Being associated with a Native American Trader, I've become fascinated by fetishes. In my free time, I hang around the display cases, staring at the little figures. I have my favorites among them, and I'd like to share some of that knowledge today. Now get those images of whip-wielding ladies clad in black leather, and girls in parochial school uniforms out of your minds-- I'm talking about fetishes in the original sense of the word, before Freud and Jung got hold of them!

Fetishes are figures carried by Native Americans to give them guidance, advice, and peace of mind. Legend has it that the Twin Sons of Sun Father poured a magic shield over the Earth which charmed all predators and turned them to stone. Inside, however, their hearts were still alive and they were charged to help Mankind. When a stone is found which resembles an animal, it is considered one of these stone beasts and will bring good fortune, power, and protection. Stones looking naturally like animals or deities are called concretion fetishes. Later, stones were carved to look like those creatures. These must be blessed by a priest to become a true fetish. They are decorated with thalla, bits of shell or turquoise or beads or a lightning bolt, representing the heart of the fetish and its inherent energy. The fetish is kept in a special jar or wrapped in buckskin or silk and placed in its own area in a home. It can be carried or worn around the neck on a leather thong. Traditionally, it must be fed a meal consisting of food ( usually cornmeal mixed with crushed turquoise or shells) which is served to it on a piece of pottery. After the spirit of the fetish has consumed the spirit of the food, the remains are disposed of by throwing into the river. It cannot be buried because to do so would offend the spirits of the departed. Fetishes are prayed to daily, asking guidance before any undertaking. To do so, one must hold the fetish's nose to the lips and breathe over it. Since Breath is the Living Spirit, one then breathes in the fetish's spirit, and through prayer, the proper guidance is obtained.

Each winter solstice, We-ma-a-wa U-pu-k'ia (the Day of the Council of Fetishes) is held by the Zuni. All fetishes are brought to a symbolic altar on the floor of the council chamber.

It is believed that the Great Father is protected on six sides by the Great Hunters of Prey. These Six are the most important fetishes, each representing a special color and direction. The Mountain Lion is (Ha'k-ti ta-sh-a-na thiup-tsi-na, Long Tail) is the Hunter God of the North (the Barren Place),yellow; Black Bear (An she, Clumsy Foot) represents the West, the Home of Waters, and is blue; Badger (Black Mark Face) is South, the Place of Beautiful Red and is red; White Wolf (Iu-na-wi-ko we-ma-we, Hang Tail) is God of the East, the Home of the Day. His color is white; Eagle (K'ia-k'ia-li we-ma-we, White Cap) is God of the Upper Regions, Home of the High, and is variegated in color. The last Great Hunter is Mole (K'ia-tu-tsi we-ma-we, Mound Digger) ruling the Nether Regions, Home of the Low. His color is black.

Other traditional animals are Snakes, Ravens, Falcons, Owls, Rabbits, and Foxes, but nowadays, more and more untraditional creatures--such as swans, penguins, giraffes and even semi trucks--are being carved.

Although all Southwestern Native Americans carve fetishes, the Zuni (A-shi-wi) are the best carvers, dating from AD 700. At present, there are 19 families who produce detailed carvings. Some specialize in specific animals. All have their own recognizable styles. Some united with other carving families through marriage. The price for a fetish from a name-recognized artist can range from $25 to $10,000, depending on the size, detail, and type of material used!

Many gem stones are used in fetish carving. Jasper, Carnelian, Chalcedony, Lapis, and Agate will be familiar to anyone who has read the Bible. Amber, coral, malachite, and spiny oyster are imported for use. Turquoise (copper aluminum phosphate) is the mineral most used. It has been mined since Prehistoric times and was first used by the Anasazo. Obsidian, quartz, and pipestone--indigenious to the area--are also used. Jet, which is fossilized wood that looks like coal has been used since the Stone Age. It fractures easily and is difficult to polish. Pipestone (catlinite) is hardened clay tinted red by iron. It was used by Plains Indians to make the bowl of their pipes.

My own fetish collection is small--at present, consisting 3 bats and a raven. Raven (Kotolloah) is the teacher of Magic and Sorcery, and magical playfulness. He is made of black marble, wing slightly spread as if preparing to fly. Of my three bats (Jaa-Abani, (buckskin ears), the Night Guardian of the East), one is only an inch and a half wide by half an inch high, of Mother of Pearl with turquoise eyes, carved by an artist who specializes in this little animal; the second is a 3-inch section of deer antler, cut to form swooping wings and a wrapped-around tail, tiny obsidian eyes and coral nostrils and mouth; the last is 5 inches tall, carved from a single piece of red pipestone, a big-eared Guardian of the Night, wheeling through the air, a snake in his mouth. The detail on each is astounding and lifelike, delicate and precise, considering the materials each artist was working with. No one seeing any of the pieces would have any doubt what they represent.

For now, my fetishes reside in gift boxes in my jewelry chest. I hope some day they'll have their own place on the shelf of an etagere which they will reign to shed their magic over my home.


  1. Misc. Muse // February 9, 2008 at 4:14 PM  

    I have some for art sake only- as a Christian, I don't believe in idols. Mine is a Navaho Bird necklace- I couldn't believe I found it at the resale for price I could afford. I was stationed in NM, I love Navaho things.

  2. Sandra Cox // February 10, 2008 at 9:04 AM  

    Great blog, Tony!

  3. Beth Trissel // February 10, 2008 at 9:51 AM  

    Very interestin gpost, Toni. My focus has always been with the Eastern Woodland Indians, mostly the Shawnee, with a focus on colonial America, so much of this was new to me.

  4. Nightingale // February 10, 2008 at 3:35 PM  

    Enjoyed your post. Great new photo, Toni.

  5. Helen Scott Taylor // February 11, 2008 at 6:59 PM  

    Toni, what a fascinating post. I love the concept of the fetish. I had read something about the origins of the term that has now come to mean something different to many people. Your description of some of the carvings makes them sound lovely. I'm a great believer in the power of ancient beliefs.

  6. Mary Marvella // February 17, 2008 at 12:11 AM  

    Learned a lot from that post. Not whips and chains?