By: Edward Readicker-Henderson
The bobcat knows secrets. The crow is the keeper of sacred law. The frog brings rain. The Zuni knew these things and made carvings, called fetishes, to help them access this other world. (The word “fetish” comes from the Portuguese feitiço, meaning “made by art.”) For collectors, Zuni fetishes are beautiful, highly sought after and small—most fit easily in the palm of the hand.
The Zuni are centered in New Mexico’s Zuni River Valley, west of Albuquerque, near the Arizona border. The land might never have been noticed by outsiders, except that in 1539, Spanish explorers decided that the Hawikuh pueblo was one of the Seven Cities of Cibola, a city of gold. This did not do the locals any favors. But today Zuni Pueblo is one of the most traditional Native American areas left in the state, with an economy largely supported by the arts.
Zuni fetishes can be made of anything from shell and antler to cornhusks. Most on the market are of stone, frequently decorated with string, feathers or beads. What separates fetishes from other carvings is their use and power. A carving is decoration; a fetish offers a connection to the larger world. Through a fetish carved like a bear, one comes into contact with Bear, the embodiment of strength and introspection. It gets tricky talking about these things in English, because most commentators immediately run to the words “supernatural” and “spirit.” But it’s both more complicated than that and a lot simpler. Fetishes come from the genius of closely observing the world.
For a collector, a good entry point into the world of fetishes is through the directional guardians: North is guarded by the mountain lion; south, by the badger; west, the bear; east, the wolf; the mole protects the inner earth; and above it all, in the sky, is the eagle. Traditionally, fetishes required proper attention: They were kept in special containers and ceremonially fed cornmeal. If things didn’t go right for the person using the fetish, it was never because of the fetish, but rather because either the fetish wasn’t taken proper care of or the person trying to use it did not have the right goals or mindset.
Prices for contemporary fetishes can be as low as $100, up to $3,000–4,000; older pieces, made before, say, the 1930s, when fetishes began to be commercially carved, can run to the tens of thousands of dollars. (There can be religious and cultural-property issues involved with buying older fetishes.) For new fetishes, says Bronwyn Fox-Bern at the Santa Fe, N.M.-based gallery Keshi: The Zuni Connection, “the number one consideration is who made it.” For example, she raves about artist Gibbs Othole: “very whimsical, some of the most alive carvings.” Other factors to consider are the size of the carving, the amount of detail and the stone involved. But what it comes down to with all the best artists, says Fox-Bern, is that they “are letting what’s already in the stone come out. They’re letting the stone speak.”
One thing for the collector to beware of is the number of imitations on the market; just as the Hopi kachina market has been flooded with Navajo imitations, so has the Zuni fetish market. Fetish necklaces are especially suspect, according to Fox-Bern. But, says Alston Neal of Old Territorial Shop in Scottsdale, Ariz., the single most important thing for collectors to remember is that “you find one that is drawn to your heart.” Time and again, he says, he’s seen buyers zoom right in on a particular fetish, then spend hours looking at all the others before going back to buy that first one. The fetishes “pick you out,” he says. “You don’t pick them out.”