Article by Darlene Meader Riggs
Zuni fetish photos by David Austin Riggs
For those of us fortunate enough to discover Zuni fetishes, there seems to be an immediate and powerful wish to learn more. That's not to say that some aren't perfectly content to pick up a Zuni fetish or two while on vacation in Santa Fe and call it a souvenier of their trip but, for the most part, those who are drawn to and fascinated by Zuni fetishes are soon hungry to learn as much as they can about Zuni culture and the ancestry and history of the talented carvers of Zuni Pueblo.
Guardians of the Six Sacred Directions - A Healing & Protective Set
One of the first things that we Zuni fetish collectors learn is that the Zuni People (the A:Shiwi) believe in six sacred directions. This was established by Po'shai an k'ia, the God of the Medicine societies. He made an appearance in human form and taught the ancestors of Zuni, Taos, Oriabi (Hopi) and Coconino (Havasupai) about agriculture, introduced their systems of worship and organized their medicine societies. And when he disappeared it is said he departed to the "Place of the Sun" - his homeland.
At the time when all human beings were of one family the father, Po'shai a ki'a, lived with his family in the middle place at the center of the Medicine societies of the world. Being guarded on six sides by his warriors or bow priests. On the north, the Mountain Lion. Toward the west, the Bear. In the south, the Badger. Toward the east, the Wolf and above by the Eagle. The underworld was guarded by the Mole.
He divided the Universe and named the regions accordingly:
- The North: the direction of the swept or barren place, Pi'sh lan kwin tah na.
- The West: direction of the home waters or Kia li shi in kwin tah na.
- The South: the place of the beautiful red, A la ho in kwin tah na.
- The East: the home of the day or The lua in kwin tah na.
- The Upper regions: Home of the high or I ya ma in kwin tah na
- And the Lower regions: Ma ne lam in kwin tahna or the Home of the Low.
Frank Hamilton Cushing remarks in his book "Zuni Fetishes" that each of these directions was associated with a natural color seen in life. The barren north with it's auroral hues, the blue Pacific of the west, the rosy sun-warmed colors of the south, the white daylight of the east, the multi-colored hues of the clouded sky and the black darkness of the caves and underworld.
Guardian of the North - the Mountain Lion
Guardian of the West - the Bear or the Coyote
Guardian of the South - the Badger or the Bobcat
Guardian of the West - the Wolf
Guardian of the Zenith - the sky - the Eagle
Guardian of the Nadir - the underworld - the Mole
And so it was. Each of the warrior animals was not only the guardian of their appointed regions geographically, they also possessed the medicinal powers emanating from their domains and they were employed as mediators between man and Po'sha a ki'a and vice versa.
In Zuni, messages are carried to the Gods by means of the prayer stick. And messages (and punishments) are conveyed to man by his guardian warriors. There are myths told of an irresponsible religious leader who, upon shirking his duties, was punished by bear. Mitsi was on a mesa cutting corral posts when a black bear approached him, dragged him from the lowly pine tree he had climbed for safety, sat upon him pressing the wind out (not once, but twice) and then ate his foot. It was long thought that though Mitsi lived, his punishment was clearly viewed for all who knew him watched him limp painfully the rest of his life.
True fetishes, those kept in sacred places by powerful medicine societies, are never sold. They are prayed over ceremonially and plumed prayer sticks implore the Gods for a variety of blessings. Full moon ceremonials are also ritually performed to maintain good relations with all the prey Gods. The full extent of ceremonial use of Zuni fetishes is not for us, the non-Zuni, to know or understand. And our fetishes, those carved for artistic expression and as a means of support for the family and, ultimately, the Pueblo, are sacred in their history, beauty and meaning but not sacred in the context of Zuni religion with regard to the Pueblo and to it's ceremonial activities.
That being said, there is still power in the employment of Zuni fetishes with regard to self improvement! Taking into consideration the attributes and qualities of each of the guardian animals we can all utilize Zuni fetishes to remind us of strengths we hope to gain and weaknesses we strive to overcome.
Zuni mountain lion fetishes
The beautiful mountain lion, long-tail, puma or cougar (all names for the same animal) is the guardian of the north and is a most powerful hunter. He is associated with the color yellow and appears in both hunting and healing directional sets. Today, mountain lion fetishes are carved with great realism and detail and also in the more ancient, primitive style. Before the introduction of power tools, most mountain lion fetish carvings were represented with their tails up and over the back. Now carvers are able to carve long, flowing tails that extend behind the back or even curl in delicate swirls. The mountain lion can remind us to perservere, clarify our goals and move forward to achieving our dreams. Some carvers who are best known for their mountain lion carvings are Wilfred Cheama, Dan Quam, Prudencia Quam & Vernon Lunasee and Jeff Tsalabutie.
Zuni bear fetishes
The powerful bear represents the western direction in a protective and healing fetish set. He is associated with the color blue and known for his curative powers. Though all bears are healers, white bears are particularly powerful. Characteristics associated with bears include strength, courage, adaptability, healing and spiritual communion. Bears are carved most often by Zuni carvers and may be highly realistic or very simple in execution. Emery Eriacho, Stewart Quandelacy, Herb Halate, Herbert Him and a host of others are known for their bear fetishes.
