Coast rattles are finely sculptured
percussive instruments that are employed to communicate with the spirit
world. The high, light, swooshing sound of a thinly carved hardwood
rattle is known to attract benevolent spirits, and is often used to
accompany spiritual songs that call on the spirits of ancestors to aid
in times of transition or crisis.
The Tlingit name for the raven rattle is Sheishoox, a word that
imitates the sound
the instrument. Certain kinds of rattles are the exclusive property
of shamans, used
in their specialized kinds of spirit communication, while others are
employed by clan
and family leaders in sanctifying a ceremonial space or gathering. Shaman's
in the north were most often globular in form, or among the Tlingit,
oystercatcher rattle was the type used exclusively in shamanic practice.
In the Central Coast Salish region, the sheep horn rattle
was the type created for ritualistic use.
hide binding and paint, 10 5/8" , ca. 1780-1800, George Terasaki
the most graceful and delicate object created by NW Coast ceremonialists,
the Raven rattle is also a very old and respected object of tradition.
Certain extremely old and brittle ones exist, likely collected from
graves, which suggest that the image usually portrayed is one that is
very ancient, though its specific origin is unknown.
This arrangement of raven, human, and sometimes frog has been reinterpreted
by successive generations of artists, most of whom leave the core image
absolutely intact, while rendering their own unique variations of the
details thereon. This example is a particularly small and compactly
designed one. It bears the most common raven rattle features: the form
line face with a received beak on the belly, the tail of the raven raised
up and elaborated into a long-beaked bird face, and the reclining human
figure with its tongue held in the beak of the tail-bird. In this version,
the tail is set more forward on the ravenšs body than on many others,
and the body and legs of the human are correspondingly short. The face
of the human is handled as a softly-arched, formline-type structure,
the features of the face quite shallowly relieved. The head of the raven
is also shorter than many, yet still has been cut through up the middle,
isolating the neck and opening a space between the ears. This traditional
structure harmonizes with the delicate piercing on the back of the raven,
and removes unwanted weight from the wood which may affect the rattlešs
The flat design embellishment is of an early style, most likely Tlingit
or Haida work. The worn and faded pigments and other surface patination
suggest that this rattle is quite old, held by a succession of high-ranking
chiefs of clans at ceremonial gatherings as a symbol of wealth and prestige,
as an accompaniment to songs and dance.
or Ritualist's Deer Hoof Rattle
Sculptured wood, Sitka black-tailed deer hoofs and dew claws, fiber,
Ca. 1850-1880, 9" Long
Hollow, dried deer hoofs and dew claws were often
employed on the Northwest Coast as percussive elements. They were
sometimes attached by leather thongs to the calves or ankles of a
dancer (as among the Coast Salish); or attached to the fringe of a
northern-coast painted leather or Chilkat-woven dancing kilt or apron;
or occasionally attached to steam-bent or sculptured wood forms for
use as a rattle, as in this unusually detailed example. A dynamic
pair of bears is represented here in the carved form of the 'handle'
of the rattle, to which a large number of deer hoofs (the larger,
triangular shapes) and dew claws (the smaller, rounded ones) have
been attached with threadlike fibers.
Decades of use are indicated by the polished surface about the waist
of the main image, where the user would grasp the object. Shaking
the rattle produces a complex, sonorous rattling sound that is unique
to this form of the instrument. The larger, elongated bear is carved
with humanoid elements and proportions, indicative of the transformational
state that is at the core of the shamanic experience. The smaller
bear surmounting the larger one appears to represent the yeik, or
spirit helper of the shaman, who is represented in the larger figure.
With its head and forelegs perched between the shaman's bearlike ears,
its body drapes down the neck and upper back of the larger figure.
The feet of the small spirit bear are represented as a pair of additional
bear's head images, indicative of the ethereal, spirit form of this
Hardwood, paint, ca. 1880s, 9 Ŋ" long
The Bishop H. R. Powell Collection, American Museum of Natural
in concept to the globular rattle form, here the plump body
of a killer whale has been hollowed out and filled with tiny
pebbles to create a rattle of zoomorphic form. The round eye,
abbreviated dorsal fin, and white underbelly of the whale are
clearly shown, and the whale's tail is turned under below the
handle of the instrument. This form of rattle was most likely
used by a clan leader, one to whom the orca or killer whale
was an ancestral emblem.
Wood, paint, ca. 1850-1870, 17 3/8" Long
collected by a relative of the auction consignee, who served with
the Presbyterian Mission Society in the early twentieth century. Sotheby's,
Lot 389, Fine American Indian Art Auction 5.26.99.
This large, sculptured salmon form was split in two, hollowed out,
and fastened together with small wooden pins to form the cavity of
a rattle-like object. The head, eyes, gill slits, dorsal and pectoral
fins, and tail of a salmon are represented in naturalistic form. The
'ribs' of the salmon are pierced through to the interior cavity. The
roughly carved figure of a shaman-like human form is loose within
the salmon's body. This figure creates a rattle-like sound when the
salmon is shaken.
Perhaps in reference to the traditional stories of the 'salmon-boy',
this object is directly related to another, larger and somewhat more
ornate version of this image that also originated among the Tlingit.
Salmon boy is the subject of the traditional story of a young man
who ridiculed the spirits of the salmon. As a result, he was taken
down to the salmon-people's village under the water. Here he was taught
to properly respect the spirits of salmon and other fish so that they
would return year after year to be caught and used as sustenance by
the Native people.
Clubs | Fishing
All Images and Text Copyright 2002, Northwest