Native Americans have used fetishes throughout history for ceremonial, spiritual, and religious purposes. A fetish is a carving that depicts a spiritual symbol and evokes the spirit of that symbol. Fetishes are considered magical symbols of power that can aid human beings in their survival on the planet. Many fetishes depict animals and represent the animal spirit. The animals most often used are traditionally important to the Native American culture. These traditional animals include badger, bear, bobcat, coyote, eagle, mole, mountain lion, wildcat, and wolf. Modern fetish carvers have added other animals that were more traditionally depicted in pottery or other art forms. These include beaver, buffalo, butterfly, crow, deer, dinosaur, dolphin, dragonfly, fox, frog, hawk, horse, raven, snake, spider, turtle, and many other animals. A fetish may also depict a cultural icon such as the corn maiden which is considered the grandmother of sun and light. The corn maiden is an extremely significant cultural symbol. It always bears a seed of corn which is considered the symbol of life and a gift from the gods. A fetish is said to hold magical powers that can be used for protective and inspirational purposes. Native American artists who create what are known as fetishes are actually offering animal carvings. A true fetish would be blessed by a medicine man and fetishes on the market are not. It is illegal to sell true fetishes.
Fetishes are traditionally associated with the six directions or regions recognized by Zuni lore which are north, west, south, east, upward, and downward. At the center of each region is a sacred mountain. Each region and mountain is represented by a color and an animal which are considered the prey god for that region. Each prey god is master and guardian of its representative region and elder brother of all other animals in that region. North is represented by the yellow mountain lion. West is represented by the color blue and the black bear. South is represented by the red badger. East is represented by the white wolf. Upward is represented by the multi-colored eagle. Below is represented by the black mole. The guardian of each direction is imbued with the medicine power of that direction. The yellow mountain lion is considered the master and guardian of all of the other prey gods and regions. There is a second set of prey gods associated with the sacred hunt. All of the colors and animals are the same except the black bear is replaced with coyote and the red badger is replaced by wildcat or bobcat. The guardian of each direction is imbued with the hunting power of that direction.
There is a Zuni legend that the original fetishes were not carved by humans, but were live animals turned to stone by a lightning bolt. The corn maiden was created in the palm of the Great Spirit’s hand and carries the power of life. Because a fetish is considered a magical entity, it must be cared for in a special way. Offerings of corn meal must be made and the fetish must be kept in a fetish bowl or pouch. It is said that the care given to a fetish impacts the degree of protection offered by that fetish.