Small, intricately carved fetishes of ceremonial animals and figures are a popular form of contemporary art created by the Zuni Tribe of eastern New Mexico.
The origins and significance of the Zuni fetishes were discussed during a conference put on by the Society of Cultural Astronomy in the American Southwest, at the Crow Canyon Archeology Center Oct. 27-29.
The Earthly directions are symbolized by beast Gods in Zuni culture, and are often depicted in fetishes hand-carved from bone, jasper, turquoise, marble, coral, amber, abalone, conk shells, mother of pearl, fossilized mammoth tusks, antler and other materials.
The mountain lion represents the north, the badger the south, the shambling bear the west, and fox, or wolf the east. The eagle is the intermediary between humans and sky powers, and the mole or shrew signifies the nadir below.
“This Zuni realize the meaning of direction and how it relates to everything around them. Tradition relates certain animals with protective and survival aspects to each of the directions,” said presenter Von del Chamberlain, who is studying the art form.
Other Zuni fetishes take the form of corn maidens, also an important aspect of the tribe’s culture and daily life.
Corn maiden fetishes usually contain two prominent symbols: a simple star cross and dragonflies.
In Zuni culture, “dragonflies are Shamanistic creatures. They symbolize water and clouds and are messengers,” Chamberlain said.
The refined and provocative artwork that represent the ancient Zuni culture have made its fetishes a desired art form worldwide.
“They are made from the body of Mother Earth and are treasured by people who consider them to the remains of early times, imbued with spirits more powerful than themselves,” Chamberlain says.