Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Rattle Connection

One of my favorite rooms here at The Alice just happens to be one of the smallest exhibit spaces. The American Indian Room on the third floor holds a widely varied collection of objects that include WWI gas masks, Babylonian tablets, small lap desks, shells & fossils, along side a lovely collection of American Indian artifacts including baskets, beadwork and stone implements. Prominently displayed on the west wall among baskets and pottery is a Northwest Coast Tsimshian or Tlinget Chief's rattle. Our records say Tlingit, but it could also have been made by Tsimshian artisans, who are said to have invented the raven rattle.

The twelve inch long polychrome wooden Chief's rattle is made in the form of a flying raven with two carved sections joined by two wooden pegs. The upper section is comprised of flattened and backswept wings, along with an upturned head. In his narrowly parted beak the raven is holding a small object said to represent either the sun or a box holding the light of day - perhaps the dawning of human consciousness? The bird's flattened wings support a reclining human figure with bent arms and legs. The human's mouth is slightly open and his long tongue is protruding into the mouth of a turtle or frog creature, which in turn is held in the beak of another bird (perhaps a kingfisher) that is formed from the raven's raised tail feathers. The bottom section forms the underbelly of the raven, and is carved with a highly stylized avian-like face with a small hooked beak. The face also depicts elements of fish, whale and bird which mirror the richness of life supported by the sea and might also suggest the regional sources of human wealth. The face itself is a hollow cavity that at one time held pebbles, which when shaken caused the rattling sound. Estimated at circa 1850-1875, the rattle is expertly carved, and is colored with touches of rich black and red pigments.

While studying the carving, one might feel the concept of the interconnectedness of nature. Each creature is connected to and somehow depends on the others. The creatures are connected by tongues, or resting on each other, a part of one another's bodies. Chiefs used these rattles in ceremonies, including rites-of-passage celebrations, often holding on in each hand. Imagine the strong message this object sent to the young initiate: your life depends on all creatures... humans do not stand alone. The sounds of the paired rattles enhanced the stories or songs of the Chiefs, and are also said to have evoked the sounds of the fins of salmon breaking the surface of the water.

Here at The Alice the rattle rests quietly, its pebbles long since lost. Over eighty years ago Alice Miner was drawn to the rattle's beauty and artistic quality. A wooden stand was made for it, and it was carefully displayed for visitors to enjoy... But the rattle was also used by someone long ago! One can see that it surely had a life before The Alice - and that it had purpose in that former life. The wood is worn, the paint scratched in places, but this object has been lovingly cared for, surviving the decades. It is waiting to speak to you should you visit and take the time to look... You might be reminded how we are all inter-connected - bird, man, frog, fish!

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