For hundreds of years, Native American artisans have been creating beautiful carvings from wood and stone, including fetishes, masks, knives and utensils. Today the tradition is carried on by a diverse group of Native American cultures, from the famed Zuni fetish carvers of the Southwest to Cherokee woodcarvers of the Southeast.
Fetishes are small carvings that depict animals or other important Native icons. Many tribes and Pueblos of the Southwest are known for making fetishes, but this ancient art form is most closely associated with the Zuni, who are considered the most skilled fetish carvers. Early Zuni fetishes were called Ahlashiwe, or stone ancients. Traditionally, they depict wolves, bears, mountain lions, eagles, frogs, rabbits, fish, corn maiden and other animals. The Zuni people believe that the skills and qualities of the animal reside in these fetishes and can bring some of the animals’ power to their keeper. They are often part of ceremonies and serve as a powerful connection to nature and the spirit world.
Early Native American cutting knives were made from sharpened stone, such as flint, chert and obsidian. Blades were created through a technique called flaking, in which the natural edges of the stone were fractured with a special tool. Flaking is very difficult to do and only accomplished by the most skilled artisans. Ancient stone knives created through flaking have been dated back to 12000 B.C. Obsidian was a particularly prized blade because it can be flaked so thin, creating a very effective, precise cutting tool. As knife-making became more sophisticated, Native Americans attached these obsidian blades to handles of bone, antler or horn, tying them together with a sinew lace. Cherokee artisan Leroy Thomas is one of a very small group of people who still handcrafts knives using these ancient methods.