Native Americans have created and used carved stone fetishes throughout recorded history; particularly those residing in the Southwest. A fetish is an object, typically carved of stone, rock, or antler, that is believed to have special powers.
Fetishes may take any form, and are carved from myriad materials. Regardless of the form or material, however, a fetish has one paramount purpose: to assist man against any real or potential problems or obstacles, which can be anything from those of the mind, to those of the body, or even those of the universe. The earliest fetishes are called “Ahlashiwe,” or “stone ancients” by the Zuni people. They were naturally formed stones that seemed to resemble people or animals, sometimes made more realistic with features accentuated by a carver.
An individual, family, clan, kiva society, or entire tribe can own a fetish. Regardless of ownership, the care of a fetish is always the responsibility of an individual. Special care must be taken to see that the fetish is properly fed, admired, and tended to. Fetishes are believed to feed on cornmeal while they are kept in a special pot or pouch. Ground turquoise is often mixed with this cornmeal.
Once a fetish is made, it is often “decorated” with turquoise, arrowheads, coral and stone as a means of adornment. This adornment is a show of affection and appreciation by its maker and/or owner. The better the treatment a fetish receives, the better performance it is likely to provide.
Most fetishes depict animals, and animals of prey are most common. These are acknowledged as the most powerful providers in life, so they are likewise accepted as having the greatest powers. Generally admired for their strong hearts, it is widely believed that these animals are dominant and therefore, survivors. They are the hunters rather than the hunted.
The Zuni, considered the most prolific fetish carvers, believe strongly in six cardinal guardian fetishes. Each is symbolic of a direction and is associated with a specific color, which is synonymous with the direction a well. The guardian fetish of the North is the mountain lion, and its color is yellow. The guardian fetish of the South is the badger, and its color is red. The West is guarded by the bear, its associated color blue, and the East is guarded by the wolf, which is white. Additionally, the mole is the guardian of Nadir, or inner earth, associated with black, and the eagle is guardian of Zepath, or the sky/up, associated with all colored bird forms.
The Zuni also believe that the power and strength of a fetish is obtained by placing the nostrils of the fetish to one’s mouth and taking deep breaths. The guardian fetishes, mentioned above, are intrinsically involved in Zuni kiva rites, but exactly how fetishes are used in the kiva is known only to those initiated into the different kiva societies.
Carved stone fetishes are truly representative aspects of Native American culture, used by Natives and non-Natives alike to aid in navigating the winding paths of life. These objects not only provide a physical sense of comfort, but are often looked to for spiritual and emotional strength and healing, and are yet another beautiful reminder of the richness of Native American history and heritage.