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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Tlingit or Tsimshian
Raven Rattle
Hardwood & Paint, 10½" Length, c.1780-1800
Tlingit or Tsimshian Raven Rattle
Tlingit or Tsimshian Raven Rattle

One of the great icons of Northwest Coast art, the raven rattle is said by Native oral tradition to have originated on the Nass River, one of the large trade conduits that connect the Pacific Coast with the continental interior, and home to the Nishga’a branch of the Simogyet, or Tsimshian-speaking peoples.

No one knows just how the enigmatic imagery of the raven, human, tail-bird-head, and sometimes frog came to be assembled in this arrangement, but evidence suggests that it was codified long ago. The image most likely evolved within the shamanic tradition, where the passing of esoteric knowledge is symbolized by the sharing of tongues. Frogs symbolized the shaman’s ability to travel in different worlds, from the living to the spirit, just as frogs could live in both aquatic and terrestrial environments.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the raven rattle had become the exclusive prerogative of chiefs and clan leaders. It was shaken with a circular, whirring motion during a peace dance, with the dancer attired in an ermine-embellished headdress with carved frontlet. Eagle down in the headdress flew out with the dancer’s head movements, driftng down around the performer as a symbol of peaceful intent.

This rattle exhibits several early characteristics, found mainly in the two-dimensional designs that embellish the raven’s breast and tail feathers, as well as the ovoid-shaped relief in the breast-face and carved-out areas. These traditional design elements are more typical of earlier historical-period styles and are small and narrow when compared to later examples.


Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008