Zuni Fetish Carvings and Zuni Necklaces

Zuni Fetishes as a Modern Oracle

Zuni Fetishes as a Modern Oracle by Hal Zina Bennett, Ph.D.

For the Zuni people of New Mexico, fetishes provide a way of accessing ancient wisdom and aligning with the natural forces.

Although the Zunis have traditionally used several kinds of fetishes,this article will focus on the most common type-the small, carved figures that depict animals appearing in the Zunis’ physical environment and mythology. The Zunis revere these small stone carvings as mediators between the human and the spirit worlds. Today, many other peoples are using these fetishes as tools for both exploring the inner world and calling upon spiritual helpers from the “unseen world” for assistance in everyday life.

The earliest fetishes were found objects rather than crafted figures. Stones in the shapes of animals were believed to be actual petrifaction’s of animals that had once lived and to contain the spirits of the animals they physically resembled. These fetishes put one in touch with the innate wisdom and characteristic qualities derived from the Zunis’ knowledge of the natural world plus their mythology of the animals they depicted.

Early missionaries in the Southwest mistakenly believed that the Zunis worshipped these little figures as idols, but this was not the case. The idol worshipper believes the object itself to be a deity, while the fetishist looks upon the object as a representation of a spirit or force that is evoked through the figure. The Zunis use the fetish as a messenger to assist them in their communications with the spirits and deities.

At its most rudimentary level, consultation with a fetish might be compared to the act of prayer, meditation, or contemplation-and it is an activity which is accessible to all persons, regardless of cultural origins. Just as our knowledge of any form or force, and our empathy with it, can be evoked through our words, so the same can be evoked-in a perhaps more complete form-through the fetish. Holding fetishes in our hands or placing them before us as we pray or meditate, we bring ourselves more and more in line with their spirits. And it is through this alignment with Spirit that we experience the fetish’s greatest power. Anthropologist Tom Bahti states that the fetish was intended to “assist man, that most vulnerable of all living creatures, in meeting the problems that face him during his life. Each fetish contains a living power which, if treated properly and with veneration, will give its help to its owner.”

According to Zuni cosmology, everything in the universe-from natural forces, such as lightning, wind, or great droughts, to physical entities, such as rocks, animals, rivers, and human beings-has its own spirit. Each of these spirits has the power to observe, think, and respond to humankind. An inanimate object, such as a rock or a clump of dirt, is believed to possess a spirit similar to that of a hibernating bear or a seed that has not yet been planted. The power is simply dormant, for the moment. Moreover, all forces and life forms have their origin in, and are constantly part of, a larger force-comparable to the Tao- for which there is no name. Zuni religion teaches that we are all part of an endless sea of Spirit in which appear an infinite number of physical forms.

The fetish provides its owner with an icon or reference point for navigating in a spiritual world where there are few objective boundaries. In this respect, our conversations with the fetish’s spirit remind us of our relationship with the organizing force of the universe, thus connecting us with a power that is infinitely greater than our own egos.

Guidance from the Unseen World

Zuni cosmology begins with an ambiguous description of a formless mist and the presence of A’wonawil’ona, who is the “Container of All Things.” Everything created in the universe comes from within A’wonawil’ona, including life spirit, which permeates all and links humanity with the entirety of nature and the cosmos. The Zuni word for this universal spirit isa-ha-i, roughly translated as the “life force in all beings.”

In Zuni mythology, A’wonawil’ona created Sun Father, Moon, and two superhuman beings, Shi-wa-ni and Shi~wa-no-kia, who, in turn, created Earth and the starry skies. Deep within Earth, Shi-wa-ni and Shi-wa-no-kia also produced the beings that would one day become humans, insects, and other animals.

After human beings had evolved into a form resembling their present one, A’wonawil’ona sent a number of deities to Earth for the good of all. At that time, the world consisted mostly of mud and was inhabited by huge beasts that made human life very difficult. To make life easier for the humans, Sun Father sent Shi-wa-ni and Shi-wa-no-kia to assist in the hardening of the world. During that process, Shi-wa-ni and Shi-wa-no-kia turned the huge beasts into stones. Although the animals’ spirits were permanently held within these stones, they continued to be alive. Shi-wa-no-kia and Shi-wa-ni explained to the animal spirits that they had been petrified in this way so they might serve as spiritual mediators between humans and entities of the unseen world.

