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Fetish Meanings


In a way fetish carvings lie outside proscriptions about use and form coming from Pueblo tradition. In the case of pottery, textiles, dances, and songs, there is a body of public opinion which prescribe the appropriate form these objects should take. Fetishes, on the other hand, are interpreted by individual "owners".

One often sees references to fetishes of the six directions--up, down, east, west, north and south--and to the animals of those directions--eagle, mole, wolf, bear, mountain lion and badger but there is no particular reason to think that Zunis only used these six animals, that they didn't also observe and "cultivate" other animals.

As we look at contemporary fetish carvings we are struck with two things: the great number of animals that are represented--animals that are wild, domestic, extinct, hybrid, and imaginary--and the variety of forms in which they are represented...as if Zuni fetish carvers have set out to examine animals of all the continents, living and extinct, as well as all the animals they can imagine in all the subtlety and variety of their form.

The belief in fetishes entails the belief in animism, namely, that spirits may reside in inanimate objects. It also recognizes that certain animals have physical powers greater than humans--they can run faster, they can fly, have better eyesight or sense of smell.

For Zunis, none of the fetish carvings that are offered for sale are fetishes as none have been blessed by a Zuni Medicine Society during the winter solstice. There is no necessary difference in how these carvings look and how fetishes look. The difference is one of use and of rite. If any of these carvings had been blessed they wouldn't be for sale. They also don't come with feathers as Zunis would view this attempt at verisimilitude as sacrilege.

If meaning is use, these fetish carvings exist as small and highly polished pieces of art, which have been created by carvers from a traditional society known for its ritual elaboration. As with all art the key to their access is respect, and therefore, openness to the subtleties that they manifest.