Why a Zuni Fetish Museum?
But the sad part was this also shows exactly why the Zuni Fetish Museum needs to exist. An article in the Albuquerque Journal appeared the weekend before the exhibit opened promoting the show. Unfortunately the front page of the section showed two fake Leekya fetishes from a gallery in Santa Fe as if they were legitimate. I’d like to hope the gallery was just ignorant of their being copies. So while the exhibit strove so hard thanks to curator Deb Slaney to get things right, the article in part undid all this careful work. Most people were totally unaware of the items not being real Leekya pieces, and that makes matters worse because now these items could potentially be sold as real.
The Zuni Fetish Museum will strive to always be accurate, and if we discover an error, will make sure that it is corrected. Sadly some museums in the Southwest have not seen fit to do that. Some have shown fakes in their displays for well over ten years. That’s why the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe is so good, because they do take the time to get it right. We promise to be that type of museum.
The Learning Curve
Thank heavens we all have a learning curve. I remember walking into a store in Gallup, NM in 1975 and seeing a lovely little jet bear with a coral heartline and turquoise eyes. Turquoise BEAD eyes which I had not seen before. I asked the artist's name which of course they did not know.
Since I was unaware that Navajo carvers were reproducing Zuni fetishes then, I bought it. Then I found out it was Navajo by Juan Hashkie. And I found out that there was a shop in Gallup that primarily employed Navajo carvers to copy Zuni fetishes. Plus one of the telltale signs was bead eyes. Either turquoise, coral or shell. So what did I do with that first jet bear? I kept it, because I wanted to always remind myself that we all make mistakes when we start out, and we all hopefully learn from those mistakes.
Many people have collected Navajo "fetishes" over time. The main problem is there has long been a taboo about carving them among the Navajo. For them to carve them now breaks that taboo. Which is any artist's prerogative, but one I have chosen not to get involved in.
On the other hand all Pueblo peoples carve fetishes, but many tribes do not believe they should be sold. They believe instead they should be used solely for religious purposes. Obviously Zuni is not one of those Pueblos. I try to stay away from specific tribal taboos like that as well. Just another thing you learn over time.
So fortunately over many years one does get wiser. But in the interim, it's always good to find a dealer/trader you can truly trust.
We recently passed the sixth anniversary of Jeff Tsalabutie's death. I find it so hard to believe he has been gone that long. I remember getting the call and sitting in stunned silence for what seemed like forever. I thought about his wonderful family, Sherdine and Loren, and what they were going through. And I thought what a sad loss for the world of Zuni carving and what wonderful creations Jeff had yet to carve that we were going to miss.
Jeff had such an amazing smile and laugh. That laugh still rings in my head when I think of him. Plus he was such a great kidder. We would go back and forth at each other until we both doubled up with laughter. His kindness was another thing never to be forgotten. Both to people and animals. When my dog got sick and I had to miss Indian Market, Jeff sold me some pieces he was holding for the show since I could not see him there. Anything to do with dogs was special to Jeff. He fed the stray dogs in the area, all on his own with his own money. Jeff was sort of the local Humane Society.
Jeff helped introduce dancing bears to parts of Zuni. He went home with an Inuit dancing bear from our store and soon after began producing dancing bears. He, of course, expanded that to many other critters. But all with his own twist and sense of humor. Plus he could balance them in so many ways! I'm proud to know that he still had that bear when he passed. I'll always think of it and him together.
Most importantly it is so wonderful that Jeff passed his great gift to not only his young son Loren, but to his wife Sherdine. Both create fine carvings with his influence but in their own styles.
So here's to Jeff. Good friend and family man. Kind soul and funnyman. Creative artist and innovator. We miss you Jeff.
I got my first fetish in 1963, a gift from an old trader friend, John Stone, of Algodones, NM. John and his wife Ellie were half the reason I got into this business. Sitting in their living room behind their store playing with their dogs is such a fond memory. I first met them as a young kid in the late fifties when their shop was on the main road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque where I lived. John was originally a rug merchant. He married Ellie when she was 13 and he was 14. Do you have the suspicion they lied on the marriage certificate? I remember John handing me two fetish carvings and saying they were for me. I was so excited. He didn't remember who did them, as was typical in those days. I didn't find out who the artist was until 25 years later when Thelma Sheche confirmed my suspicions and said, "Oh, those are my dad's!" Even more special. I had been given Theodore Kucate fetishes and still wear one almost every day. And when I do, I think of John and Ellie and a little kid thinking how much fun it would be to have a store and sell Native American arts and crafts.