Press: A Charmed Life

August 1993
by Susan Smith
in New Mexico Magazine

Fetishes establish a link to animal spirits

The hunter prayed, then sprinkled prayer meal in the direction that he planned to start on his hunt. He tugged a small stone bear out of his pouch, held it to his lips and inhaled, breathing in its animal spirit. ---- Native American legend

The little stone bear is a “we-me,” translating directly to “animal” in Zuni. In English, we refer to the little stone carvings as fetishes, yet there is no such word in Zuni.

Like most Southwestern tribes, the Zunis base their belief system on their relationship to animals, plants, earth and the forces of nature. The we-me, a hunting charm originally used only by males, is a tangible expression of the constant striving to achieve harmony with nature.

Long ago the Sun Father sent two of his children to earth because fierce animals were killing people. The two children turned the animals to stone, and told the animals that from there-on, by using the magic in their hearts, the animals would serve as mediators between the human and spirit worlds.

The first fetishes, or “concretion fetishes,” were naturally formed animal-shaped stones and shells. Archaeological sites show that the Zuni were using fetishes as early as A.D. 650. Fetishes that have been in tribal or individual possession for centuries are considered the most holy and valuable.

Each fetish animal has qualities that the owner admires, the eagle’s ability to fly high and see the tiniest detail below, the mountain lion’s independence and control of its territory.

Although the fetish was originally intended to be a hunting charm, it has become associated with war, initiations, propagation, curing diseases, gambling and protection against witchcraft. Fetishes have been buried in the ground to encourage the fertility of crops. In Zuni culture, a fetish may be owned by an individual, and entire tribe or by a secret society within the tribe.

Animals of prey (sic) use the breath from their hearts and lungs in order to charm their quarry into being caught.

The heartline, believed to represent the animal’s breath, is a relatively recent, and popular, addition to the fetish art. Scholars say the heartline was not used on early fetishes, though it can be found on some Pueblo petroglyphs. The Zuni used the heartline on late 19th-century pottery.

The hunter found a stone representing to him a prey animal, carved it just enough to enhance its form and tied a piece of turquoise onto it as a gift to the animal spirit within the stone. Cornmeal and water were regularly fed to the we-me to facilitate its powers. The hunting society blessed it, and the hunter put it in his pouch and took it hunting with him.

Zuni Edmund Ladd, curator of ethnology for the Museum of New Mexico, says the hunting ritual is alive at Zuni today. “The fetish itself is definitely a sacred object that is still in use. Just because they now make these ‘sculptures’ to sell, it hasn’t diminished their ritual aspects,” Ladd says. “The ones that are used for hunting purposes are very small, about one inch by one-half inch, and not very elaborate. They are also strictly a male symbol.” He adds that carvings eight inches or larger also are used by the medicine society.

Ladd claims that the popular idea of the “six directional” animals being prey (sic) creatures each guarding one particular direction is misleading. “In rituals, animals are assigned directions,” he explains. Ladd denounces a common belief that some fetishes are more valuable than others, saying, “Only when it is being used is an object sacred; when it’s not in use, it’s not sacred.”

In the 1930’s, much crafts activity was going on in Zuni, “but it really didn’t reach a peak of sculpturing perfection until about the 1960’s,” Ladd says. Once fetish carvings were merely suggestive of an animal figure, roughly hewn by knives and later hand-cranked on emery wheels. Now most of them are small, elaborately carved sculptures created with sophisticated machinery. Some of the most realistic looking fetishes are carved by the Cheama family, who make lizards, snakes, horned toads and other creatures.

Many Southwestern tribes make or use fetishes, but the Zunis are generally thought to be the most skillful carvers. In fact, most Southwestern fetishes are made by the Zuni. Other tribes trade with them for fetishes, believing that Zuni carvings have special power.

Robin Dunlap spent two years teaching school in Zuni, then managed Keshi, a Zuni cooperative in Santa Fe specializing in Zuni fetishes. Today she owns and manages the shop. This experience and her friendships with the Zuni over the years provide her with many insights about fetishes and those who buy them.

“People buy fetishes for many different reasons,” she says. “Some people have a dream about an animal and want a fetish to facilitate that dream.

“There are people who are interested purely from an aesthetic point of view, like the sculptor who bought fetishes by one particular carver because he really felt the carver captured a primitive, elemental feeling.

“People also come in if someone they care about is ill, or if they are ill themselves, and they’ll ask me what fetish is good for that. I don’t generally try to tell people what fetish to pick. I say open your heart and whichever fetish talks to you is the perfect one.”

Dunlap says she has seen the popularity of fetishes rise dramatically during the past three years. “I think it has to do with increased awareness of our environment and a desire to reconnect with nature, and with people using fetishes as helpers for their spiritual paths.”

The art of fetish carving is a living, growing tradition. Today, materials for carving come from as far away as China, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. The demand for fetish necklaces has resulted in increased production of fetishes. Men and women teach their spouses the art, and if they divorce each spouse teaches his or her new partner; thus the number of carvers continues to multiply.

Faye Quandelacy and her brothers and sisters are a close-knit family of carvers who first learned their craft from their grandfather, Johnny Quam, and their parents. Faye’s mother, Ellen Quandelacy, is well-known for her horse fetish necklaces. (The Zuni do not usually carve domestic animals.) Faye attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she studied pottery, sculpture and jewelry. Most of her carvings are corn maidens, six directional animals and fetish necklaces.