The Zunis’ mythology richly describes their kinship with the animals, plants, forces of nature, and even the rocks under their feet. Fetishes help give expression to these relationships. To hold in one’s hand the fetish of an eagle is to be touched by the spirit and power of that bird. Working with an eagle fetish enables one to share in the eagle’s ability to soar high on the winds and see with great accuracy the tiniest movements below it; using this fetish allows one to call upon the eagle’s spirit and knowledge for understanding, for healing, or for luck in hunting; and understanding the power of the eagle heightens one’s awareness of the infinite manifestations of A’wonawil’ona.

The power of individual fetishes may differ tremendously. Usually, fetishes that are natural, abstract, and amorphous are considered to be mysterious and to have great powers. The most powerful and, therefore, most holy of Zuni fetishes are those which have been in the tribe’s possession since the beginning of time. However, each fetish’s power ultimately depends on its ability to help its owner evoke the spirit it represents and, thus, to enable the fetishist to feel his or her connection with a-ha-i, the spiritual web that moves through all.

Maintaining a Balance with Nature

For the traditional Zuni, the fetish is just one aspect of a complex religion whose central goal is to achieve a balance with nature.Throughout the Zuni religion, there is great reverence for the unseen world-the mysterious forces created by A’wonawil’ona which continue to impact on all life. Zuni religious beliefs foster a constant awareness of how dependent we humans are on the natural order and on external spiritual forces which are mysterious to us.

While the Zuni emphasize our dependence on these external forces, they also believe that we can bring ourselves into a harmonious and nurturing relationship with the deifies that control the forces. The fetish is a spiritual tool that can be used to establish and maintain this relationship.

According to the Zuni way, all human ills are the result of being out of balance with the natural forces, usually due to failure to observe nature’s laws because of either ignorance or selfishness. There are many instructive stories in the Zuni culture that tell of men and women who acted vainly, attempting to assume power as if they were separate from or superior to A’wonawil’ona. Those who did so were always punished in some way, their punishments ranging from lack of luck in the hunt to great droughts which caused many deaths among their people.

Relationships Within Life’s Web

The Zunis believe that, while all parts of the universe belong to a single system of interrelated life, degrees of relationship based on resemblance exist. The starting point in this system is humanity, which is the lowest because it is the least mysterious and the most dependent. The animals that most resemble humans are considered closest to them in the great web of interrelatedness. The animals, objects, or phenomena that least resemble them are believed to be the least related and, thus, the most mysterious and holy.

A dog, for example, would be viewed as less holy than a snake or other reptile, because dogs and humans live together and have a mutual understanding, whereas reptiles are alien to the human world. Since forces in nature such as wind, lightning, and rain-are very mysterious and powerful, they are believed to be closer to the deities than either humans or animals.

There is also another level of resemblance that determines the relationships within the web of life. As an example, lightning is viewed as being closely related to the snake because they both exhibit characteristic zigzag motions, they strike quickly, and their presence can result in fearful repercussions.

When working with an animal fetish, a Zuni considers not only the animal’s obvious physical attributes but also its ability to act as a mediator between humans and the higher forces. For example, a bear fetish might be chosen as a mediator for a variety of reasons. Of all animals that are native to Zuni territory, the bear most closely resembles man; for that reason, it is considered most open to moments of communion with him. Furthermore, because it is more mysterious and spiritually powerful than man, it is believed able to communicate with the higher powers and to provide a link between man and those greater powers. In addition, a bear fetish may be consulted when the bear’s legendary attributes seem applicable to the situation.

The Power of Fetishes

When people began crafting fetishes from stone, wood, and other materials, it was believed that these had less power than the found objects whose resemblance to animals had been created by the forces of nature. However, there were then, as now, fetish makers with special wisdom about the spiritual and healing attributes of the animals and natural forces. A fetish crafted by such a person may be imbued with great powers.

