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Collecting Zuni Fetishes

Updated on December 19, 2008
Aaron Sheche (d.) Travertine Wolf
Aaron Sheche (d.) Travertine Wolf

History and meaning

The powerful attraction to Zuni fetishes is a well documented phenomena by those of us who have fallen under their spell. Zuni fetishes are small carved animals, insects or human figures that are made by the talented artisans of Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico.

The People of Zuni Pueblo live in northwestern New Mexico in the United States of America. They have a unique language and, even today, still practice their ancient rituals and religion. One aspect of their religion is the use of fetishes or animal totems.

According to Zuni lore, the benevolent Sun Father sent his twin sons to defend the vulnerable humans who were being devoured by fearsome predators prowling the earth. With their powerful lightning bolts, the Twin Gods turned the beasts into stone but their spirits remained. The Sun Father demanded that, for all eternity, the animals must use their magical and protective powers only to serve and assist all of humankind.

This story, passed down for generations, explains the use of fetishes in Zuni. When a found stone resembed a bear or a mountain lion the artistic Zuni refined the shape and added an arrowhead to the animal tied on with sinew, bits of turquoise and red coral. Doing so, they uttered a prayer that their hunt would be blessed and as an expression of gratitude for the life of the animal, which by its death, would provide sustenance for the hunter's family and for the People of Zuni Pueblo.

The Zuni people believe in six sacred directions: Above, North, East, South, West and Below. Po'-shai-an-k'ia, Father of the Medicine Societies assigned the animals of the six sacred directions and each to a special color:

The yellow mountain lion is the elder brother of the bear. He is guardian of the North. Blue bear is elder brother of the badger and protects the western horizon. From his practice of building his dens with a southern exposure, the red badger governs this direction and is elder brother to the wolf. White wolf reigns over the eastern direction and is elder brother to the eagle. And the sky or Zenith is the domain of the multicolored eagle. He is elder brother to the mole. Considered blind, the black mole calls the underworld or Nadir home.

Contemporary Masters

Staley Natewa (d.), Picasso marble lizard
Staley Natewa (d.), Picasso marble lizard

Originally any reshaping of a found stone was done with rudimentary tools. Consequently, little detail was desired or achieved by the Zuni artists of old. But modern power tools have opened the door to realism and animated vignettes of action. Contemporary Zuni artisans now carve virtually any animal, insect or scenario they can either imagine or watch on the Discovery channel! Highly detailed reptilean skin, "fur", elongated, spirited tails, delicate wings, powerful talons, scales, fins, teeth --- they are within the repetoire of the most collectible of Zuni artisans.

Originally carved of local found stones, today's Zuni fetishes are carved from a variety of beautiful stones from around the world. Though turquoise, red coral, jet, various shells and the local travertine called "Zuni stone" are often used as carving materials you will also find that contemporary fetishes are carved from lapis, alabaster, various marbles, fossil stones, opals, copper complex materials, pipestone, rhodochrosite, labradorite, sugilite and any number of other exotic stones mined globally.

Some carvers are known for a particular animal. Ricky Laahty has achieved a cult-like following for his wonderful life-like frog carvings. He makes them in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors and all are purely irresistible. Known for their multi-layered shell eyes that glisten realistically, their animated postures and exaggerated features have enchanted a multitude of collectors.

Ricky Laahty Abalone Frog
Ricky Laahty Abalone Frog

Another popular carver who is best known for his bear carvings is Herbert Him.  Herbert has been carving since the '70's and studied under the famed Apache sculptor Allan Houser.   Herbert's work is realistic, dynamic and powerful.  In addition to being a fine artist, he is also a superb story teller and his complex carvings are filled with Zuni symbolism.  Herbert's work is highly collectible.

Herbert Him Pipestone Bear
Herbert Him Pipestone Bear

Are you susceptible?

In the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in Zuni fetishes after an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal. At the time less than 50 carvers were actively making Zuni fetishes. Now there are close to 200 active Zuni fetish carvers and most, but not all, live on the Zuni reservation.

Though a trip to the southwest used to be the only way to acquire authentic Zuni fetishes now you can easily enlarge your collection by taking a cyber shopping trip. There are a variety of honest, ethical dealers online who specialize in Zuni fetish carvings.

If you are new to the idea I suggest reading these two books: THE FETISH CARVERS OF ZUNI by Jim Ostler and Marian Rodee and ZUNI FETISHES AND CARVINGS by Ken McManis. Each of these books will give you a proper perspective on collecting quality, authentic Zuni fetishes and the more you know the more educated your purchases will be. That's not to say that we don't all still impulse buy -- after all, it has long been said that Zuni fetishes chose their owner ... not the other way around!

For serious collectors there is another book that would be of interest: ZUNI SPIRITS: A Portfolio of Fine Zuni Fetish Carvings. My photographer husband, David and I have recently published this coffee-table type art book to fill a niche long left empty.

New collectors are wisely cautioned to buy from well known, established dealers. Your dealer should always be able to assure you of Zuni authenticity, be able to identify the carver and the stone and provide you with a certificate of authenticity. Understand your dealer's return policy and ask any questions before you make a purchase. If the photos online are not clear and well lit, ask for additional photos. Most dealers will be happy to answer your questions and love to share their knowledge.

Lastly, this word of advice to new collectors. Always document your purchases listing carver, stone, price, date and dealer purchased from. You may think you will always remember these details but after the first 100 or so Zuni fetish carvings, the details become a little blurry. And you'll be surprised how quickly you HAVE 100 Zuni fetishes.

Collecting Zuni fetishes is a satisfying experience on many levels. Not only will you enjoy the artistic value of a Zuni fetish, the beauty and exotic nature of many of the Zuni fetish carving materials is breathtaking. Zuni fetish carvings represent the connection many of us feel to both nature and the spirit world. And lastly, collecting Zuni fetishes supports the Zuni community by allowing these talented artisans to support their families and continue their rich cultural heritage and traditions begun by their ancestors.

Good luck and happy hunting!


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      Don of MN 9 years ago

      Great article Darlene. It reminded me that I only select a fetish that somehow "speaks" to me. Whenever possible I also like to hold the piece in my hand and feel the spirit of the animal. I was priviledged to visit the Zuni Pueblo for a few days and be taken on a one-on-one walking tour of the old village and hear of the history and culture of the Zuni. I was honored to be invited into the home of a well known Zuni fetish carver to meet his extended family and see his shop and have a fetish carved for me. I observed the artist showing his rspect for the stone and the emerging animal. What a delightful and memorable experience.

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      AK 9 years ago

      How true that the fetishes choose YOU :) I've been chosen by... by now close to 90 (not quite yet at 100!) of those lovable creatures. The photos you've chosen for this article are fabulous, just as all other photos in THAT fabulous book :) Being able to buy via the internet means easier to purchase, (I for one thing would not have been able to buy even one if not for the internet!) but also it means you want to be careful who to buy from, and what to look out for. Always good to have a reliable trader, who is also in love with those carvings, Zuni Spirits! Dreaming of one day visiting Zuni Pueblo, AK

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      Cheryl 9 years ago

      Wonderful article! It is so true that the Zuni fetishes often chose their owner --- I'm amazed how often it is ME! How quickly 100 and more are collected!! I love these beautiful carvings! Thanks Zuni Spirits