Zuni Fetishes - What's Not To Love?
I distinctly remember my early fascination with rocks. I couldn't have been more than three .. but already I was curious about them, collected them and considered them valuable treasures. At some point in my little developing pea-brain the question arose - "what's inside?" And I remember finding a pickle-sized rock, placing it on the sidewalk, going into my dad's workshop and securing a rock-opening device - aka: a hammer. I don't know how long I bashed away at the thing before my mother found me, confiscated my hammer and warned me about the perils of rock bashing and an (apparent) high incident of people blinded by such dangerous behaviour. I can't say it was the last time I ever tried to find out what was inside a rock -- but I did learn to be more discreet.
Fast forward about 30-something years. I am a single mother looking for cheap (or better yet free) entertainment for my children, a boy and a girl, then about 12 and 11 years of age. We had memberships to the zoo and the science museum, we went to arboretums and the beach during the summer but during the winter I often took them to the library. Some Saturdays we'd venture to the Discovery store at the mall with the clear understanding that unless their item was on sale and heavily discounted it was unlikely they would go home with anything new. The arrangement worked beautifully. They were as interested in the natural world as I had always been and we love loitering the aisles with other young families.
I always gravitated to the book section. Next to rocks, I probably love books more than anything unless it's birds, wildflowers or sea shells. Fall leaves, found feathers or mushrooms. Starry nights, meteor showers -- oh well -- you get my drift. SO: I was standing at the clearance rack and there was this book that I had picked up numerous times to look through but it wasn't on sale so I had always put it back. Today, miraculously, it had been marked down to 2.00. I don't know if any studies have been done on this but I am quite sure there is some magic to assigning a value of two dollars in the world of marketing. Who can pass up anything if it's two dollars?
McManis Book - A GUIDE TO ZUNI FETISHES & CARVINGS, VOL. I
So that day, I was the one who went home with a treasure - Kent McManis' A GUIDE TO ZUNI FETISHES & CARVINGS. I was fascinated by the fact that here in America, there was a tribe of artists who lovingly fashioned stone into a variety of beautiful animals. Also being a bit of a freak about turquoise, the idea of turquoise inlay and various stones, beads and arrowheads being tied on was just icing on the cake. But I suspected that like most artistic objects, these would be out of my single-mom budget, so I was satisfied with just looking at the photos in the book.
A few years later found me in New Mexico with my children and my new boyfriend of six months. Though Dave and I had known each other for a couple of years our friendship had only blossomed the previous spring. We met as river guides but while on a private ten day canoe trip down the Pecos river as it flows in West Texas, we discovered we had much in common. Besides loving rivers and wild places, we both were artistic and had a great interest in rock art. We thoroughly enjoyed spending time together. So now it was fall and the children and I had taken advantage of el cheapo flights (nearly as great a deal as my McManis book!) to the Land of Enchantment and Dave decided to join us.
We spent some time in Santa Fe and I think I actually levitated across the room to the glass cases filled with glorious, beautiful Zuni fetish carvings. (Keep in mind that I'm still very much on a budget and that this trip is a major splurge for us so the idea of actually buying a Zuni fetish was just more than I could hope for.) I was sure they were hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars each. More than one clerk tried to melt away my resolve but I wouldn't even let them show me one from the case. The glass between us was all that was saving me! Besides, like my book, just seeing them was so completely thrilling I didn't require more. I felt some connection but I'd always been interested in Native American history, culture, art and anthropology. Most of my school essays were related in some way to the atrocious mistreatment and arrogant dismissal of Native Americans.
Little did I know at the time that this trip was just the lifting of the veil. I had vivid dreams about New Mexico for weeks before we left. It was as if I was being called "home" but I'd never been west of the Rio Grande in my life! My father's family had come from New Mexico, to Texas, in the 1920s by covered wagon and so I attributed my longing for New Mexico to just knowing it was the birthplace of my father.
Not long after this trip and our return to Texas I realized that you could actually buy Zuni fetishes online! And to my utter amazement found that they were within the budget of a single mom! They weren't priced like fine jewelry despite my thinking they should be. I spent hours looking at the various offerings of the (then) few online dealers. My first purchase was a turquoise badger by Garrick Weeka. At the time I wasn't sure why I chose it but later it made sense to me when I learned that the badger is the guardian of the south (where I am from) and that it is associated with the color red (my favorite) and is known for it's tenaciousness, persistence and (well you can't win them all) aggressive nature. Okay, I'd been accused of being stubborn and/or persistent. I also bought my boyfriend, Dave (never married, no children, survived a week with two almost-teenagers, he's-the-man-for-me!) a beautiful jet mountain lion and a beaded bag to keep it in. I was hooked.