Zuni fetishes come in many different sizes, but they generally range from three to twelve inches in length. Each represents an animal that is believed to have specific, well-defined powers. The fetishes usually have faces resembling humans, animals, or sea serpents. Legs, tails, and horns may be indicated by carved shapes resembling the natural appendages or they may be etched into the fetishes’ bodies. On many fetishes, holes are carved under the tails to represent anuses, thus acknowledging the biological functions of the spirits living within the fetishes. Most old fetishes are girded around their bellies with leather thongs or sinew holding beads, feathers, arrowheads, turquoise fragments, pieces of coral or shell, or other objects onto the fetishes’ bodies.

The body of the fetish may be shaped from bone, shell, clay, stone, or other material. Various adornments may be attached to the fetish, some to strengthen the spirit within and some as votive offerings, given in appreciation for the fetish’s service to its owner. Most shell or turquoise beads tied to modern fetishes would be classified as votive offerings, while arrowheads, feathers, or bones are usually attached to strengthen the fetish’s powers.

The power of an animal fetish may also be enhanced by decorating it with objects or designs associated with the most mysterious and powerful forces. For example, a fetish, or the fetish jar where it is stored, may be decorated with a zigzag pattern evoking the powers of lightning. Sometimes a “saddle” of arrowheads-which represent the fangs of the snake, as well as weapons used for self-protection and hunting-may be tied onto the back of a fetish. Feathers may be attached to evoke the powers of the eagle or another great bird of prey.

Occasionally, the fetish may be decorated with etched and/or painted lines. These might depict the feathers or pinions of a bird, or they might echo traditional designs used in ceremonial dress, masks, or other sacred objects. One of the most commonly seen decorations of this kind is the “heartline arrow,” a single line that runs from the tip of the fetish’s nose or mouth directly back, on each side, to the area of the heart. At the heart, there is found the pattern of an arrowhead. In addition to representing the breath or life force of the animal spirit, the heartline evokes the qualities of the snake and lightning. A fetish decorated in this way is considered very powerful.

Working with Hunting Fetishes

Anthropologists’ reports on the Zuni use of fetishes have varied greatly. Among the reports that I consider most dependable are those of Frank Hamilton Cushing, who was sent to Zuniland by the U.S. Government in the early 1880s to study the Zunis. He became so deeply involved with them that he stayed several years, during which he wrote numerous accounts of their culture. He learned the Zuni language (a difficult feat, accomplished by few Whites) and lived as a Zuni. He was so well accepted by the tribe that he was given a Zuni name (Medicine Flower) and initiated into the Bow Priesthood as a war chief.

In Cushing’s first Bureau of Ethnology report, he described in great detail how the Zunis used animal fetishes to help them in hunting. When a hunter decided to go out to pursue an animal, he usually chose to work with the fetish of a predator that ordinarily hunted that species-although he might have also consulted ancient legends to seek guidance in his choice of fetishes. The key hunting fetishes, known as “prey” animals, included the mountain lion, coyote, wildcat, wolf, eagle, falcon, ground owl, and mole.

To gain power before a hunt, a Zuni hunter consulted his prey fetishes. He ritually fed the fetishes, placed them in a circle, and offered songs, chants, or prayers that acknowledged the spirits of the fetishes as well as the natural forces that were responsible for the animals’ creation. There might also have been prayers requesting that A’wonawil’ona preserve the soul of the animal to be killed the following day. After the prayers, the hunter scattered prayer meal in the direction that he planned to begin his hunt. He then chose a particular fetish, lifted it to his lips, and breathed in, inhaling its spirit.

The hunter carried one or more hunting fetishes in a leather sack around his neck. There might have been several types of fetishes there, representing both the predator and the game animal. Upon success in the hunt, the prey fetish was dipped in the blood of the killed animal as a reward, and prayers were again made on behalf of the recently killed animal, so that its soul might be preserved and immortalized.

