Zuni fetishes traditionally served a ceremonial purpose for their creators and depict animals and icons integral to their culture. According to the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology as submitted by Frank Hamilton Cushing in 1881, and posthumously published as "Zuni Fetishes" in 1966, the Zuni world is made up of six regions or directions. At the center of each region is a great mountain peak that is a very sacred place. Yellow mountain to the north, blue mountain to the west, red mountain to the south, white mountain to the east, the multi-colored mountain above, and the black mountain below.
Each direction is represented by a "Prey God", or guardian animal, and are listed by Cushing as follows: north - the yellow mountain lion, west - the Black Bear (represented by the color blue), south - the red badger, east - the white wolf, the sky or upper region - the multi-colored eagle, and the underground or lower region- the black mole. Each prey god is the "guardian and master" of their region with the yellow mountain lion being the elder brother of all animals and the master and guardian of all regions. Each one of these regions contains an order of the guardian animals, but the "guardian and master" of a particular region is the elder brother to all animals of that region. For example, the black bear is the guardian of the west and the elder brother of the prey god order in that region. These guardians are considered as having protective and healing powers. They are held by the priests of the medicine orders as if "in captivity" and act as mediators between the priests and the animals they represent. The Prey Gods are the "Makers of the Paths of Life". Medicinal powers emanate from them and their powers as mediators is given through their relationship to Po-shai-an-kia, the father of the medicine societies, the "Finisher of the Paths of Our Lives", the "auditor of the prayers".
Other Zuni fetish carvings depict animals and reptiles such as the frog, turtle, buffalo, deer, ram, otter, and others. There are many more subjects of contemporary carvers that may include dinosaurs, for example, that would be considered non-traditional, or some insects and reptiles that are traditionally more integral to Zuni mythology and folklore, or to petroglyphs, symbolism, and the patterns of design in pottery, e.g. dragonflies and butterflies, water spiders, and lizards. There is also the corn maiden, a symbol of fertility and the hope of a good harvest. Other animals, such as the horse, ram, or sheep, were carved mainly for trade. The Zuni was not a horse culture but their horse carvings were considered by the Navajo and the horse cultures to the north as having great power for the protection of their herds. Each animal 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 insure fertility.
A carving may be signed by the carver, or not. Personalization by signing a piece of art is a form of individualism that traditionally violates the Zuni notion of community purpose. Native American cultures in general traditionally viewed art objects as community property, and Native languages did not have a word translating to "art". The signing of artwork is a concept introduced to the Zuni by white collectors at the beginning of the twentieth century (ca. 1915) when artists began signing their paintings, and most Zuni carvers did not begin signing their carvings until the last part of the twentieth century. Often, though, a Zuni carver feels that their own unique style is readily identifiable and the fetish's style will be enough to identify the carver as surely as would any other mark. Some carvings are so intricate and small that it is impractical to sign it, and there always is the fear that the piece could be chipped, scratched, or otherwise damaged in the attempt. Most carvers are the recipients of a family tradition of style and have learned their skill from parents, grand parents, or siblings, and have passed the art to their own children as well.
Besides being made from various stones and other materials, the fetish may carry an offering of a smaller animal or a prayer bundle of carved arrowheads with small beads of heishe. It may be adorned with a heishe necklace, feathers, etchings representing ancient petroglyphs, or an etched or inlayed heartline. These items are intended to protect and feed the fetish itself. In regard to feeding, it is believed from tradition that the Keeper of fetishes is required to feed a meal of cornmeal and ground turquoise periodically and provide the carving with access to water. Fetishes are often kept in and attached to clay pots adorned with ground turquoise. The corn maiden, an icon so important in Zuni mythology regarding fertility and a good harvest in an arid desert agricultural environment, is often portrayed holding a bowl of ground turquoise, sometimes trailing to the ground.
As far as describing the Zuni culture by the term "fetishism" it should, like any other culture, be considered carefully and as a matter of degree. According to modern anthropology's definition of "fetishism" every culture theoretically has its iconic worship of sacred things. As Cushing noted, to the Zuni a fetish is a "mediator" and represents the "roar of the animal". This is not a totemism or a strict fetishism as witnessed in, for example, some African cultures or Alaskan native tribes. The medicinal power of the fetish is a triadic relationship between the fetish, the owner, and Po-shai-an-kia. It is an idiosyncrasy shared by many cultures and as a matter of degree is always arguable.