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 mystical symbols of power that can aid human beings in their quest for survival on the planet. Fetishes are used by the Zuni for protection, fertility, and hunting. Each fetish contains a unique spirit that exists within the carving. A fetish is said to hold magical powers that can be used for protective and inspirational purposes. Most Native American carvings available for sale that are identified as “fetishes” are actually simply Native American “carvings.” A true fetish would be blessed by a medicine man, and fetishes on the market are not. They are simply artistic renditions of Native American religious icons. It is illegal to sell true fetishes.
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.
The most traditional of Zuni fetishes are associated with the six directions or regions that make up the Zuni world which are north, west, south, east, upward, and downward. At the center of each of these regions is a sacred mountain. Each region and mountain is represented by a color and a guardian animal which is 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 black bear which associated with the color blue. 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 yellow mountain lion is considered the master and guardian of all of the other prey gods and regions and elder brother to all animals. The guardian animal of each direction is imbued with medicine and protective powers. The fetishes of these animals are held by priests of the medicine order and used to connect with the spirit of the animal.
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 badger is replaced by wildcat or bobcat. The guardian of each direction is imbued with the hunting power of that direction. Fetishes of these animals are held by those in the hunting order and used to connect with the spirits of the guardian animals.
Other Types of Fetishes
There are fetishes created to connect with many other animal spirits important to Zuni culture. The most common animals carved by the Zuni include badger, bear, bobcat, coyote, eagle, mole, mountain lion, wildcat, frog, beaver, buffalo, crow, deer, fox, hawk, raven, horse, and and wolf. Modern carvers have added other animals including dinosaur, dolphin, whale, dragonfly, turtle, snake, spider, butterfly, and many other animals.
A fetish may also depict a cultural icon such as the corn maiden which is an extremely significant Zuni symbol. Corn maiden is the grandmother of light and sun. The powerful corn maiden always bears a seed of corn which is considered the symbol of life and a gift from the gods.