Introduction to Zuni Fetishes

For hundreds of years, Native American artisans have been creating beautiful carvings from wood, stone, or shell, including fetishes, masks, knives and utensils. Today, the tradition is carried on by a diverse group of Native American cultures, from the famed Zuni fetish carvers of the Southwest to Cherokee woodcarvers of the Southeast.


Fetishes are small carvings that depict animals or other important native icons. Many tribes and pueblos of the Southwest are known for making fetishes, but this ancient art form is most closely associated with the Zuni, who today are considered the most skilled fetish carvers. Early Zuni fetishes were called Ahlashiwe, or stone ancients. Traditionally, they depict wolves, bears, mountain lions, eagles, frogs, rabbits, fish, and other animals. The Zuni people believe that the skills and qualities of the animal reside in these fetishes and can bring some of the animals’ power to their keeper. They are often part of ceremonies and serve as a powerful connection to nature and the spirit world.

American Indians have used fetishes throughout recorded history.  Fetish carvings are believed to hold magical powers and protect the owner from various problems of mind or body.  The Zuni Indian Fetish must be care for and are given offerings of cornmeal and kept in special turquoise encrusted fetish pots or pouches. It is also believed that the care a native American fetish receives is directly proportional to the protection it will provide.

Zuni Fetish History and Use

The use of fetishes by the Zuni dates to before Columbus landed in the Americas. All southwestern tribes use fetishes, but the Zuni have always had the reputation as the most skillful carvers. For this reason, all other tribes have always looked to authentic Zuni fetishes as their source for personal charms, talismans and amulets.

Some Zuni fetish carvings are extremely old tribal possessions and may have been handed down in a family for generations. The Zuni believe that these carvings were at one time live animals, which were turned to stone by a lightning bolt. These treasures are not carved, but were created by nature and are said to have a sacred power bestowed to them during the creation of the earth. Objects of cultural patrimony (religious significance) may not be sold under Native American Graves Protection Act Regulations (NAGPRA) and other related laws.

Zuni fetishes that are sold to the public are “cleansed,” that is, they have been approved for sale by the Zuni Pueblo. The Zuni Pueblo is the only tribe that actively pursues as a tribal matter the duality of market fetishes and (unsalable) religious objects.

The use of fetishes by native Americans dates from pre-Columbian times, but their use is probably as prevalent today as it was in the past, for man’s desire to control those forces beyond his immediate power has not lessened.

Of the pueblo tribes, the Zuni have the reputation for being the most skillful at fetish carvers. The Zunis are looked to as a source for personal charms & amulets by members of other tribes. Concretions, plant or animal material, and of course carvings in shell, stone or wood can all be used as fetishes but their purpose remains the same, to assist man, the most vulnerable of all living creatures in meeting the problems that face them during their lives. Each fetish contains a living power, which, if treated properly and with veneration, will give its help to its owner. Should a desired result fail to be attained, the fetish is not at fault but the person who conducted the ceremony is. Either they offended the fetish (perhaps by failing to feed it ceremonially) or was not of “good heart” when they asked for its assistance. Because the power of a fetish is regarded as a living thing, it must be carefully tended and ceremonially fed, usually with corn meal. The purposes for which fetishes may be used are varied: hunting, diagnosing and curing diseases, initiations, war, gambling, propagation, witchcraft, and detection and protection against witchcraft.

The difference between a fetish and a carving is purely a matter of belief. If a particular object is believed to possess power, then it is a fetish. The collector is interested in form, material and age of a fetish. The native American is interested in efficacy. These attitudes are culturally determined.

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