Zuni Fetishes

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Jish is best described as the Navajo medicine practitioner’s equivalent to a Western doctor’s “little black bag”.  Everything needed for numerous ceremonies is painstakingly gathered over many years.  Even though all the individual elements of a jish are not used in every ceremony, the complete contents are required to be present at every ceremony.  Showing up with only partial contents of a jish is akin to arriving with half an ambulance.  In other words, the patient is short-changed by not having the full power of the contents of a complete jish.  For clarification, jish refers not only to the complete bundle, but also everything contained within that medicine bundle.

In her definitive book, Navajo Medicine Bundles or Jish, Acquisition, Transmission, and Disposition in the Past and Present, author Charlotte Frisbie writes about fetishes as a part of Changing Woman’s sacred jish:

“This bundle represents Changing Woman's bundle which was brought to the Earth's surface by First Man and which was the source of all surface life. The mountain earth bundle contains earth collected from the four (or six) sacred mountains. Pollen is applied to the earth from each mountain and each is wrapped separately in unwounded buckskin and tied with buckskin thongs. A precious jewel is attached to each of the resulting pouches to indicate its directional association. Between these pouches are placed stick-like cylinders of mirage stone (aragonite), agate, and quartz. Stone figures of horses, game, and other things are also added. Then everything is covered with pollen and all of the individual pouches are wrapped in unwounded buckskin to form the bundle”.

As are most fetish collectors, I was initially more familiar with Zuni fetishes and their representations.  As my studies proceeded deeper into Navajo culture, the use of personal fetish pouches by Navajo people as well as their presence in jish came to my attention.  Navajo people take great pride in their livestock whether they be horses, cattle, sheep or goats.  Again, Charlotte Frisbie explains the “little medicine bags”.

“The tiny bags for pollen are made of buckskin and usually also contain small fetishes or other items. These pollen bags, like the personal pollen sacks carried by lay Navajos, reportedly are more likely to have beadwork or other decorations than are the other small medicine sacks”.

The Navajo people often call on their neighbors, the Zuni, to carve small horses, cattle, or sheep which they may carry in a little medicine bag as an added protection for their herds and flocks.  While it is true that a great number of Navajo people are called upon to carve a myriad of animals for a demanding fetish market, some also follow in the tradition of providing these special protection animals for personal use.

Harold Davidson and Lee Bedonie are two of the finest Navajo fetish carvers working today.  Harold likes to follow in the tradition of creating the protecting livestock figures such as sheep, goats and horses as well as the more exotic bears and bison.  Lee tends toward the livestock animals, preferring donkeys, horses, goats and for fun, throws in the occasional chicken.  Their carvings are beautifully executed with distinctive details wrought in their favorite pipestone and alabaster materials.

---Georgiana Kennedy Simpson

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This site was last updated on November 20, 2017.

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