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Chief's Rattle


Chief's Rattle
Chief's Rattle
19th-20th century
Wood, leather, and haliotis shell
The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund

Key Ideas

The Haida
Raven Rattles

Discussion Questions

The Haida
Originally, the Haida people lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of present-day British Columbia. In the early 1700s some of them settled in the southern part of Prince of Wales Island, now part of Alaska. The Haida were fishers who depended largely on halibut and cod for their livelihood.

Haida coastal village

Haida coastal village

During the 18th century, Europeans arrived on the Pacific Coast and established fur-trading posts. Soon, Episcopal and Methodist missionaries arrived to convert the Indians. Their conversion to Christianity undermined traditional Haida culture, and disease and alcohol brought by the outsiders decimated the population. Today, small groups of Haida Indians live in the Masset and Skidgate communities in Canada and at Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska.

Raven is one of the most popular characters in Haida mythology. He is said to have created the earth when he tired of flying over a world covered with water. Landforms, tides, the habits of certain animals - all those and more are credited to Raven. In many of the stories, such as the story of daylight, the trickster Raven changes his form.1

Detail of another example of Haida woodcarving

Detail of another example of Haida woodcarving

Totem Pole
After 1850
Wood, malacite, pigments
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Raven Rattles
The Haida have long been gifted woodworkers. The men built great houses and the most prized maritime boats along the coast. Haida artists carved totem poles, storage boxes utensils, and rattles in the form of ravens, among other art objects.

Raven rattles take their name from their ravenlike shape. Today, their original purpose and the exact meaning of their complex decoration is no longer known. The first raven rattles may have been powerful instruments used by religious specialists called shamans. However, Haida people who were alive around 1900 said that rattles were the instruments of dancing chiefs2, part of the elaborate REGALIA they wore for a dance to greet canoes from other villages. Raven rattles are now used only for special occasions.

Repeated vertical lines of Raven's beak, mouth, and his diamond-shaped eye emphasize the proud upward thrust of his head. An inlaid shell forms his shiny opalescent eye.

Repeated vertical lines of Raven's beak, mouth, and his diamond-shaped eye emphasize the proud upward thrust of his head. An INLAID shell forms his shiny opalescent eye.

In this rattle Raven's head thrusts upward and his chest puffs out, forming the body of the rattle. His wings sweep downward along his sides. The repeated vertical lines of Raven's beak, mouth, and his diamond-shaped eye emphasize the proud upward thrust of his head. INLAID shell forms his shiny opalescent eye. Most known raven rattles look much like this one, but they have the additional detail of a small box of daylight held in his beak.

Several birds are evident in this wooden rattle. On Raven's belly is the face of a rather large bird, carved in low RELIEF. The design, barely visible here, may depict a hawk or some other natural being. Another abstracted bird's head faces the rattle handle.

Figure of a human

Roll over the image to see the figure of a human from the Chief's Rattle

Detail showng puzzle-like contour lines

Roll over the image to see the puzzle-like contour lines from the Chief's Rattle

A reclining man rests his head on Raven's head. His long red arms wrap around his drawn-up knees. A long-billed bird bites the man's extended tongue. The meaning of this exchange is unknown, but may suggest the transference of power from one being to the other.

The complex linear design of this rattle is characteristic of Northwest Coast Indian art. Each form is tightly integrated into the puzzlelike composition. Strong contour lines define many of the forms, such as the brow, eye, nostril, and beak of Raven. These lines tie the complex imagery together, leading from one form to another to create a rhythmic composition.

The raven rattle was painted with black and bright colors that also structured the design. Over time, much of this pigment has worn away. However, traces of red paint are still visible on the reclining man's arms and on the mouth, cheek, and forehead of the large bird that is also Raven's chest.

1 Raven stories are told by Haida storytellers in John R. Swanton, Haida Texts and Myths, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 29 (Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1905), pp. 110-150. Return to Text
2 Bill Holm, The Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983) p. 25. Return to Text

Key Ideas Story Background Discussion Questions


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