Zuni fetishes traditionally served a ceremonial purpose for their creators and depict animals and icons integral to their culture. According to the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology as submitted by Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1881, and posthumously published as "Zuni Fetishes" in 1966, the Zuni world is made up of six regions or directions. At the center of each region is a great mountain peak that is a very sacred place. Yellow mountain to the north, blue mountain to the west, red mountain to the south, white mountain to the east, the multi-colored mountain above, and the black mountain below.
Each direction is represented by a "Prey God", or guardian animal, and are listed by Cushing as follows: north - the yellow mountain lion, west - the Black Bear (represented by the color blue), south - the red badger, east - the white wolf, the sky or upper region - the multi-colored eagle, and the underground or lower region- the black mole. Each prey god is the "guardian and master" of their region with the yellow mountain lion being the elder brother of all animals and the master and guardian of all regions. Each one of these regions contains an order of the guardian animals, but the "guardian and master" of a particular region is the elder brother to all animals of that region. For example, the black bear is the guardian of the west and the elder brother of the prey god order in that region. These guardians are considered as having protective and healing powers. They are held by the priests of the medicine orders as if "in captivity" and act as mediators between the priests and the animals they represent. The Prey Gods are the "Makers of the Paths of Life". Medicinal powers emanate from them and their powers as mediators is given through their relationship to Po-shai-an-kia, the father of the medicine societies, the "Finisher of the Paths of Our Lives", the "auditor of the prayers".
A second group of fetishes, the "Prey Gods of the Hunt", belonging to the Hunter Order, or Society, are given in the "prayer songs of the Sa-ni-a-kia-kwe" (The Hunting Order). These guardian animals are the same as the original regions with the exception of the coyote, which replaces the bear; and the wildcat, which replaces the red badger. Sa-ni-a-kia is the awakening of the fetish and ultimately the power hunter; the voice, breath, and heart, of the animal, and represents its power over other animals. The Zuni hunter, or "Prey brother", was required to have his fetishes (prey gods of the hunt) with a custodian, or "Keeper", and practice a ceremony of worship when procuring a favorite or proper fetish to aid in a successful hunt. In the ceremony of the hunt the Keeper presented a clay pot containing the fetishes to the hunter. Facing in the direction appropriate to the chosen fetish the pot was sprinkled with medicine meal and a prayer was recited. The fetish was placed in a buckskin bag and carried by the hunter over his heart. The fetish aids in the chase and represents "the roar of the animal" and feeds upon the blood of the slain prey.
In addition to the Prey Gods of the Six Regions with their guardian and medicinal powers, and the Prey Gods of the Hunt that aid in the chase, Cushing names three Prey Gods of the Priesthood of the Bow, a society of which he was a member, that aid a Priest of the Bow when traveling in a region where he may be captured by the enemy. These are the mountain lion and great white bear, which belong to the "skies", as well as a prey god of human form adorned with "flint knife-feather pinions and tail". An arrowhead, "emblematic of Sa-wa-ni-kia", or the "medicine of war", on the back or side of either of these animals prevented a warrior from being taken by surprise by his enemy, and an arrowhead on the belly or feet erased the tracks of the carrier so that they could not be followed by the enemy. Unlike the Prey Gods of the Hunt these fetishes were never deposited with a keeper but kept with the owner. Like the Prey Gods of the Hunt they were fed on the blood of the slain and their ceremony involved depositing sacred flour to the four directions and reciting a prayer, and like the Prey Gods of the Six Regions they were protective of the carrier.
Other Zuni fetish carvings depict animals and reptiles such as the frog, turtle, buffalo, deer, ram, otter, and others. There are many more subjects of contemporary carvers that may include dinosaurs, for example, that would be considered non-traditional, or some insects and reptiles that are traditionally more integral to Zuni mythology and folklore, or to petroglyphs, symbolism, and the patterns of design in pottery, e.g. dragonflies and butterflies, water spiders, and lizards. There is also the corn maiden, a symbol of fertility and the hope of a good harvest. Other animals, such as the horse, ram, or sheep, were carved mainly for trade. The Zuni was not a horse culture but their horse carvings were considered by the Navajo and the horse cultures to the north as having great power for the protection of their herds. Each animal is believed to have inherent powers or qualities that may aid the owner. The Navajo, for example, treasured and bartered for figures of horses, sheep, cattle or goats to protect their herd from disease and to insure fertility.