Zuni coyote fetishes
The coyote is the representative of the western direction in a hunting set, replacing the bear in a healing directional set and is also associated with the color blue. The coyote's characteristics are arrogance and a sense of self-importance. Despite this, he can be a great teacher showing us how our impulsive nature or our self-centeredness fail to serve us well. And he can remind us to recognize those habits which ultimately make our lives more difficult. Many coyotes are carved in a seated position and some are howling. The Cheama's carve beautiful coyotes with tremendous detail and etched fur.
Zuni badger fetishes
The tenacious badger represents the southern direction in a protective and healing fetish set. He is most often associated with the color red and is believed to have knowledge of healing roots and herbs. Characteristics associated with badgers include passion, control, persistence and earthiness. Herbert Him carves beautiful, powerful badgers that are often protecting a pueblo.
Zuni Bobcat Fetishes
In a hunting directional set, the bobcat is the elder brother of the wolf and represents the southern direction, replacing the badger of the healing directional set. He is most often associated with the color red. He is carved of many materials but probably most often from Picasso marble. He can be depicted in an extremely realistic style (like the Cheamas render) or a very symbolic style (like Dan Poncho). Characteristically he's thought to be a clever hunter as he doesn't have the size or power of the mountain lion. There are stories about he and coyote playing tricks on each other. The prankster coyote smushed the bobcat's nose and tail in while he was sleeping. And when the bobcat woke up and realized what happened he sought revenge by pulling the nose of the sleeping coyote making it long and pointy and yanked the tail so long that it nearly drags the ground.
Zuni wolf fetishes
In Zuni the wolf is considered the younger brother of both the badger (in a healing set) and the bobcat (in a hunting directional set.) He is most often associated with the color white and may be carved from selenite or white marble, alabaster or serpentine that is pale in color. Today's artisans will carve him in great detail with etched fur and a stalking pose. Characteristically he's thought to be loyal with strong family ties. Wolves are carved by Herbert Him (usually in a howling position), the Sheche family, Andres Quandelacy, the Laiwakete family and the Cheama family, among others.
Zuni Eagle Fetishes
The guardian of the zenith or sky, the eagle is multi-colored and he is part of both a healing and a hunting directional set. He is the messenger to the Gods and associated with power, balance, dignity and grace. Highly revered in Zuni, the eagle's feathers are still used in sacred ceremonies. Some of the carvers who make Zuni eagle fetishes are Pernell Laate (d.), Herbert Hustito, Derrick Kaamasee, Prudencia Quam, Gibbs Othole and Lena Boone.
Zuni Mole Fetishes
And the tiny mole is the the unassuming guardian of the "nadir" or underworld. They are also appreciated for keeping the gardens free of pests. Associated with the color black, they are often carved of jet or black marble. Many artists will inlay eyes while other will leave the mole "blind". Moles remind us to watch for the subtle things in life. Change is still change even when made in small increments! Abby Quam, Jayne Quam, Georgia Quandelacy and Arvella Cheama are all carver who make beautiful mole fetishes.
Wisdom from Idiwanna
The Zuni believe that all life is precious. The sun, moon, stars, earth, sky and sea, all plants, all animals and all men are connected. To the Zuni way of thinking the man is the most "unfinished" and so the least in importance. Perhaps we had all assumed the Zuni way of thinking we might not be facing global warming. We might not be worried about our food supply or antibiotics in our waterways. It's possible that the seas would not be over-fished, the forests burned or clear cut. If we all respected the earth as our Mother, if we recognized the power of the Sun, the importance of the Rain or the potential of the Wind we might not be faced with such a bleak future for our grandchildren's grandchildren.
There is much wisdom in the knowledge of the ancients. And the symbolism in Zuni fetishes can help remind us of this fact ... if only we will be reminded.
Links you might enjoy.
- Zuni Fetishes and their origin
Zuni Spirits: The symbolism, meaning and origin of Zuni fetishes
- Zuni Fetishes from ZUNI SPIRITS!
Zuni Spirits: Authentic Zuni fetishes direct from Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico!
- ZUNI SPIRITS: A Portfolio of Fine Zuni Fetish Carvings
This newly published photographic essay presents Zuni fetishes in glorious artistic light as never before! 160 full color pages in hardcover book with dust jacket. Introduced by Zuni's Governor Norman Cooeyate. By David Riggs & Darlene Meader Rig
- Zuni Fetishes - What's Not To Love?
by Darlene Meader Riggs of Zunispirits.com. "I distinctly remember my early fascination with rocks. I couldn't have been more than three .. but already I was curious about them, collected them and..."
- Zuni Spirits - THE BLOG - What's new?
This is the Zuni Spirits blog where we keep collectors updated on new Zuni fetish arrivals and other Zuni Spirits news. You may subscribe to receive as email or via rss reader.
Dee on October 31, 2010:
Wonderful articles, Darlene! I also lust for more! More of your insight, more Zuni info and, of course, more bears! I also would LOVE to learn how my fellow Zuni fetish collectors display and/or care for their precious fetishes. Perhaps pictures of the displays would be interesting. And, how about some articles about the carvers themselves - their families and history, etc. I know this has been done - but, again, I lust for more!
Shauna Roberts on January 30, 2009:
Thanks for this article. I have all the standard books on Zuni fetishes, but I lust to learn more.