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Indian fetishes are hand carved objects which represent the spirits of animals or the forces of nature. From the earliest times in North America, Native Americans have used fetishes in an effort to master the arbitrary and unpredictable forces beyond their control.

The earliest fetishes are called “Ahlashine” or ancient stone by the Zunis. They were naturally formed stones that seemed to resemble people or animals, sometimes made more realistic with the features accentuated by a carver. They are considered very powerful and were formerly thought to be ancient animals or people turned to stone.

Fetishes may be used in many ways, either by the individual or by the whole tribe, for good luck in the hunt, initiation into a society, the diagnosis or curing of illness, fertility, and propagation purposes, or for personal protection.


All Native Americans make and use fetishes. However, the Zunis have developed a reputation for being the most skillful in carving elaborate fetishes which are used in their religious rituals and are an integral part of their personal lives.

The most commonly used fetish is mile, a personal fetish given at the time of initiation into a religious society. This perfect ear of corn with feathers attached is kept for life. Zuni fetishes are given a place of honor in the Zuni home. Some receive special places on the family altar; others are kept in their fetish bowl when not in use. A fetish bowl is a handmade pot, usually encrusted with turquoise chips, with the four directional fetishes attached to the outside. Inside the pot, fetishes are stored in a mixture of wood ash and corn pollen. (If a mole fetish is in residence, it is usually kept in a leather bag because it does not like light.) These fetishes are ceremonially fed through a small hole in the side of the pot.


According to Zuni legend, the twin sons of Sun Father made the new world stable and safe for man by petrifying into stone the animals who threatened mankind. “By the magic breath of prey, by the heart that shall endure forever within you, shall ye be made to serve instead of to devour mankind.”

The “magic” refers to the belief that predators entrance their quarry to surrender with the breath from their lungs and hearts. Fetish carvers sometimes symbolize this “magic breath” with a heartline of inlaid stone running from the heart to the mouth.

The Zuni believe that animals possess powers greater than humans: they are faster, stronger, can fly into clouds or burrow to the underworld. These creatures are to be feared and respected. Po-shai-an-kia (Father of Medicine Societies) assigned predatory animals as guardians of the six directions (north, west, south, east, sky and underground). Some animals have the dual role of protecting and hunting.

According to Zuni tradition, each direction is associated with a color, a guardian animal and a healing animal:

  • North – Yellow, guardian and healing = Mountain Lion
  • South – Red, guardian and healing = Badger
  • East – White, guardian and healing = Wolf
  • West – Blue, Guardian = Coyote; Healing = Bear
  • Sky – Multiple colors, guardian and healing = Eagle
  • Underground – black, Guardian and healing = Mole


Badger (Tanaha) The younger brother of Bear and closely associated to Coyote (Badger and Coyote often travel together). Badger guards the south toward the winter sun, placing his den in that direction. While a fearless fighter, he is most associated with healing because of his digging ability and knowledge of roots and herbs. He helps medicine men. Badgers stand between night and day and represent perseverance, healing and purification

Bear (Ainceh) The protective animal of the west. The younger brother of Mountain Lion because he will eat roots and berries unlike puma. Bears also symbolize strength, endurance, the power of the soul and a healing power.

Beaver Builder, strong sense of family and home.

Bird Carries prayers to clouds and sky, asking for rain and blessings.

Bobcat Hunting animal of the South

Buffalo Endurance to oversome one's weakness

Corn Maiden Emerged with the Zuni from the Underworld. Brings plentiful harvests.

Coyote The younger brother and guards the west, setting in motion the turning of the seasons. He is also the trickster, teaching through laughter and humor.

Eagle represents the heavens above and symbolizes the spiritual connection between heaven and man. Eagle is both a protective and a hunting animals. His downy feathers are called “breath feathers” fluttering at the barest breath.

Fox Possessed with cunning and fleetness, also represents camouflage and protection

Frogs invoke the Spirits to provide raid, birds carry prayers to the clouds asking for blessing

Horse The possession of healing powers

Hummingbird has the role of scout and messenger. Hunters would tie feathers of hummingbirds to the tails of their horses for speed.

Mole Protective, relentless and endures. Is a symbol of the power within the ground of Mother Earth. A hunting animal of the underground and protector of growing crops.

Mountain Lion (Jodi-tasha) The Elder Brother and most powerful. Po-shai-an-kia gave it guardianship of the north to prevent evil from that direction. They also represent leadership and resourcefulness and are charged to protect the children of men from evil and be Maker of paths of men's lives.

Owls are not guardians of a cardinal direction, perhaps because they are associated with night and secrets and death, or maybe because they can be fickle. Silent and wise, they can help warriors in a successful raid; yet, they are also messengers and can warn of raids.

Rabbit Game species and helps the increase the numbers of animals

Ram Used to secure an increase in flocks

Raven Along with the horse possesses healing powers

Snake Life, death, rebirth and transmutation

Turtles represent fertility and long life. They are associated with the summer rituals providing rain. They are also a symbol of Mother Earth.

Wolf Teacher, pathfinder on the never-ending journey for survival.

Fetishes of game animals—bison, elk, mountain sheep, rabbits, antelope—help increase the numbers of those animals. Deer are in this category, but they are also associated with crop-s and farming and the Rainmaker sect.

True Zuni fetishes are distinctive as Zuni carvers concentrate on details: facial features and expressions, body undersides, detailed fur, feet, and claws and a high polish. As with everything in Zuni jewelry (inlay, needlepoint, and fetish carving), at the heart is a devotion to detail. A trait that is legendary with the Zuni.

Most carvers would agree that they are making carvings, not fetishes, and the power of the “fetish” rests with the owner, his beliefs and his respect. Fetishes inspire and entrance and most of all engage the owner to search for knowledge about himself and one's world.