In the distance silver helmets and breastplates reflected the brilliant July sun, as Spanish soldiers mounted on majestic Lipizzaner stallions marched toward me in a swirling cloud of dust. Franciscan monks carried crosses and the flag of Spain. Leading the desert procession is Francisco Vazquez de Coronado y Lujan, searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola in 1540. They came upon the Zuni homeland of Shiwannagan spread out over six towns, where the A:shiwi have lived for about 4,000 years.
I imagine this scene as we retrace the Spanish explorer’s route in our journey from Gallup, New Mexico on Highway 602 to the Zuni Pueblo. We note weather-worn pickup trucks parked off the highway. As we drive by we are unable to spot anyone, but since it is October, families must be out among the pinyon pines gathering pine nuts.
Coronado did not find the Seven Cities of Gold, only the isolated pueblo villages of the Zuni. Today about 10,000 Zuni live in the largest of New Mexican pueblos. There are adobe ruins of former settlements. The homes that we could see were of simple cinder-block construction. Isolation from other pueblos of New Mexico made their language and culture distinct. The physical presentation of the place did not have the romantic aspect of the terraced old adobe buildings of Taos. But if you spend the night at the Inn at Halona or talk with some of the notable artisans, you will have a deeper sense of Zuni.
Roger Thomas, owner of the Inn at Halona shares:
“You have to want to come here. Our visitors tend to be better educated and more culturally aware. Their reward is often a very profound experience.” (“The Boundaries of the Sacred”).
For years I have collected stone-carved Zuni animal fetishes and used them in my college lectures on native American spirituality. I had a vague understanding of their sacred power, but I wanted to visit the source of the fetishes to understand their connection to the sacred.
Another spiritual explorer as myself visited the Zuni Reservation in 1879 with the J. W. Powell Expedition. The U. S. Government sent Frank Hamilton Cushing to investigate the mysterious power of the legendary fetishes. Could they be a threat to America?
Cushing immersed himself among the Zuni, gained their trust and learned the obscure language. He was initiated into the Bow Priesthood as a War Chief and given the name Medicine Flower. You can read about his experience and what he learned about fetishes in his book Zuni Fetishes.
Cushing encountered an enticing animistic world where “all inanimate objects as well as plant, animals and men, belong to one great system of all conscious and interrelated life. Any element in nature is endowed with a personality analogous to that of the animal whose operations most resemble it’s manifestations.” (Cushing, p. 9).
For Cushing, the Zuni stone fetishes were sacred living stones.
“It is supposed that the hearts of the great animals of prey are infused with a spirit or medicine of magic influence over the hearts of the animals they prey upon, or the game animals; that their breaths, derived from their hearts, and breathed upon their prey, whether near or far, never fail to overcome them, piercing their hearts and causing their limbs to stiffen, and the animals themselves to lose their strength…..Moreover, these powers, as derived from his heart, are preserved in his fetich, since his heart still lives, even though his person be changed to stone.” (Cushing, p. 15).
Thus, the Zuni fetish is a vital spiritual aid to a successful hunt.
How did the Zuni translate the power of the great animals into the stone fetishes?
Kent McManis reveals an answer from Zuni mythology in his book Zuni Fetishes:
“The Zuni believe that the world was once covered with floodwaters, which left it swampy. The Sun Father, revered by the Zuni as the giver of life and light, created twin sons. The Twins realized the world was too wet for humankind to survive and needed to be dried. The Sun Father had given his sons a magic shield, a bow (the rainbow) and arrows (lightening). The Twins placed their shield on the earth crossed the rainbow and lightning arrows on top of it, and shot an arrow into the point where they crossed. Lightning flew out in each direction creating a tremendous fire. Although this dried the earth, it made it too easy for predators to catch and eat people. So, to save humans, the Twins struck these animals with their lightning, burning and shriveling them into stone. But deep within, the animals’ hearts were kept alive, with instructions to help humankind with the magic captured in their hearts. When a Zuni finds a stone that naturally resembles an animal, he believes that it is one of these ancient stone beasts.”
(McManis, p. 6).
Janice, Erik and I stop at the Visitors Center on the north side Highway 53, half way through town.
Zuni tribal drummers beat a loud cadence behind me as dancers swirl and stomp, feathers flutter and bells tingle on their costumes. At this Fall Festival in front of the Zuni Cultural Center artisans have set up tables to display their work. I approach a woman seated at her table, head bent over in concentration as she works with a lump of native turquoise. I want to be respectful and not ask too many probing questions. I walk cautiously forward, close enough so that my shadow covers her work and she looks up. She greets me with a beautiful smile and twinkling eyes.
“Hello. Please sit down.”
I am meeting the Zuni fetish artist Verla Lasiloo Jim.
I do not need to ask a lot of questions, because Verla may see my interest in her work and she shares her story.
“My husband passed away several years ago. He carved the fetishes. I always watched him at his work and wondered how he decided what animal he would carve. He said he could see the spirit inside the stone and what he was doing was helping the form become what it was meant to be. When he died, it was a tough time and I didn’t know what to do. I began to work with his tools and some of the stones that he had. I began with turtles and frogs. Sometimes what came out was ugly. But I would save it to remind me. There is one over there.”
