Sunday, June 02, 2013

Zuni and the art of Zuni fetish carving

A few miles south of Gallup, New Mexico and near the Arizona state line lies a Native American pueblo with a colorful history of survival. From Conquistador assaults, Christian proselytizing, seasonal extremes in temperature and moisture, Anglo expansion and commercial exploitation, the Zuni people have persisted.

No one knows for sure, but some speculate that the Zuni Pueblo's persistence is partially a result of the a'shiwi  dedication to a culture that is highly creative. Among the artistic traditions of the people is that of "fetish" carving. It began in Zuni prehistory, from a Zuni belief that when the Zuni people emerged onto the surface of the earth, the Sun Father ordered his twin sons to protect them from wild and aggressive animals, for which the people were not well prepared cope with. The twin sons hurled down bolts of lightening to strike the the animals and freeze their spirits in stone. The stone animals were commanded to use their powers and cunning to serve the Zuni people.

Zuni bear fetish carvingWith this story as part of their culture, a Zuni would find a stone object that resembled a bear or a mountain lion, or some other predator, he assumed the stone contained the protective spirit that the belief described. Those stones would be gathered up to provide protection for the bearer. Eventually, they would be slightly reshaped to appear even closer to the creature. The stones would be kept for protection and to assist the hunter in his hunt.

The acquisition of a new "fetish" was accompanied by a prayer for help in the hunt and thanks for the result that would go to feed their families. In theory, a Zuni carving doesn't not become a "fetish" until is blessed by a tribal priest. But Zuni carvings have become so skilled and the results so attractive that people began to collect the carvings. The use of the term "fetish" stuck among the collectors.

As the tradition evolved, the creatures became more intricate and finished in their appearance. The six-direction coterie of bear, mountain lion, badger, wolf, eagle and mole, protectors of the west, the north, the south, the east, the sky and the netherworld respectively, were expanded to any number of creatures the carver could imagine and reproduce. Similarly, while the original materials were the found stones, the repertory has expanded to include turquoise, coral, shell, jet, and Zuni rock, a travertine found at Zuni, and materials as exotic as lapis lazuli, amber, opal, pipestone, tagua nut, labradorite and more.

The combination of more versatile materials, more different creatures and more detail have spurred growing popularity among people who love to collect. When you catch the bug, you will find ample opportunities to find what you are looking for. Many carvers sell from their home studios in Zuni.  Some of the more noteworthy carvers are Lena Boone and her family, Evalena boone, Leland Boone and  Robert MIchael Weahkee. Lena's sister is Dinah Gasper, both are descended from Edna Leki. Other very collectible carvers include Dee  Edaakie, Burt Awelagte, The Quandelacys - Sandra, Stewart, Stuart, Avery, Kateri, Vicki, Andres, Georgia, Talia and Faye. Todd Westika, Fitz Kiyite, Gibbs Othole and Lynn and Jane Quam are more. The list goes on (apologies to any that my faulty memory has left out.)

If you can't make the trip to Zuni, however, there are dozens of dealers in local galleries throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and other Western states, plus in major cities across the country. Even more convenient, there are numerous sellers online, some on eBay and other on their own websites. Just search for "Zuni fetish carvings".

As with anything popular, the carving tradition has expanded to include Native Americans from other tribes and pueblos. Salvador Romero is an accomplished carver from Cochiti, as is his brother, Wilson Romero. Navajo carvers include Sammy Smith and Ben Livingston. 

Otter carving by Melvin SandovalMelvin Sandoval, a San Felipe member, who is married to a Zuni woman, has developed a very distinctive, abstract style that has attracted a strong following among collectors. 

Delbert Charging Crow roadrunner carvingOne of our favorites is Delbert Charging Crow, a Lakota Sioux, whose carving is very spiritual.

As you venture into the field, be sure to select Zuni fetish dealers with good records, positive reviews, a history of successful customer satisfaction and the willingness to stand behind their provenance for each piece.  In addition, if you are buying based on online photographs, be sure your seller will accept a return if you are unhappy with your purchase when you see and hold it.

Welcome to the world of Zuni fetishes and fetish carving.  Make yourself comfortable. Elahkwa

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