Zuni Fetishes + Necklace

Hand Carved Talismans

These little stone works of art from a past Beehive sale are known in English as Zuni Fetishes. They are based on a very old form of Native American religious talisman. The word ‘Fetish’ in this context is an earlier usage derived from the Latin facticius, ‘artificial’ and facere, ‘to make’; it denotes human-made objects imbued with holy protective powers; it definitely does not have anything to do with sexual proclivities.

The blue, grey and white carving is a bear, while the pale green/grey speckled carving can be identified as a horse by its nominal tail and inscribed lines representing its mane. These ‘Fetish’ carvings are always small; the horse is about the size of an adult thumb, while the bear could rest in the palm of your hand. The bear is most likely made of sodalite, while the material the stone horse is made of is harder to identify but may be tree agate, jasper or California jade (nephrite).

Look closely and you’ll see that the horse has tiny inset turquoise eyes. Both fetishes carry a symbolic arrowhead on their backs held on with sinew. The larger bear’s sinew is decorated with coral and turquoise beads. Many carved Zuni fetishes have arrowheads on their backs; it is a primary identifying characteristic of the art form. Others may have a “heart-line”, an inset arrow in contrasting stone arced along their body from their mouth to their heart.

It is important to emphasize the central role that religion plays in Zuni life, and therefore note that NONE of the carvings sold as Zuni fetishes are genuine religious articles, even though they are made by Zuni artists living on Zuni lands. True Zuni religious animal carvings, which have been blessed by a medicine man, are not sold commercially.

This vintage necklace from another sale is a Zuni ‘Fetish necklace’, another version of fetish animals which is believed to confer protection on the wearer. Each animal is only 1″ long; the fastener is silver, while the beads are carved from a variety of stones and shell, the white being mother-of-pearl. Coral and shell was obtained from tribes hundreds of miles away, for hundreds of years.

The Zuni are a traditionally Pueblo-dwelling Native American tribe in New Mexico. They are federally recognized and have farmed corn in the same area along the Zuni River valley for 3,000 to 4,000 years. This Zuni 2- Spirits weaver was photographed around the turn of the century, while the two women along the banks of the Zuni river were photographed in 1926. The Zuni’s name for themselves is Ashiwi, and their homeland is called ‘Halona Idiwan’a’, or Middle Place. With the influx of Spanish explorers, followed by Americans moving west from the eastern United States, the Zuni also adopted ranching sheep and cattle, animals introduced from Europe. The sparse desert environment is better suited to sheep than cattle, and all farming and ranching must be practiced with great care and a complex system of community support among tribal members.

Today many Zuni make a living creating traditional arts such as pottery, rugs, jewelry and fetishes. Over time, the choice of animal has expanded to include foreign species and likewise, a broader range of imported stone.

If you get lucky and find your own Zuni Fetish at a QBO sale, know that it is traditional to care for them by feeding them pinches of cornmeal, corn pollen or ground turquoise dust, and to house them in purpose-made, turquoise-inlaid pots or pouches. Happy Hunting!