Zuni fetish collectors attracted to the small stone carvings of animals find their reasons for collecting to be as individual as the carvings themselves.
Collectors range from Dr. Boyd and Mary Evelyn Walker, whose collection housed at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum of more than 3,900 carvings systematically documents the rapid and fascinating changes in Zuni fetish carving tradition in the late 20th century, to a young boy searching the shelves of a Santa Fe shop to find the perfect black stone horned lizard just because he likes them.
Carved for over a thousand years by artists of Zuni Pueblo for personal and religious use, the stone and shell animals small enough to fit into the palm of your hand became part of the Indian tourist market by the early 20th century.
“The breadth of Zuni fetishes has widened over time, with some artists adding more realistic representations and exotic animals to their body of work,” says Rick Smith, owner of the Oldest House Indian Shop in Santa Fe. “Other artists have returned to a more simplistic and traditional style. Collectors respond to both for the positive energy and beauty the tiny carvings hold.”
The traditional bears, mountain lions, wolves, badgers, moles and eagles, now are joined by dolphins and seahorses. Despite changes in the carvings, their meanings have changed very little. The animals represented are honored for their natural traits, which bring to mind our own similar attributes. The bear is associated with strength, power and self-knowledge and is carried for healing. The mountain lion represents leadership and resourcefulness and is carried for travel. The horned lizard represents longevity and self-reliance. For the Zunis, every animal carved has a meaning and the carvings represent the animal spirit thought to reside in the stone.
“The Zunis regard the carvings as something to care for, even offering it a little cornmeal next to its place on the shelf as a sign of respect for the spirit of the animal represented,” Smith says. “Adding to that connection and response to nature is the beauty and artistry of these carvings, which are true works of art.”
To learn more, visit the Oldest House Indian Shop at 215 East De Vargas St. in Santa Fe or online at www.oldesthouseindianshop.com. Reach the shop by phone at 505-988-2488.