Native American Indian Fetishes: Importance and Creation
You may have seen them around our store—small animal figurines carved out of stone. Some have precious stone inlay, others have feathers or arrows tied to them. These beautiful, precious carvings are called fetishes and, like kachina dolls, these hand-made pieces come from a spiritually-significant form of art.
The Significance of Fetishes
Fetish carving is an ancient art of spiritual significance. According to ancient beliefs, fetishes are thought to be a source of spiritual protection and aid to an individual, family or tribe. The type of animal and any embellishments determine the type of aid the fetish provides.
It is believed that animals and other inanimate objects have a spirit that can either help or hurt man. If treated properly, the spiritual force within a fetish can aid the possessor overcome troubles and tribulations.
According to spiritual practices, there are six guardian fetishes that represent the six regions, or directions, of the world:
- Mountain Lion (North)
- Bear (West)
- Bobcat (South)
- Wolf (East)
- Eagle (Sky)
- Mole (Earth)
In Zuni tradition, the bobcat is replaced with a badger.
There are also many other animals you will find represented by fetishes, including:
- Bighorn Sheep
Each animal retains its own spiritual powers and characteristics. The mountain lion, for example, teaches cunning and resourcefulness, especially when hunting game. Frogs represent water, prayers for rain and fertility.
Art versus Religion
Their spiritual relevance gives fetishes a place of honor within the homes of many Pueblo members. They are kept in a special place, usually a type of hand-made pot or, in the case of the mole (which doesn’t like light), a special pouch. The fetishes are fed cornmeal ceremonially through a small hole in the side of the pot. The more respect and reverence a fetish is shown, the more assistance it will give in return.
Not all fetishes are used for spiritual purposes, however. Although fetish carving is found among most Native American Indians of the southwest, Zuni and Isleta Pueblos are best known for their fetishes. The carvers carve for art as well as for their own spiritual use. They carve beautiful fetishes for collectors and for other tribes; the art is an important aspect of their economy.
Every fetish is unique; there are no stamp-presses or conveyor belts; each fetish is hand-carved by an artist in their workshop. Each artist also has his or her own unique style— many collectors will accumulate work from the artist whose style they favor.
Material often used for fetishes include:
- Fossilized ivory
- Elk antler
The fetish is carved using a mix of implements including a grinding wheel, hand-held motorized carving tools and hand tools that are used to shape the fetish and etch details and designs. Artists may also use shell such as mother-of-pearl, coral and turquoise, used as accent material. Material for prayer bundles on some carvings include carved arrowheads, small heishi beads and feathers. The artist may also incorporate an incised or painted heart line, a line that runs from the mouth of the fetish across the body, which represents protection and good luck.
If you’re interested in learning more about fetishes, or want to view our beautiful items, we would love for you to come to Palms Trading Company! We’re here to answer all of your questions and help you find the perfect fetish to add to your collection!