Traditionally, the materials used by carvers were often indigenous to the region or procured by trade. The most important of these materials was turquoise, which is considered by the Zuni as the sacred stone. Jet, animal shell (primarily mother-of-pearl), and coral are also frequently used. These materials and their associated colors are principle in the Zuni sunface, a cultural symbol which is present in Zuni jewelry and fetish carvings and represents their sun father. It should be noted that different turquoise stones gained their name from the great peaks, or sacred mountains from which they are mined, while the other three principle materials of the Zuni sunface were at one time a living thing (See Zuni substance). The list of other materials used is extensive and includes Zuni rock, jaspers, pipestone, marbles, or organic items such as bone and deer or elk antler (there are some Zuni carvers that will not carve bone or antler, considering the practice as dangerous). Even artificial substances such as slag glass and casilica are used. In recent years Zuni carvings, or fetishes, have become popular collectibles and Zuni artisans have familiarized themselves with materials available from all parts of the world in order to serve the aesthetic tastes of collectors.
As a form of contemporary Native American art Zuni carvings are sold with non-religious intentions to collectors worldwide. The artist's styles are as unique as the artists themselves, and there are many whose works are highly sought after by collectors. Some collectors prefer a figure that is more realistic in appearance, while others prefer the more traditional styles that are intrinsic to Zuni belief. The traditional belief of the Zuni is that the least modification of the original material maintains, or heightens, the power of the fetish as a "natural concretion". Realism in carving style is a matter relative to the beliefs of its owner, and the realism in contemporary carving is a product of collector request and demand and the intent of Zuni carvers to raise the level of their art form through participation in the world of contemporary art. The enigma or apparent paradox relevant to Zuni belief and realism in art is resolved in the notion that carvings for sale and collection are produced without religious intent. For this reason some carvers prefer the term "carvings" rather than the term "fetishes" when referring to offerings for collectors.
A carving may be signed by the carver, or not. Personalization by signing a piece of art is a form of individualism that traditionally violates the Zuni notion of community purpose. Native American cultures in general traditionally viewed art objects as community property, and Native languages did not have a word translating to "art". The signing of artwork is a concept introduced to the Zuni by white collectors at the beginning of the twentieth century (ca. 1915) when artists began signing their paintings, and most Zuni carvers did not begin signing their carvings until the last part of the twentieth century. Often, though, a Zuni carver feels that their own unique style is readily identifiable and the fetish's style will be enough to identify the carver as surely as would any other mark. Some carvings are so intricate and small that it is impractical to sign it, and there always is the fear that the piece could be chipped, scratched, or otherwise damaged in the attempt. Most carvers are the recipients of a family tradition of style and have learned their skill from parents, grand parents, or siblings, and have passed the art to their own children as well.
Besides being made from various stones and other materials, the fetish may carry an offering of a smaller animal or a prayer bundle of carved arrowheads with small beads of heishe. It may be adorned with a heishe necklace, feathers, etchings representing ancient petroglyphs, or an etched or inlayed heartline. These items are intended to protect and feed the fetish itself. In regard to feeding, it is believed from tradition that the Keeper of fetishes is required to feed a meal of cornmeal and ground turquoise periodically and provide the carving with access to water. Fetishes are often kept in and attached to clay pots adorned with ground turquoise. The corn maiden, an icon so important in Zuni mythology regarding fertility and a good harvest in an arid desert agricultural environment, is often portrayed holding a bowl of ground turquoise, sometimes trailing to the ground.
As far as describing the Zuni culture by the term "fetishism" it should, like any other culture, be considered carefully and as a matter of degree. According to modern anthropology's definition of "fetishism" every culture theoretically has its iconic worship of sacred things. As Cushing noted, to the Zuni a fetish is a "mediator" and represents the "roar of the animal". This is not a totemism or a strict fetishism as witnessed in, for example, some African cultures or Alaskan native tribes. The medicinal power of the fetish is a triadic relationship between the fetish, the owner, and Po-shai-an-kia. It is an idiosyncrasy shared by many cultures and as a matter of degree is always arguable.
Bunzel, Ruth L. (1929). The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art. ISBN 0486228754
Cushing, Frank Hamilton, Mark Bahti (1999). Zuni Fetishes. Reprint of the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1883. Introduction by Tom Bahti. ISBN 0887141447
McManis, Kent (1995). A Guide To Zuni Fetishes and Carvings. ISBN 1887896147
McManis, Kent (1998). A Guide To Zuni Fetishes and Carvings, Volume II, The Materials and the Carvers. ISBN 1887896112
McManis, Kent (1998). Zuni Fetishes and Carvings: The Compete Guide, One-Volume Expanded Edition. ISBN 1887896597
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