Among a great hunter’s fetish collection, there was usually a mountain lion. The mountain lion was believed to be the master hunter. When the hunter consulted his mountain lion fetish, all his knowledge about that animal-some of it collected through firsthand experience and some through legends-would be activated. The hunter sought to align himself with the spirit of the mountain lion, the best of all pursuers, to aid him in his hunt and make him successful.

Although the prey fetishes were usually chosen for their hunting prowess, they also had other qualities which might be applied to initiation rites, healing, fertility, weather control, or childbirth. The strength, intelligence, and agility of the mountain lion might have been called upon when the fetishist was faced with the task of negotiating a difficult dispute with a relative. Each fetish animal had various qualities that made it relevant in a wide variety of applications.

Honoring the Fetishes

The devout Zuni considers the fetish to be holy and potent at all times. In order to gain the favor of the spirits represented by the fetishes, owners feed the fetishes, keep them safely and comfortably housed, and pay homage to the spirits in prayers. A Zuni would view maltreatment of a fetish in much the same way that a devout Christian would view desecration of a crucifix or altar in a place of worship.Furthermore, the Zuni would consider it a selfish and ignorant act, a sign that the perpetrator was out of balanc~and it is the Zuni’s balance that keeps him or her in favor with the natural forces and free of disease and hardship.

According to Zuni tradition, each fetish must be ritually fed each day-often at the same time that the family owning or caring for it eats. The fetish is usually fed cornmeal, sometimes mixed with crushed turquoise and shell, but it may also be given whatever the family is eating at that time. This food is placed on a piece of paper or pottery and presented to the fetish.

The ritual food is left out for fifteen to thirty minutes, during which time, it is believed, the spirit of the food is consumed by the fetish. Afterwards, the remainder of the food, the physical scraps, may be thrown in the river or buried in the ground. They must not be burned, however, since the spirits of the departed live in the air and would be offended if they were offered food which no longer contained nourishment.

Most fetishes are kept and used in sets, usually consisting of between three and seven figures with a clay fetish jar to house them. Fetish jars measure up to approximately fourteen inches in height and sixteen inches in diameter. The bottoms of the jars are lined with down and, in some cases, sprinkled with powdered turquoise or shell, in order to make the fetishes comfortable. Most jars have a hole in the side, between one and four inches in diameter. The mouths of the jars are covered, usually with hide from deer that have been killed ritually. The fetishes are placed facing outward within their jars.

Ruth F. Kirk reports examining at least two fetish jars which had no feeding holes and were tipped on their sides instead of standing upright. The fetishes pointed toward the open mouths of the jars. These jars contained natal fetish sets, and the shapes of the jars resembled uteruses.

The outer surfaces of fetish jars are typically quite plain, except that turquoise dust and fragments may have been pressed into the clay before firing. Some jars are decorated with feathers, etched symbols representing natural forces, or even other fetishes which presumably guard the jar’s mouth or feeding hole.

The jars are washed frequently, usually as part of a ceremony prescribed for the use of the fetishes that reside there. Each fetish set has a particular purpose, ranging from healing the sick to initiating young people into a clan or religious order.

Each year, usually around the winter solstice, the Zunis observe We-ma-a-wa u-pu-k’ia, or “The Day of the Council of Fetishes.” On this day, all the fetishes belonging to the tribe and its individual members are brought to an altar in the Zuni council chamber. Animals are arranged according to their type and color on slats placed on the floor. Bird fetishes are suspended in the air, usually by cotton strings.

The ceremonials last throughout most of the night, with each member approaching the altar, addressing the assembly of fetishes with long prayers, and then scattering prayer meal over the altar. Songs and chants are sung, with participants imitating the movements and cries of the animals represented. The Day of the Council of Fetishes ends with a great feast. Tiny portions of each food are ritually fed to the fetishes, after which the scraps of food are buried.

As in all rituals surrounding the fetishes, the ceremonies, songs, dances, and offerings are ultimately addressed to A’wonawil’ona, whose spirit or life force permeates the land, the sky, the fetishes, the animals they represent, all the natural forces, and humanity itself{ linking all of us as One.

