All tribes in the Southwest US make small stone carvings. Sacred ones are called fetishes. The Pueblo Indians have developed the use of these carvings and it is the Zuni that are the most skillful stone carvers of the Pueblos. Evidence of fetish use has been documented to pre-Columbian times. Columbian times refer to those that occurred after European influence, or after Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492.
While there were only a few dozen Zuni carvers as recent as 20 or 30 years ago, today there may be as many as 300 Zuni carvers that belong to a dozen or more noted Zuni artist families.
Here are some of the Zuni carvers’ family names:
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For more detailed information on Zuni carving families, refer to Zuni Fetishes & Carvings by Kent McManis.
A Native American fetish is a carving from rock, shell, antler, wood or other material that depicts an animal or other spirit. The carving captures the spirit and the essence of the animal, not necessarily its exact detailed conformation. When a carving has been blessed during a Zuni Medicine ceremony at the winter solstice, it becomes a fetish and is considered sacred. Fetishes are either kept by the carvers or given away to members of their tribe or other people.
Carvings that are very old may have been handed down for generations or have been tribal possessions for hundreds of years. It is believed that these carvings were actually live animals at one time and were petrified into stone beings by a magic bolt of lightning during the drying of the world. There were many such beings all over the earth’s surface which have been found over the years. It is said that whosever is of the good fortune to see such beings should treasure them for the sake of their sacred power which was given to them during the earth’s creation.
Today what we sell and most of what is sold elsewhere as a fetish is actually a rock carving, but it is very common to refer to them as fetishes, so we describe these wonderful stone animals as fetish carvings.
When one believes that a spirit resides in an inanimate object, that is called animism. When an inanimate object, such as a carving reminds one of the spirit of a being, that is a different matter. The difference between the two words is primarily a matter of belief. But in respect to the Zuni tradition, these carvings are not fetishes. However choosing one of these carvings is a very personal matter. If a carving speaks to you and makes you feel a certain way when you look at it, perhaps it is what you have been looking for to put on your desk or carry in your pocket. Similarly, if you are on a walk and you happen upon a stone that is already shaped like a buffalo and you pick it up and make it yours, that is powerful.
According to Zuni traditions, animals are divided up into 3 categories:
1. Game animals are those the furnish flesh to man. Today these animals are often referred to as prey animals because they are the prey of meat-eating predators. This would include deer, elk and rabbit, to name a few.
2. Water animals are those associated sacredly with water, not necessarily just animals who live in the water. This would include the dolphin, frog and the turtle.
3. Prey beings are those animals who hunt other animals to eat. Today these animals are often referred to as predators who prey upon game animals. This would include bear, wolf, and mountain lion.
Traditional carvings, sometimes referred to as “reservation fetishes”, tend to be of the “old style” with few details and are most commonly Prey Beings. Old style carvings are basically rectangular pieces of stone that have been shaped into animal forms. Often it is difficult to differentiate between a bear and wolf, for example, or a wolf and a mountain lion. They all look similar, kind of hunkered to the ground. The old style carvings make one think that the Native American artist saw an animal in a stone and just coaxed it out with a few simple lines. These are often referred to as “concretion fetishes”, stones that require very little carving to bring out or release the animal in the stone.
For hundreds of years, other tribes procured fetishes from the Zuni. While it is not customary for a Zuni to carve domestic animals, such as horses, sheep, cattle and goats, for personal use, they do so for Navajo herdsmen to protect their animals. That is why it is possible to purchase a wide variety of Zuni horse carvings today.
Modern Native American stone carvings can be quite ornate and detailed and very beautiful. They often have much intricate work and various types of inlay. Also, the posture of the animal might be different from that of traditional carving. Modern carvers might depict an animal running, rearing, sitting or standing up on its hind legs. Some carvers give a bear a fish to eat, so the carving becomes a miniature sculpture with a story.