Press: A Fetish for Carving

August 2004
by Kathleen Raphael
in New Mexico Magazine

Zuni craft takes a contemporary twist

Carver Hayes Leekya works with his hands and his heart. He enters his small workshop outside his house, puts on his denim apron and reaches for a stone. Leekya holds the piece and studies the weight, the lines of color and the shape. This tan chunk of rock will be a horse. He sits at his workbench, presses the stone to his grinding wheel, and with concentration and skilled hands creates a tiny equine. “I just pick up a rock and see a horse, a badger, a frog,” Leekya says.

Leekya raises the small horse-in-progress and smiles. “It is still pretty rough, but I will put it to the wheel, and you will see what happens.” He adjusts his grinder for polishing, and the horse takes on the shine of a brushed colt. Quick, careful lines etched with his hand-held motor become a mouth, mane, and tail. He switches to a small drill bit and drills holes for the eyes and nose. He checks his creation again and places small pieces of turquoise in the eyes. The finished carving sits atop his wheel. “Horses are my favorite,” he says.

A horse takes shape in the hands of Zuni fetish artist Hayes Leekya in his workshop at Zuni Pueblo. “Horses are my favorite,” he says.

Leekya is on of many carvers at Zuni Pueblo who craft small traditional carvings called fetishes. The pueblo near Gallup is the largest and the most densely populated of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico. Most fetish carvers work at home. Leekya built his workshop from discarded wood. Another carver, Verla Jim, works on her porch. “I like the light out here,” she says. Jim carves animals with babies attached.

“There are about 300 fetish carvers here,” says Lena Tsethlikai, Pueblo of Zuni cultural interpreter. Her son, Ardale Mahooty, is also a carver. Zunis produce a variety of art, including pottery, jewelry, furniture and beading, but the pueblo is best known for its fetish carvings.

“A fetish is an object in which a spirit dwells. If treated with proper respect and reverence the spirit will provide the owner with assistance in the form of supernatural power,” according to the Pueblo of Zuni Arts and Crafts. Traditionally those objects were in the form of animals and small enough to carry in a pocket or pouch. Carvers use a variety of stone, including alabaster, serpentine, Picasso marble, turquoise and jet.

For the Zunis there is a spiritual nature to animals and plants. “It is believed that animals have powers that humans do not: Animals are stronger, faster, and can fly or burrow underground and thus are creatures to be feared and respected. If a stone or a part of the landscape resembles an animal, such as a mountain that looks like a sleeping bear, or a stone shaped like a frog, then the spirit of that animal may reside in those objects,” according to Marian Rodee and James Ostler in their book The Fetish Carvers of Zuni.

Today, many of the carvings have a line either inlaid or painted from the mouth of the animal across the body. Garrett Banteah, manager of the Pueblo of Zuni Arts and Crafts, says that mark is the heart line or lifeline and represents protection and good luck. Some carvings have smaller objects, known as offerings, attached to the figure. These, according to Rodee and Ostler, can be seen as an offering to the animal spirit that resides within the fetish, and as the fetish is honored or nourished, so is the animal spirit inside.

For years, fetish carvings have been sought for protection or healing properties, and also by collectors. Tsethlikai says she remembers her grandfather telling her that Navajos would buy Zuni fetishes to protect their animals from predators. “He told me the Navajos used to put them near the corrals to keep the sheep safe,” she says. “They usually wanted a bear.”

Bronwyn Fox and her mother, Robin Dunlap, are co-owners of KESHI the Zuni Connection, a shop in Santa Fe that specializes in Zuni carvings. Fox says people buy fetishes for many reasons. Some see fetishes as art, while others want something beyond the object. “Some people buy a fetish to fill a void,” Fox says. “But the fetish should be seen as a reminder of the power that is within ourselves.”

Dunlap says some people come into the store expecting to buy a “blessed” fetish, but she made it clear the carvings she sells, although authentic Zuni work, are not ceremonial objects.

Many carvers have broadened the realm of subjects. Banteah says he sees all kinds of carvings, including Smokey Bear, cars, trucks and motorcycles. “They are carving new things, but it doesn’t represent the traditional ones used in ceremonies,” he says. “Those were not like these.”

The style of carving also has changed. Some carvers have taken the art in the direction of more detailed carvings and less traditional subjects. A tiny wasp, a skeleton or a dragon carved in exquisite detail from antler or fossilized ivory represent some of the more contemporary work. “This type of carving is more art than fetish. It wouldn’t be something you would carry around in your pocket. It is more for display,” says Vicki Trujillo, manager of Zuni Fetishes Direct in Gallup, a shop that sells only fetishes from Zuni Pueblo.

Fox and Dunlap have sold fetish carvings for more than 20 years in Santa Fe. Fox says recent trends include the use of multiple scenes. “The carvers are having fun and taking it to new levels,” she says. “Where traditional fetish carvings are about mind and medicine, the new carvers focus on individuality and artistic expression.”

Hayes Leekya adds turquoise hooves to one of his horse fetishes.

Leekya describes his work as “new traditional.” His carvings are more stylized and many are carved in Zuni rock. This honey-colored stone, also known as travertine, is found in an area on the pueblo where Leekya’s father and grandfather also gathered the stone. Before gathering stone, Leekya offers food and blessing to have a good day finding rocks. As a member of a celebrated and documented fetish carving family, Leekya carries on the tradition. He is the son of carver Francis Leekya, who died in 2003. His grandfather was renowned carver Leekya Deyuse. It is a heritage that Leekya is honored to share. Just as there are common characteristics among family members, the same is true with carving styles.

Leekya places one of his carvings close to a photograph of his grandfather’s carving: “Look at those faces. What do you see? They are almost the same,” he smiles.

Leekya says it takes him about four hours to complete a carving. His day begins at sunrise. He breaks for lunch and then works until sunset. In his workshop, which measures about 8 by 8 feet, all his tools are within reach so he can work efficiently. It is dusty work and grinding takes a toll on his fingers.

After a day of carving, Leekya looks at his box of scraps outside his workshop. From the pile of rejected rocks, flawed and broken carvings, he picks one up and looks at it. “Some days I can come out here and work all day and make animals and some days it doesn’t work at all,” he says. He tosses the broken carving back in the pile and shuts the door to his shop. Tomorrow he will pick up another rock and see a horse, a badger or a frog.

Hayes Leekya with his finished fetish, destined for a collector at Keshi, a Santa Fe store that deals in Zuni fetishes. 

Reprinted with permission of Kathleen Raphael. Photos by Jeff Jones.