Indian Fetishes

Southwest tribal miniature carvings
that some say are imbued with spirit forces

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Indian fetishes are hand-carved objects, which represent the spirits of animals or the forces of nature. From the earliest times in North America, the Indians have used fetishes in an effort to master the arbitrary and unpredictable forces beyond their control. The earliest fetishes are called Ahlashiwe or stone ancients by the Zunis. They were naturally formed stones that seemed to resemble people or animals, sometimes made more realistic with the features accentuated by a carver.

Zuni fetishes.
Zuni fetishes
showing the heartline and the offering bundle

They are considered more powerful and were formerly thought to be ancient animals or people turned to stone. All Southwestern tribes make and use fetishes. However, the Zuni people have developed a reputation for being the most skillful in carving elaborate fetishes, which are used in their religious rituals and are an integral part of their personal lives.

Fetishes may be used in many ways, either by the individual or by the whole tribe: for good luck in the hunt, initiation into a society, the diagnosis or curing of illness, fertility and propagation purposes, and/or for personal protection.

Zunis believe that animals, as well as inanimate objects and the forces of nature, have a spirit force, which can either help or hurt man. It is believed that the carved animal fetishes host that spiritual force and, if treated properly, will help their owners to overcome the problems facing them.

According to Zuni tradition, the guardian animals of the six directions are intrinsically involved in the kiva rites:

the mountain lion > north
the bear > west
the badger > south
the eagle > the sky (up)
the mole > underground (down)
the wolf > east

Exactly how fetishes are used in the kiva is known only to those initiated into the different kiva societies.

The characteristics of the fetish animals and their possible usefulness for the owner are the basis of their selection. For example, the mole fetish is to protect the fields from rodents; frog fetishes are valued for fertility because of the numerous tadpoles they produce and their association with water. The mountain lion, wolf, and other predator animal fetishes provide the owner with power over the deer and other game animals. Whenever a hunt is successful, the fetishes which gave that success are allowed the first ceremonial feeding of the game animal.

Fetishes are often seen with a bundle of coral, turquoise, or an arrowhead tied to the back or side. These are offerings made to the fetish for favors already received or hoped for in the future. If a carving is believed to have power, it is a fetish.

Some fetishes will have an inlaid turquoise or coral "heartline" extending from the mouth to the center of the body. One of the possible explanations for this heartline is that it represents a time in Zuni mythology when animals totally dominated man. The Great Spirit sent a bolt of lightning that turned all man-eating animals into stone. The lightning is represented in the stone fetish by an inlaid or painted line. Another possible interpretation is that the heartline gives the fetish healing or medicinal power.

Today Zunis carve fetishes not only for their own uses but also for the use of Indians of other tribes and for collectors.

The Zuni fetishes are given a place of honor in the Zuni home. Some receive special places on the family altar; others are kept in their fetish bowl when not in use. A fetish bowl is a hand-made pot, usually encrusted with turquoise chips, with the four directional fetishes attached to the outside. Inside the pot, fetishes are stored in a mixture of wood ash and corn pollen. If a mole fetish is in residence, it is usually kept in a leather bag because it doesn't like light. These fetishes are ceremonially fed through a small hole in the side of the pot.

The carving of miniature animals and fetishes is an important part of the Zuni economy today. While traditional natural materials such as turquoise, coral, shell, and jet are still being used, many new stones are also being carved. Some of these newer stones are malachite, marble, travertine, serpentine, and anything else that is carvable.

Questions to ask when selecting fetishes

What creature does it represent?
Often many of the older-style fetishes are not readily identifiable.

From what material is it carved?
Turquoise, coral, and amber are usually more expensive than more common dolomite, serpentine, jet or antler.

Who carved the fetish?
Was it carved by a Native American? To what pueblo or tribal people does the carver belong? Most fetishes today are not signed by the carver, but some Zuni carvers are beginning to sign their names on their creations.

But most important, buy what you like! The carvings are an art form and must be judged individually. Whether your tastes run to the finely detailed (and expensive) contemporary miniature sculptures, or to the more primitive older styles, when you purchase a Native American fetish, you are the owner of a representative part of the Native American culture.

Care of fetishes

Since most fetishes are made of stone, they require little or no care. Fetishes may be dusted with a soft, dry cloth. The leather sinew or feathers on the bundles should be kept dry or they may stretch or deteriorate. Older fetishes often appear soiled or dirty and should be left in their original condition to maintain their value.

References and further reading

Fetishes and Carvings of the Southwest, Oscar T Branson, Treasure Chest Publications, Tucson, Arizona, 1976.
A good book for photographs of fetish necklaces, contemporary fetishes, old fetishes.

Zuni Fetishes, Frank Hamilton Cushing, K. C. Publications, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1986.
This book, first published in 1883, has a recently added introduction by Tom Bahti. It is the definitive book on fetishes in Zuni culture.

Zuni Fetishism, Ruth F. Kirk, Avanyu Publishing Inc., Albuquerque, NM, 1988.
Reprinted from El Palacio magazine, June-October, 1943.

Visit Zuni Pueblo on the web at www.experiencezuni.com remote


Written by Joe Douthitt.
Reprinted with permission by the Indian Arts and Crafts Association remote (IACA) Albuquerque, NM.

Photograph courtesy of Andrews Pueblo Pottery and Art Gallery remote Old Town, Albuquerque, NM.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to the Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 3


Related Pages

American Indian Signs and Symbols article
Hopi Katsina Figures article

Where the Gods Come and Go:
Navajo Sandpaintings
article


Collector’s Resources

Albuquerque

House of the Shalako rem By Appointment in Peralta | 505-242-4579
Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Santa Fe

Keshi - The Zuni Connection | 505-989-8728
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250

Taos

Bryans Gallery 121 Kit Carson Road | 575-758-9407

RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED September 24, 2007

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