I could see on the table some very small fetishes, which looked as if they could be placed in a medicine bag as a kind of sacred talisman.
The Spanish invaders and the Christian missionaries tried to stop the practice of fetish making as it seemed like idolatry.
Ms. Lasiloo-Jim had a friend who was a buyer and he began to sell her fetishes and slowly her popularity grew. She is a member of the Mahooty, Lasiloo and Laiwakete interrelated family clan, known for their use of a variety of materials such as stone, wood and shells.
The drumming is growing louder and I must draw closer to Ms. Lasiloo-Jim, as she has a soft voice.
I asked, “Are all the fetishes sacred?”
“If the medicine man blesses them, they should be used in the traditional manner. They need to be cared for by feeding them with blue corn meal. Some people keep them in turquoise encrusted pots”
“Are they alive?”
“I can tell you that if I am bothered by a problem or worry, I can pray over a fetish and the answer to my concern will be given to me.
She seems to be inviting me to stay as long as I wish, as she continues to work on the turquoise.
“What will it become.”
“I don’t know yet, but I think it is a bear.”
I purchase a fetish.
As I decide to leave and join my family, she says:
“Here is my card with my address. Let me know if you want me to make something for you. You can even send me a drawing or a photo. I see your black poodle over there. I can make a poodle for you. Please let me know.”
A few days later we are at a gift shop at Grand Canyon National Park. Sheltered within a glass case are an array of Zuni fetish. I see a stone bear with a turquoise line running from its mouth to the heart.
“An inlaid, carved, or painted “heartline” represents the breath path leading to the magical power in the fetish’s heart…A bundle consisting of various stones, shells, and/or arrowheads is sometimes tied onto a fetish. The bundle serves as an offering that empowers the fetish to better aid the user.”
McManis p. 10.
How do you choose a fetish?
Kent McManis suggests:
“I have simple rule of fetish selection; if the fetish talks to me, I buy it no matter what the animal is or who carved it. I believe that fetishes usually pick you out.”
McManis, p. 139.
I am at Richardson’s Trading Post on Route 66 in downtown Gallup, New Mexico. In my hand is a turquoise bear fetish, which somehow caught my attention. The red heartline runs from nose to heart. Was it calling to me? Am I holding a quaint relic from a “primitive” culture?
Tutored in the mindset of the Enlightenment, I feel dissonance. Philosopher Charles Taylor summarizes his helpful insights from A Secular Age (2207):
“Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Like my European ancestors five hundred years ago, the Zuni world today is a porous world, aware of demons, witches and dark forces that can threaten, and at the same time open to ecstatic and mystical experiences with the Creator. We “modern” folk with our buffered self are closed off to both kinds of powers
Yet there continues to be a fascination, a longing, a restlessness that brings spiritual seekers like me to Zuni and Vera Lasaloo Jim.
Johnathan Napier describes the divide between the spiritual and the secular in Charles Taylor’s work and how it is not relevant to Native American world views.
“…..Taylor introduces his “immanent frame” which describes how people understand their relation to the supernatural. People either live in interaction with the supernatural or live separate from it. Taylor depicts this as a divide between the porous and the buffered self. The porous self has an enchanted worldview; it see itself as interacting with the spiritual world; it is vulnerable and open to forces beyond the physical realm.”
Napier pp 83-84.
Sacred power is found in objects (e.g. Zuni fetish) and places. In the West, with the influence of the Enlightenment, Science and a focus on human reason, a process of disenchantment set in and the buffered self dismissed or compartmentalized spiritual experiences. Initiated by the philosophy of Rene Descartes, this new modern self turned radically inward, becoming personal and private.
Indigenous cultures as the Zuni, in contrast, focus outward toward nature, the land and communal relationships. There is no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm: all is infused with the sacred. While the West compartmentalizes, the Zuni seek harmony and balance in a unified world.
As I hold the bear fetish in my hand, a soft-spoken, patient Navajo saleswoman speaks to me across the glass display case about the fetish. A porous soul speaks to a buffered soul about the sacred.
“The bear is the best mediator with the Creator because it has the closest resemblance to humans. The bear has power, strength and intelligence to help you. The bear can help you make peace in times of conflict and guide you when you have spiritual challenges.”
I purchase the bear fetish and she wraps it carefully in cotton and places it within a protective box. She smiles as she hands me a transparent plastic bag with the fetish and a tiny zip lock bag filled with what looks like blue cornmeal.
Zuni Fetishes by Frank Cushing. 1990. Facsimile edition by KC Publications, Las Vegas, Nevada, from the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, submitted by J. W. Powell. Original Printing 1883.
Zuni Fetishes and Carvings by Kent McManis (Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishes, 2004).
“The Boundaries of the Sacred—a Visit to Zuni Pueblo”, April 27, 2015. http://www.aroundtheworldineightyyears.com/visit-zuni-pueblo/
Spirit in the Stone: A Handbook of Southwest Indian Animal Carvings and Beliefs by Mark Bahti.
“Interfaith Dialogue Theory and Native/Non-Native Relations”, Jonathan Napiter, University of Calgary (Illumine: Journal of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society: Graduate Students Association), Vol. 10, No. 1, 2011, pp 77-90.