Using Fetishes for Self-Council

Fetishes made by Zuni craftspersons are highly valued, not only by other Zunis but by Native Americans and non-Natives throughout the United States. Many of the fetishes used by other Pueblo peoples are made by Zuni craftspersons. In fact, the Zunis make fetishes specifically designed for other tribes and spiritual beliefs. Many people today seek out Zuni fetishes and other Zuni art objects both for their beauty and for a power they seem to possess for reminding us of our oneness with nature.

Regardless of our cultural backgrounds, Zuni fetishes offer us a highly intuitive and spiritual way of getting in touch with guiding principles that can serve us in modem life, whether we are faced with challenges in our jobs, our relationships, or our spiritual paths. A fetish evokes both conscious and unconscious knowledge associated with the animal it represents. Thus, the fetishes provide us a way of going inside to discover our own natural resources-resources of the spirit that we each bring into this life at birth.

Each fetish has an individual identity, representing specific ideas, experiences, and universal principles and offering a unique point of view. When I consult with fetishes, I am forced to look upon my own life, if only for a moment, with a different perspective. The fetishes offer me the opportunity to see my life in a different light, expanding my vision so that I find it easier to solve my problems.

When I first began working with fetishes, I started by getting to know the “Guardians of the Six Directions”:

the mountain lion, black bear, white wolf, badger, bald eagle, and mole. One at a time, I would hold each fetish in my hand and, in meditation, contemplate its particular energy, spiritual significance, individual character, and species-specific traits.

Whenever I introduce a new fetish to my collection, I carry on an inner dialogue with it. I ask it to tell me its name, its origin, and how it can serve me. I ask it what its most important lessons have been. I pause and quietly wait for answers each time, later recording whatever came to me. “Listening to” the voice of the fetish develops one’s relationship with its spirit.

The format I follow for consulting with the fetishes emp~oys the medicine wheel. Exact details of the medicine wheel vary from culture to culture, and many medicine people have their own variations.I place myself at one of the positions on the wheel, according to how I am feeling that day and the question I am asking. For example, if I am trying to develop an inner quality, I might sit at the western quadrant, which is associated (in the system I use) with introspection.

I meditate for awhile, with my fetishes on the ground directly in front of me. Then, in a light trance, I select the fetishes that my inner guidance tells me will be important to me that day. I hold each fetish in my hand for a moment, perhaps briefly dialoguing with it, and then place it in the medicine wheel where the fetish itself or Spirit tells me. I try to work quickly, without forethought, allowing Spirit to guide my decisions.

When I am satisfied with the placement of the fetishes, I go into a slightly deeper trance. To do this, I sometimes hum or chant or listen to a recording of drumming. I usually close my eyes and visualize the fetishes as I work, but I may also pick up one of the stone figures if I feel a need for more focus.

I then meditate on my question until am drawn to one fetish or another, to whom I address the question. As I focus on the particular identity of the fetish, I listen for its answer, comments, or advice to form in my mind. What usually happens is that other fetishes become involved in the conversation, sometimes even butting into a dialogue in order to put in their two cents’ worth.

At times, I may address a particular fetish in order to obtain a specific kind of advice that I know it offers. For example, the coyot~one of two tricksters in my collection of fetishes-can usually be counted on to provide me with insight where contradictions are involved. The thunderbird can usually be relied on to provide advice where relationships between Heaven (Spirit) and Earth (practicalities of everyday life) are concerned.

At the end of a session, I slowly come out of my trance state by “triangulating”-visually reorienting my body to the eight (or more) corners of the room. I look at each comer and imagine a silver strand extending to it from my solar plexus. When I feel that I am fully back in my body, I thank the fetishes for their help and place them back on the shelf where I keep them. Some are kept in a jar, and those also are returned to their proper place.

l am often asked what kinds of problems I bring to the fetishes. Usually, I ask them the types of questions anyone might ask a trusted friend or counselor. And, just as with trusted friends or counselors, I weigh their advice carefully before acting on it. I think it is important to recognize that no one person, animal, object, or spirit with an individualized, finite identity can provide a comprehensive perspective. Only universal Spirit knows all.