When my fetishes arrived I opened them like they were made of glass, cradled them in my palm like a fragile bird. I was so taken with the natural beauty of the stone, the artistic skill of the artist, the history and the story of what they meant to the Zuni people. And when I gave the mountain lion to Dave, he was as fascinated as I. We began to read everything we could get our hands on to learn about the Zuni people and the talented carvers of Zuni. The more we learned, the more we enjoyed looking at and adding to our growing collections. The children got involved and they each had small collections as well. Eventually another trip to New Mexico was planned and the first stop was Zuni Pueblo.
By this time we had learned the religious significance of the fetishes to the Shiwi people. (Zuni is the Acoma word for the People of Zuni Pueblo. And Acoma is a pueblo to the east, about 80 miles away.) We knew that true fetishes (or wemawe as they are called in Shiwi, the language of Zuni) were those blessed by a Zuni Priest. And we learned that these fetishes were never sold or traded and were held in high esteem by klans, kivas and family members assigned to the care and feeding of these sacred objects.
Still, the "fetishes" sold today are made with much care, devotion and prayed over by their makers. Today's Zuni carvers are artists in every sense of the word but they also believe that each fetish will find its proper home and will, if respected and cared for, guide and protect that person.
Other tribes make and use fetishes. Even anglo artisans are carving "fetishes" (though we wish they would call them "sculptures" rather than fetishes.) A lot of "new age" mumbo jumbo has been assigned to Zuni fetishes which has absolutely nothing to do with their true, original meaning or purpose. But years ago a conversation we had with Thelma Sheche revealed this: she said, "It is what you want it to be." So, with regard to the Zuni fetishes made for sale or trade, there really aren't any hard and fast rules. There is only the hope that the fetishes will find their proper home and will be well-loved and respected.
So today I find myself married to Dave and the kids have sprouted wings, found mates and are nesting with their own broods. For the past ten years Dave and I have been buying and selling Zuni fetishes as Zunispirits.com. It is a role I never dreamed of but thoroughly relish. Last year, we finally got organized enough to compile Dave's glorious images into a portfolio book that features the beautiful, artistic imagery of Zuni fetishes.
Though countless thousands of Zuni fetishes have passed through our online gallery each and every shipment arrives with great anticipation. We sit on the floor and carefully unwrap each fetish (one at at a time) and "ooh" and "aah" over each one. We delight in new creative paths, elevated levels of skill, the introduction of young carvers and the familiarity of pieces by carvers who, by now, we consider old friends.
Sometimes when we release a fetish from it's protective covering of bubble-wrap we immediately know where it should go. Some collectors, having such a definitive passion for a stone or an animal or a carver's work, come to mind immediately. We have had the priviledge of not only adding the carver's and their families to our circle of beloved friends, we have gained a wealth of collectors, often their spouses and sometimes their children in bonds of friendship.
Though the people who collect Zuni fetishes are as varied in personality, education and job interests as the fetishes themselves, there is a very strong and common thread that binds us all together. More than one of our collectors (and we know they aren't really "ours"!) is involved with animal rescue. There are quite a few PhD's out there who have a secret (or not-so-secret) passion for Zuni fetishes. We can only surmise how many law offices flaunt Zuni fetish collections among the library or law books. And, like me, there are many, many moms who satisfy a childhood passion for carrying rocks around in their pockets -- even today! Doctors, artists, physicists, lawyers, retired policemen, teachers, musicians, publishers, professors and many other professions have the tiny sub-population of Zuni fetish collectors within. Most are particularly active in some outdoor sport. Most can identify a tree or a bird or a wildflower that perhaps the majority of the population cannot. Most agree that there is a God - whatever you choose to call Him. All are fascinated by beautiful stones, all appreciate ancient culture and all have a deep abiding affection for the talent of Zuni artists.
And so it is .. all these many years later that I think I finally know what's inside a rock and I didn't need a hammer after all.
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