Zuni Fetish

The Zuni Fetish: Webster's Dictionary defines a fetish as "any object believed to have magical power." A Zuni fetish is an object, most often carved, which usually represents an animal or Being revered by the Zuni Indians of New Mexico, whose word for fetish is wemawe (wuh-may-wuh).

Fetishes have been carved for personal use for ages. An outgrowth of this aspect of Zuni culture is the modern animals, figures, and fetish pots created exclusively for trade. The Zuni/A:Shiwi, are among the most ceremonial of the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. Daily life is filled with ritual and ceremony, reflecting their spiritual belief in the interconnectedness of all life. They are vitally aware of the rhythms and flow of the seasons, the animals, the earth--the great circle of life. They regard animals, seeds, plants as their sisters and brothers, all created and nourished by the Supreme Being's breath.

Frank Hamilton Cushing, an anthropologist sent to Zuni by the Smithsonian Institution in the late 1800’s, lived there for four years, becoming intimately familiar with their beliefs. He reported that, in the Zuni view of the cosmos, human beings are the most complete, most "finished" beings of all creation, thus the farthest removed from the gods and least equipped to live in nature. Animals, with their fangs, claws, sharp eyesight, and other keen senses, are closer to the elemental forces and can act as messengers to the gods. As a strategy for survival, the Zuni invoked the spirits of animals, through the finding or creating of fetishes which most often resembled powerful animals and Beings. The Zuni believed fetishes are alive and were always careful to ceremonially feed them and to treat them with respect.

The original fetishes derived from rocks whose natural shapes suggested the appropriate "power animal" for a particular need. Historically, fetishes were crafted of various natural materials, including amber, ivory, shell, turquoise, onyx and alabaster. More recently, the range of materials has expanded dramatically. Upon completion, fetishes are often decorated with prized beads, feathers, and arrowheads as offerings to sweeten the requests made of the gods. The assistance of a fetish has been requested for fertility, successful farming and hunting, protection from enemies, and abundant rainfall. But the use of a fetish alone does not insure the desired results. One's heart must also be pure and one's appeal appropriate. If the fetish has been offended, or if the supplicant does not have a pure heart, the petition will not reach the gods.

Individual fetishes appear to have few universal meanings. A bear fetish, for example, may mean one thing to the carver, another thing to a healer, and something else to a person gathering food or embarking upon a journey. Meanings and uses vary from clan to clan and society to society within the tribe. There is agreement, however, on the most powerful animal fetishes. In rank order of power and influence are the Mountain Lion whose jurisdiction is the North; the Bear who guards the West; the Badger of the South; the Wolf to whom belongs the East; the Eagle who rules the Skies; and the Mole who watches the Underground. In Zuni cosmology, these animals are each charged with the responsibility and guardianship of their sacred regions. Other creatures are also prized. Turtles represent ancestors who have become spirit beings; frogs often symbolize water, fertility, and abundance; corn maidens are the "goddesses" of the harvest; ducks protect the corn maidens from the eyes of humans.

Everything has its place in their belief system. Zuni see relationships across what the Western mind often perceives as boundaries. For example, in the Zuni view, the elemental force of lightning becomes the swift, deadly motion of a snake attacking its prey. That lethal power translates into a fetish carving of a snake and into the zigzag markings found on arrows, tipped by arrowheads given to humans by the lightning. That same energy shows up in the arrow-shaped heart line and the arrowhead offerings found on many fetishes. All are different forms of the energy which comprises all things. And the circle of life continues. While most tribal people create fetishes and talisman, the Zuni are exceptionally skilled. Their fetishes have been traded for ages. The neighboring Navajos have long used Zuni fetishes to guard their livestock.

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