GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Who do you call on when you need a little shot of strength, self-reliance or wisdom? For many, it’s a tiny animal totem infused with one or many special attributes and is said to convey those helpful properties to the carrier.
They’re called fetishes, and the people of Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico have been carving them for centuries. They are infused with the tribe’s spiritual beliefs, and each detail has meaning in itself, from the stone used to carve the piece to the color and animal represented.
Frank Hamilton Cushing documented the art of Zuni fetish carving in 1881, and he described the art of Zuni fetish making as a combination of colors, cardinal directions and animal protectors or hunters. Each direction — North, South, East, West, Above and Below — is associated with a color: yellow, red, white, blue, multi-colored and black, respectively. That combination of directions and colors is then associated with an animal protector: the mountain lion, badger, wolf, bear, mole and eagle. A variety of traits was ascribed to each animal. The bear, one of the oldest and most traditional fetishes, represents strength, introspection and the spiritual journey through life. He also has healing powers.
Mike Tucson, a member of Zuni Pueblo, has been carving fetishes for over 25 years.
“I started carving them when I was in middle school,” he said. “It’s mostly self-taught from my friend’s older brother. He was (carving) after school when I was over there and we started joining in.”
Although he makes and sells them as part of the cultural demonstrator series at Grand Canyon National Park’s Desert View Watchtower, Tucson says it’s mostly a hobby for him — something he does after work.
Some of the pieces he brought with him include wolves, bears, eagles, and even a frog and elephant. Elephants aren’t traditionally part of the Zuni culture, but like most other modern carvers, Tucson creates some animal fetishes simply because he and others like them.
Tucson primarily uses jet and elk antler for his carvings. Tucson said the jet is easy to work with because it’s a fairly soft mineral, it’s light and it’s easy to work with hand tools for the fine details. He starts by sawing off small chunks of jet and shaping them with a grinder. Tucson said he doesn’t use any particular pattern to craft the animal.
“I just look at it (the material) and visualize what I want it to look like,” he said.
Once the stone is shaped the way he wants it, Tucson polishes it to a glossy shine and then begins work on the fine details. The detail work is done with a dremel tool, creating legs, tails and fur. Traditionally, the fetishes will have eyes inset with turquoise, a sacred stone to the Zunis.
Although other Native tribes also carve fetishes, Zuni fetishes are some of the most well-known. According to Cushing, they Zuni people often bartered with neighboring tribes like the Navajo, even making fetishes of animals not necessarily connected to Zuni culture, like the horse, which was particularly sought after.