As humans or lower spirits, each one of us can only provide one small piece of the larger picture. The fetishes are most useful when we remember that each one, singly, provides only one perspective but that, collectively, they can help us broaden our vision. The fetishes, by expanding what we can see on our own, allow us to access knowledge that might otherwise stay just beyond our reach.


1. According to Ruth Kirk, there are six categories of fetishes in the Zuni religion. The first category includes masks, costumes, and other sacred objects used in Kachina ceremonies; like other fetishes, these objects are fed, cared for, and offered daily prayers between ceremonies.

The second type of fetish is the mili, a personal fetish which consists of a perfect ear of corn n (one that ends in five symmetrical rows), usually with a variety of feathers attached. Presented to a young man at the time he is initiated into a religious society, this fetish symbolizes the initiate’s soul, as well as the life-giving power of the Creator.

Kirk’s third group of fetishes, prayer sticks, are more properly classified as amulets because they do not have spirits residing within them.

The fourth category of fetishes, called “concretion fetishes,” are naturally shaped rocks which are thought to be petrified organs of the gods that once walked on Earth; they are used for making contact with the spirits of those deities.

A fifth group of fetishes are the effowe, fetishes used in rainmaking ceremonies. An ettone (singular of effowe) consists of several short reeds wrapped in cotton string to form a compact, round bundle.

The fetishes discussed in this article belong to the sixth group, called “priesthood fetishes” even though they are not used exclusively for priestly rites-

2. From Tom Bahti’s introduction to Zuni Festishes, by Frank Hamilton Cushing.

3. It is interesting to read accounts of how missionaries, traders, and anthropologists viewed Zuni and other Indian spiritual practices during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At that time, Europeans had great faith in their own ability to conquer and control nature, and their attitude toward the Indians’ emphasis on living in harmony with the natural order was one of condescension, if not downright disdain and hatred. Today, as we have to face the massive environmental problems we have created. the wisdom of Native peoples is being rediscovered.

4. This title, it is assumed, was given as an honorarium, since one was usually initiated into this order only after killing an enemy. It is unlikely that Cushing, a frail and sickly man never noted for bravery, ever took another person’s life.

5. It is noteworthy that the Zunis show as much reverence for religious objects of Whites as they do for their own. An excellent example of this is the homage they pay to the santo which came into their lives through the Spanish missions established after the Pueblo Re-hellion of 1680. According to Ruth F. Kirk, the santo, an image of the Christ Child of Our Lady of Atocha, stands approximately a foot tall and is kept surrounded by religious symbols of the Catholic faith. In spite of the near destruction of Zuni society by the Spaniards, the Indians did not create a double standard where ecclesiastical properties were concerned. The santo is ritually fed each day, just as Zuni fetishes are.

Kirk also notes that, even though the Zunis pay homage to the santo, its original Christian meaning has undergone some changes in the process of being incorporated into Zuni belief systems. For example, the Zunis believe the santo to be a female deity that, according to their legends, is the child of a daughter of the Sun; each fall they perform a ceremonial dance for the santo, who is thought to bring fertility for all of humankind and nature.

6. Zuni Fetishism by Ruth F. Kirk.

7. In Zuni mythology, there are said to be six directions: North, South, Fast, West, Above, and Below. Each of the directions has spiritual significance’s, the most obvious ones being the natural forces associated with them. East, for example, is the direction from which comes the sun, one of the most powerful and revered natural forces and deities in the zuni religion. When a Zuni addresses a fetish representing one of these great forces, he or she may be asking the fetish to be a mediator between humanity and the spirit of, let us say, the rising sun of the East, the cold winds of the North, the deities of the Sky Above, or the most ancient of deities in the Earth Below.


Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Zuni Fes fishes, Las Vegas, NV: K. C. Publications, 1966. (Reprinted from Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1880-81.)

Kirk, Ruth F. Zuni Fetishism. Albuquerque, NM: Avanyu Publishing, 1988. (Reprint of 1943 edition, Los Angeles, CA: Masterkey).

Hal Zina Bennett, Ph.D., is the author of more than twenty published books exploring the “inner path,” including Follow Your Bliss and Lens of Perception. He is a regular contributing editor for Shaman’s Drum.