Southwestern Indian tribes have long incorporated stone and shell carvings resembling animals in their religious beliefs. These fetishes are objects in which a spirit is thought to reside, and they can be used to aid the person who owns and cares for it. The most valuable fetishes, not in monetary terms but in power, are natural rocks that resemble an animal.
The Zuni, who incorporate the fetishes into their religion more than any other tribe, believe that these rocks were animals that were turned to stone by the Children of the Sun and that the stone retains the power of that animal. Most fetishes are carved out of stone and shell by an artist
The first known use of fetishes among Native Americans dates to the early inhabitants of the Southwest. the Anasazi, the Mogollon and the Hohokam all carved animal shaped objects. There are a few examples in museums of fetish animals being worn as pendants or as part of a necklace. But primarily, they were for religious use.
The first fetish carvings that were intended to be sold as jewelry were due to the work of two traders, John Kennedy Sr., who owned the Gallup Indian Trading Company, and C.G. Wallace, who operated a shop in Zuni from 1918 until 1970. No one knows which got the idea first, but it wasn’t long before both of them were buying the carvings, hiring silversmiths to put a silver bezel around them, and selling them as pendants.
By the 1950s fetish carvers were drilling holes in the animals to allow them to be strung on a necklace of heishi, small beads of turquoise or shell that were strung together to make a long, thin necklace. The Zuni artists do not make heishi. It comes from Santo Domingo Pueblo where the jewelers are known for their bead and shell necklaces. The traders in Gallup and Zuni would buy the animal fetishes, drilled and ready to string, and then hire someone to put the necklaces together.
Fetish necklaces are made with a myriad of materials today, including turquoise, coral, shell, jet, amber, malachite, fossilized ivory and more.
Usually, each necklace is the work of a single person, or a family team, but occasionally you will find one that combines the carvings of several different artists. Contemporary carvers do not believe that a carving is a fetish unless it is blessed in a ceremony, so these necklaces won’t protect you from anything, especially the admiring glances you will get from people who think they look great on you!