Vern Nieto knows his way around some Zuni fetishes -- and no, you pervert, it's not at all what you think. In the Zuni tradition, a "fetish" is a spiritually significant art object, a small, intricate charm carved from precious or semi-precious stone to reflect an animal of symbolic import; that tradition, along with a demonstration of how it's done -- no, that is not a double entendre -- serves as the topic of Nieto's lecture tomorrow, the final in Museo de las Americas' From the Earth lecture series.
"What Vern is going talk about is the significance of the fetishes in Zuni Culture," says Maruca Salazar, executive director at the Museo. "The Zuni are a nation of people who are basically hunter and gatherers. The Zuni mountains are full of precious and semi precious stones, turquoise, marble, jet, mother-of-pearl. So the Zuni take that rock from the land and assign guardian animals -- the eagle, the mountain lion, the bear, the badger, and the mole. For example, the mole, when they design a mole, it's designed to represent mother earth. The eagle represents the sky. Each of the cardinal directions has a guardian."
It's those guardians that the fetishes symbolize, and those fetishes are traditionally used by the Zuni people for symbolic protection and for good luck, though in more recent years, they've become a popular item among art collectors. For that reason, many Zuni fetish carvers these days tailor their art toward marketability.
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Nieto, though, is of the more traditional ilk. "He is one of the top Zuni carvers in their nation," notes Salazar. "He has a high ranking in the spiritual community of Zuni people. He is also a wonderful, soft-spoken man. With very strong arms."
That would be because the carving is done by hand from really hard rocks -- hard, hard, rock-hard rocks -- which requires a large amount of force -- propulsive force -- and a steady hand. That's what she said.
The lecture takes place tomorrow from 2 to 3 p.m. at Museo de las Americas. It's free and open to anyone who wants to come, but you have to reserve a seat in advance -- call 303-571-4401 to do that.
And get your mind out of the gutter.