Zuni tradition lives in fetishes

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Last Updated: 5 years

Zuni fetishes are more than just art. The Zuni consider the things least understood and most mysterious to be the most sacred and powerful.

Because animal ways can never truly be understood, animals represent those unknown powers.

To them, those powers can be transferred to diminutive animal carvings known as fetishes.
To the Zuni tribe and many other Native Americans, fetishes usually carved of stone house the spirit or supernatural qualities of that animal.

Bears signify medicine and are often blessed by tribal medicine men, snakes house the spirit of lightning, a horned toad means good luck, frogs are for fertility and coyotes represent hunting or the West.

“If you wanted to go hunting you would take a fetish to help you,” said Zuni fetish carver Verla Lasiloo-Jim.

“If they’re blessed by medicine men they’re kept for traditional uses.”

Various types of stones are used to shape the animals, which can be done using small motorized carving tools.

Lasiloo-Jim said carvers use a variety of stones to create their animals such as Picasso and Egyptian marblFor smaller versions of her carvings, Lasiloo-Jim  uses turquoise.

Lasiloo-Jim, who lives on the Zuni Indian Reservation south of Gallup, said she started carving fetishes after the death of her husband about three years ago.

“He passed away in November and when he did, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I didn’t think I could work and be able to sell this stuff.

“I started working on the turtles and frogs myself. My first raven was really funny looking. It was ugly. I kept it as a reminder.”

The sizes of the creations range to accommodate all types of fetish needs.

Some are small enough to be held in the palm of a person’s hand or placed in a medicine bag. Others are larger, for a mantelpiece or bookcase shelf.

Zuni Animal Fetish NecklaceThe smaller fetishes became popular with the arrival of the Spanish, who tried to suppress fetish worship.

Lasiloo-Jim said before she started making the fetishes, she knew she might have one buyer who would sell her handiwork.

Lasiloo-Jim said that buyer started ordering items from her and continues to do so today.

“In a way, it gave me a little faith in myself,” she said.

Although skilled in her craft, she said sometimes mistakes do happen.

“A couple of my frogs were supposed to be turtles,” she said.

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© 2002 Media News Group
Ms. Gritton is a staff writer for the Daily Times.