The “grandmother necklace,” a fetish necklace designed by Faye Quandelacy, combines one or two fetishes made by each of Ellen Quandelacy’s 11 children. “It’s actually a mother necklace,” says Faye. “I don’t know where the name ‘grandmother necklace’ came from, because we made it for our mother. I asked everyone to donate one or two of their carvings, and I added some beads and some of my own carvings, and strung it up. After that, a lot of people were trying to buy it off her, and she said no – it’s my necklace!” Faye began to make other grandmother necklaces to sell, buying the additional carving from her brothers and sisters. “If you purchase one, you have one or two of every one of our carvings.”

Another of her ideas is the ‘corn maiden fetish,’ a small woman in the shape of an ear of corn, sometimes with children in tow.

The Quandelacys live near one another, and some work in the same room on a daily basis. They are one of the five Zuni carving families descended from famous carvers Leekya Deyuse, Teddy Weahkee, Theodore Kucate, Hata-pupa and Old Man Acque.

Although fetish carving and sculpture are not traditional arts at Cochiti Pueblo, brothers Wilson and Salvador Romero have found carving to be a natural form of expression for them. Wilson Romero developed an interest in sculpture while attending the Institute of American Indian Arts, then began carving animal figures from the stones he found around the pueblo.

Both the Romero brothers work with natural stone found on the pueblo, and each has a distinct, personal style. Wilson Romero carves eagles, bears and other six-directional animals. Salvador Romero carves a wider variety of creatures, including macaws, rams and snakes.

Salvador Romero says that when he picks out a particular rock, he always knows what the animal will be and envisions how he will carve it. He spends a lot of time on the land near his home searching for rocks, which include sandstone, basalt and jet. The pieces he uses for the fetish’s bundle – shells, arrowheads, beads – are collected around the pueblo, bought at flea markets or given to him.

One of his favorite designs consists of two fetishes, creatures of either the same species or what he calls “friends,” two different species, tied together with sinew.

When Wilson began trying two years ago to market his fetishes in Santa Fe shops, he could find no buyers. Then, Dunlap saw his work and said immediately, “That’s it.”

“I believe the stones talk to the Romeros,” Dunlap explains. Since then, the Romeros’ primitive styles are in demand.

The current popularity of fetishes has led to changes.

An entrepreneur might hire a shop of carvers to mass-produce fetishes. The Navajos, in particular, have used this technique to take advantage of the market.

“And some people are signing fetishes now, which I think is more commercial,” Dunlap says. “Their very carving is their signature.”

But most fetish carvers (especially the Zuni) still make what the want to make and don’t compromise themselves or their beliefs.

“If you see feathers on a fetish you know it’s probably not Zuni. A Zuni fetish that does have a feather on it is probably a ceremonial piece and is supposed to stay wherever it originated,” Dunlap says.

Anthropologist Tom Bahti says the fetish was meant to “assist man, that most vulnerable of all living creatures… each fetish contains a living power which, if treated properly and with veneration, will help its owner.”

The fascination with fetishes and their powers is timeless. Fetishes remain an important part of daily ritual life for the Zuni. For others, fetishes are a link with the earth, representing the vision of an ancient culture whose talent and craftsmanship are destined to endure.

White House gets unusual fetish

President Clinton has raised hopes among Native Americans that things might be getting better for America’s original inhabitants. Perhaps he has some good medicine working on his side.

In the hectic, waning days of the presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Santa Fe. During the whirlwind tour of the Palace of the Governors, she paused to admire the Zuni fetishes on display in the museum shop.

Her tight schedule did not allow her to stop and browse, so she asked Alice King, wife of Gov. Bruce King, to return and pick out a fetish for her and her husband.

The governor’s wife later selected a bear fetish, which embodies the principle of intuition to the Zuni. Carol Anderson, a museum employee who waited on Alice King, also jokingly suggested, “Since he’s a Leo, why not get him a mountain lion?” King replied, “So am I!” and bought the mountain lion as well as the bear so the Clintons could choose between them. Both fetishes were sent to Little Rock, Ark., where then-Gov. Clinton picked the mountain lion as his favorite. Perhaps it should not be a surprise that the mountain lion’s medicine has to do with the tests of leadership.

Knowing the Clinton’s liked the fetish, the Kings decided to give one as an inaugural gift from the people of New Mexico. A representative of the governor’s office visited Keshi, a Santa Fe store specializing in Zuni fetishes and crafts, and asked owner Robin Dunlap if she could provide an eagle fetish for the new president. The eagle is the messenger who can rise above the mundane and see everything for a higher viewpoint. Robin contacted one of the Zuni Pueblo’s finest fetish carvers, Faye Quandelacy, with the request.

Faye carved an exquisite 4-inch-tall eagle from shimmering green snail shell, but later had misgivings the brittle shell might break. Though she attempted to make another eagle from turquoise, nothing else seemed to work – sometimes spirit has its own way. Robin delivered the silver and blue-green eagle to the Kings, and it was presented to the Clintons at a governors’ conference at the end of January.

We’ll see how the medicine works.

--C. John Graham