Press: Carved in Stone

August 2005
by Ashleigh Morris
in Santa Fean Magazine


Who can resist the spell of a talisman so small it fits into the palm of your hand? The tiny stone carvings known as Zuni fetishes, or wemawe, are not just charming, they are also endowed with special powers. Believed to be real animals shrunken and petrified in prehistory with their souls intact, Zuni fetishes transfer their own positive traits to their keepers – as long as they’re properly cared for and treated with respect. A badger assists in healing. A wolf acts as a guardian. A frog increases fertility.

“In western culture, we’re all feeling a lack of connection with the earth, with our spirituality,” says Bronwyn Fox, owner of Keshi: The Zuni Connection, a store that specializes in all things Zuni, and especially the fetishes they carve. In her tiny building just off Don Gaspar in downtown Santa Fe, everything from stone bats and bears to mountain lions and moles line the display shelves. By selecting a fetish, she says, “you are honoring the qualities of this animal, and honoring them in yourself,” a fetish being simply the physical embodiment of those characteristics you hope to enhance.

Because of their collective Anasazi heritage, all Pueblo Indians have incorporated animal carvings into some part of their culture, though none have gained quite the Zunis’ reputation for animal carvings. This small pueblo in western New Mexico is known even among other pueblos as a place of master carvers, with other Native Americans seeking out their work for its power and beauty. And although fetishes make up a small percentage of the offerings at Indian Market, their popularity continues to grow.

In the 1980s, an article in The Wall Street Journal brought national attention to these charming creatures, and interest in collecting them hasn’t slacked off since. In 1989, just over 100 Zuni made fetishes; today, that number hovers around 600.

The practice dates back to prehistory, when the tiny animals were used for various purposes: to protect a home or village, to assure abundant prey during a hunt, to increase the likelihood of a successful crop, to heal the sick, to protect a traveler on a journey. The story behind the fetishes is intriguing. According to Zuni belief, humans lived in an underworld before they emerged to the earth’s surface, which was marshlike – wet, swampy, and uninhabitable.

The Sun Father created twin brothers to look after humans, and they, in turn, created lightning, which started fires that dried the earth, making it livable. So humans emerged from the underworld. However, ferocious animals would periodically prey on them, so the brothers used lightning to turn the creatures to stone – except for their hearts, which were kept alive. The petrified animals were then instructed to serve as guardians for humans, and they have done so ever since.

But selling fetishes to the public is a more recent phenomenon. Though tiny stone animals are used in the Zuni fetish necklaces that have been traded since the early 1900s, the stand-alone figures were not available outside the pueblo until the 1970s. That’s because the wemawe tradition was originally a religious one – only certain members of the pueblo were empowered to create them.

Most of today’s Zuni artisans are descendants of five principal wemawe carvers: Teddy Weahkee, Leekya Deyuse, Theodore Kucate, Johnny Quam, and Leonard Halate.

“I grew up with the art,” says Indian Market artist Lena Boone, a well-known carver who is a descendant of Teddy Weahkee. Boone is known for her traditional, abstract forms in such diverse materials as opal, fossilized coral, and satin spar gypsum. “We’re teaching it to our kids, and they’ll teach it to theirs.”

The bear is the most popular figure among customers these days, most likely because it is the principal animal for the Zuni Pueblo – and because it embodies the greatest number of traits: healing, hunting, and safe travel. Other figures that rank high are the mountain lion, wolf, fox, badger, frog (especially with the recent drought), and turtle.

Yet these days, when it comes to fetish carvings, most anything goes. Ron Laahty, also a regular at Market, carves both realistic and whimsical figures. His crystal corn maidens, first introduced as a carving just 25 years ago by Faye Quandelacy, are no bigger than a thimble, while some of his miniature bears feature minuscule stone butterflies perched on a nose or ear.

“When I see a rock, I can see something in it,” says this 16-year veteran carver, who learned the art from his uncle Ricky Laahty, a famous carver of frogs. “I pick up a rock and examine it and start carving it. That’s how I do my work. I use my imagination.”

No longer do carvers limit themselves to such traditional materials as turquoise, travertine (also known as Zuni stone because of its abundance around the pueblo), azurite, jet, serpentine, and antler. Today’s carving tools, especially the electric Dremel, allow artists to tackle almost anything. “The whole market is expanding,” explains Bronwyn Fox, “and more than just the price. New stones are being introduced. The younger generation is taking it to a different level.” Fox recalls that when her mother, a non-Zuni who taught at the pueblo school, opened the store in 1981 a co-op, she was advised against carrying the carvings. “We had one case of them, and were told we were wasting that space.” Today, about 75 percent of Fox’s inventory is devoted to the art.

While it would seem logical that the more intricate the carving, the more valuable it is, that isn’t necessarily the case. Because these animals are part of Zuni creation mythology, the closer a fetish is to its original, natural state, the more power it possesses. The strongest are found rocks that already resemble animal forms. In fact, true traditional wemawe are stones that are manipulated minimally by humans. Carvings are actually non-traditional figures – two-faced owls, eagles perched on branches of coral, tiny frogs with bulging eyes and webbed feet, alligators and manta rays – that sell well to the general public but have no connection with Zuni culture.

What is the best way to care for fetishes properly? Methods vary. Some people keep them hidden away in bags – especially the ground-dwellers, such as moles – and take them out only in times of need. Others display their fetishes openly, in windowsills or on desktops and computer monitors. “Wherever you need that reflective ally, it’s OK,” says Fox. Fetishes also require regular nourishment: a sprinkle of cornmeal mixed with bits of turquoise every now and then as an offering to their souls. “The Zuni think it’s important,” Fox says of the feedings, “but there are no rules. Just be respectful.”

Don’t be confused by the diversity of styles. Some fetishes are simply beautifully carved animals. Others feature tiny bundles tied to their backs, considered offerings from the carver to the spirit of the animal.

Still others might have a jagged heart line etched from mouth to torso, a reference to their creation, when lightning transformed them to stone. “For commercial fetishes, these are just personal choices for the carver,” Fox explains. “They really don’t add power. A carver once told me, the power of a fetish comes from the spirit of the animal, the carver, the stone, and also the one who holds it.” The most important thing when it comes to fetishes is to choose one that speaks to you.


If you’re looking for more information about Zuni fetishes, consider getting a hold of one of these handy and affordable books. (They also make great gifts in conjunction with a carving.)

Zuni Fetishes: Using Native American Objects for Meditation, Reflection, and Insight, by Hal Zina Bennett. Provides information on how to use, care for, and maximize your connection with fetishes. Harper San Francisco, $19.00.

The Fetish Carvers of Zuni, by Marian Rodee and James Ostler. Details both the history of fetishes and information about major contemporary Zuni carvers. University of New Mexico Press, $18.95.

Zuni Fetishes, by Frank Hamilton Cushing, with contributions by Bruce Hucko and annotated by art historian Mark Bahti. Includes historical data and explains the cultural significance of fetish art. KC Publishing, $9.95.

Zuni Fetishes & Carvings: The Complete Guide, One-Volume Expanded Edition, by Kent McManis. Bronwyn Fox call this deluxe, newly combined and updated book “the bible of Zuni fetishes.” Features more than 160 color photographs. Rio Nuevo Publishers, $14.95.