Native American Fetishes: Honoring Nature and Spirit

As I was re-arranging various objects in my glass curio cabinet the other day, my electrician friend Chuck from our local Chamber of Commerce stopped by for a cup of coffee and to chat about some upcoming decisions the Chamber wanted to make about membership. As we conversed, Chuck joined me at my curio cabinet, curious about all the items I was dusting off and putting back into it.

“What are all those little stone animals?” Chuck asked.

“Why they’re Native American nature fetishes,” I replied casually. “Some I keep for myself, while others I offer through Dogbotz Boneyard.”

“Oh, really?” he said. “I’m not sure what you mean by a fetish. Are they like Southwestern Indian Kachina dolls? Do they serve the same purpose? Or, are these just fun pieces to buy while visiting a reservation, or from your online store?” He chuckled.

Hmm . . . good questions, I thought. So here’s the essence of what I shared with him, and now with you.

A fetish in many Native American traditions (particularly that of the Zuni Nation of the American Southwest whose artisans are among the most skilled carvers) is an animal, bird, reptile, or other cultural icon hand-carved from stone, shell, wood, antler or other natural materials. These carvings have traditionally served a ceremonial purpose for those who created them. Each creature or figure is believed to have inherent powers or qualities that may aid the owner. The Navajo, for example, treasured and bartered for figures of horses, sheep, cattle or goats to protect their herd from disease and to ensure fertility. A Plains Indian fetish of a buffalo, as another example, is known to help the warrior who seeks buffalo to feed and clothe his family and community have a successful hunt. The fetish, which contains the spirit of the animal it denotes, is placed in a buckskin bag and carried by the hunter over his heart. Here are two examples: the first carved from picture jasper, the second from dragon septarian.

Picture Jasper Buffalo 0053 A 0315Dragon Septarian Buffalo Fetish 0091 A 1115

In the Zuni tradition, the carvers of nature fetishes believe that the creature represented in the carving requires periodic feeding. Thus, gifts of cornmeal and ground turquoise are offered to the fetish, which may be kept in a clay pot until used. Very delicate fetishes, though, are often carried in a pocket or medicine bag or pouch (see example below).

Zuni Horse Fetish 0083 C 1115

Also, in fact, many Zuni fetishes are inlaid with turquoise to represent the eyes or mouth of an animal, the heart-line of the sacred breath of life that enters through the mouth and into the belly the animal, or as “belt bundle.” The bobcat, wolf and bear fetishes below show the different uses of turquoise in a Zuni fetish.

Zuni Bobcat Fetish 0090 A 1115Zuni Howling Wolf 0087 B 1115Zuni Standing Bear 0089 C 1115

Today, as a form of contemporary Native American art, small stone fetishes are sold with secular intentions to collectors worldwide (see opalite coyote and tiger-eye snake fetishes below). These fetishes are often displayed so other people may observe the beauty of the fetish. Also, many collectors purchase the fetishes of creatures who spiritual power they wish to express in their own journeys. And so the spiritual essence of the fetish remains alive and dynamic even though the traditional practice of storing or feeding a fetish may no longer be practiced by non-Native Americans.

Opalite Coyote 0051 C 0315Tiger Eye Snale 0055 B 0315

For those who seeks to honor the inherent divine spirit of nature, fetishes are ideal, especially during the practice of meditation, when one seeks healing and guidance, as well as during personal or group ceremonies and celebrations.

All the best,

Patrick Price,
Proprietor,
Dogbotz Boneyard, LLC
www.dogbotz.com

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Painting: The Least Traditional Native American Art Form

When we first considered presenting Native American artifacts as a special collection offered through Dogbotz Boneyard, we weren’t quite sure whether it was wise to include artwork, especially painting. Though Native American painting remains a popular art form about which people have e-mailed us, painting, as it’s understood within the context of European art history, is not a traditional art form for most Native American cultures.

Yes, native painting traditions exist in many tribes, but unlike their European counterparts, paintings were almost always used as decoration for apparel (for example, paintings on leather war shirts) or other functional items (tipi covers come readily to mind). Or, similar to their European cousins at Lascaux and other prehistoric sites, many North American indigenous paintings weren’t portable, such as petrogylphs on a nearby cliff face or other large rock formation. Before European contact, Native American painting was endowed with a variety of ritual and social purposes by diverse cultural groups throughout the continent. That said, perhaps the greatest example is Navajo sandpainting, which was originally created for religious ceremonies or for spiritual healing purposes. Today, some contemporary Navajo artists have designed secular versions of sandpaintings that can be acquired as cultural art.

Many contemporary Native American artists have adapted Western European painting styles to portray the people of their own tribes as well as their tribal experiences and worldviews. Such artists strive to maintain the traditions and culture of their people and reflect the dynamic and sometimes painful changes that they and their respective cultures have endured. Though the techniques of these paintings are not traditionally Native American, the styles, designs, and subject matter reflect the artists’ tribal heritage, and many of them are stunningly beautiful and incisive. Consider Peyote Man or Fire Woman by Sioux artist Kathleeen Kills Thunder, Wisdom of Our Fathers by Navajo painter Fred Cleveland, and Anasazi Parrots by Cochiti artist Joe H. Herrera (see images below).

In addition, contemporary Native American artists cover the gamut of expression in all media, from the acrylics of Fred Cleveland to the digital artwork of French-Ojibwa artist Michael Pierre Price. And, that’s just in the field of painting, for similar diversity exists in the sculptural artwork of Six Nations sculptor Clifton Henry and Navajo ceramicist Tom Vail, Jr.

The challenges currently facing many contemporary Native American painters are the conflicts between the styles of purism and modernism and between paintings created by genuine Native Americans and those works produced by artists inspired by Native American culture. Thus, such questions as, “How much tribal cultural imagery must be maintained within a painting (or any media, for that matter) to be considered by collectors as genuinely Native American.” Or, “Can a painting of any subject matter in any style, regardless of its point of inspiration, be deemed Native American as long as the artist himself/herself is an officially, tribally registered individual?” To date, the debate on these topics continues to be discussed.

The following paintings (and I’ve added a few sculptural pieces) are available for sale through The Tribal Perspective exhibit at the Dogbotz Boneyard Gallery of Art:

All the best,

Patrick Price
Proprietor
Dogbotz Boneyard, LLC
www.dogbotz.com