself. This is the epitome of elk medicine. I pace myself for the long haul, just like elk. Elk totem teaches me to prioritize. I have to decide when to catch some sleep, how to replenish, what is most important to do, when is the prime time in which to do it, and mostly, what can I ignore or do later. Elk as a power animal comes to me in this difficult time because despite the tremendous effort, I want Thunder to be the one to decide when to transition. I’ve also been asking elk to help me with a book-publishing project. Since it’s taking longer than I ever anticipated, I get impatient. I need elk’s sense of timing to know when to go from expansion to delivery. If you are beginning a long-term project, elk medicine can keep you from burning out. Sometimes, the key you need comes while you are in a state of relaxation. Ask for help when you need it, especially your sister-friends if you are female, and your brother-friends, if male.

Elk are members of the deer family, growing new antlers each year. They are shed in winter after the fall rut is over. The size of antlers increases with age and virility, up to peak. They can span 47". Large antlers advertise healthy genes to females. An elk with 12 tines is a Royal Stag; 14+, an Imperial. Antlers are made of bone, covered with soft, blood-rich velvet that nourishes the growing antlers. A rub is the velvet scraping against a tree after the antlers are mature. Antlers are shed in winter. Thunder takes velvet antler medicine for mobility. Antlers are significant in elk medicine for they symbolize the antennae that allow us to sense the finer vibrations, picking up subtle energies. For the Celts, the Algiz rune, based on the name of elk represents psychic protection. Folks with elk totem seek ways to fine-tune the world, make it a better, more egalitarian society. A person with this totem who is trying to cultivate heightened perception, may want to eliminate stimulants like caffeine or garlic from the diet; also heavy meats to tone down aggression, especially if the meat contains hormones. Eat more vegetables and turn down the noise. An elk’s hearing and sight are also acute.

Female cows form harems. Bulls rut in autumn after having gathered all summer with other males. Loud bugling announces their serious intent to win the harem by fighting, sometimes to the death. Females are only fertile for twelve to fifteen hours. However, if they do not successfully mate, estrus returns three weeks later, for another chance. A single calf is born in spring weighing in at over thirty pounds. Like fawns, their coat is dappled to protect them in dense vegetation. Elk cows and women with this power animal are very protective mothers. One would be wise not to get in their way, or appear as a threat to their offspring. Within female ranks, there is a hierarchy. Females have a matriarch, the alpha cow, who leads them to good foraging and who knows the paths between winter and summer grounds. The other females walk in single file behind the matriarch, themselves jockeying for position and dominance. Sometimes, females will rise on hind legs and box, because higher-ranking cows get perks, like the best food and resting sites. A girl with elk as her totem will eventually assert herself with other female family members or schoolmates. One day she will stand up and prove herself. She must do this or suppress a desire to be authentic. It’s always a question of balance: too much is self-importance; too little, resentful timidity. Do you have to fight for your right to be? Do friends and family pigeon-hole you or do you feel free to expand and grow in your relationships?

Bulls also have a hierarchy. The largest body and antlers puts a bull at the top. If they aren’t rutting, challenges to the top bull are usually ritualized, like the ritualized behavior of men in competitive corporate settings. This behavior is a fight for individual standing in the group. Although the bull’s regal demeanor is sometimes posturing, in order to get a higher ranking in the pecking order, the teaching here is to be empowered. Two rival elk will approach each other with averted eyes, engage antlers and wrestle, twisting necks and pushing. And yet, after one animal backs up, they show no real submissiveness. It seems these displays to test dominance keep them in shape and clear the air. Men, can you express yourself and then go on with your life without needing to disparage your peers? Can you use aggression constructively? Because we’ve killed off many of elk’s natural predators, competition for winter forage is keen. It must be shared with deer and other grazers. During the rut males don’t eat much. If a bull elk has expended too much energy in the rut, he may not last through the winter. Female elk survive in much greater numbers than males.

Elk totem can help us balance the male and female within and without. Within ourselves, it’s a question of balance. Time with both sexes is necessary for balance and growth. In the elk world, males hang with males, and females stay together with the calves, except for mating time. In addition to balancing male-female energies, time alone and time with others lets us balance group support with individuality. I’ll bet you spend a certain amount of time and energy trying to figure out what the right amount of alone time is vs. being with others. Being alone gives one a chance to check in with oneself, deepen awareness and fine-tune the ability to observe and to listen. Being with others can teach one to cooperate, offer service, and learn about oneself through another’s reflection.

What do elks do all day? Most of the ten or twelve hours they are active are spent in meadows or swampy areas looking for food, eating, and then chewing the cud and resting. They have a four-chambered stomach that allows them to eat tougher vegetation in winter. They pace their nourishment (store fat) to survive lean times. If elk is in your life, prancing and breaking loose, consider whether you spend everything (energy, money) or save some for the inevitable low point in the cycle?

Sound is part of this totem’s medicine. I have an elk hide drum, harvested in a sacred way. It’s energy and substance is tougher than deer hide. It’s good for drumming and holding its heartbeat for a long time. Males express their sexuality through bugling. The matriarch communicates with high-pitched mews and chirps. Calves squeal and grunt. Any elk will bark an alarm if a predator is spotted and all will run. Elks are edgy. They stay alive through running. If you are a marathon runner, elk can help you pace yourself, and sprint when you need to. Dancers may also have this totem. People of the elk belong to the Long Snows Moon, (Nov 22–Dec 21). Often these folks join groups that work for the common good. If they can search for the buried treasure beneath their pain and belligerence, they may become great humanitarians.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a healer and writer for 35 years. As a minister, advocate and steward for the natural world, Cie lives and works shamanically, offering healing for animals and humans. For healing in person or by phone, training, or to purchase her book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com


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