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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Whale Rattle
Wood & Paint, 9” Length, c.1880
Haida Whale Rattle
Haida Whale Rattle
Haida Whale Rattle

Rattles on the Northwest Coast were employed as a means of contacting and placating spirits in ceremonial contexts.

The sound of the rattles is said to soothe spirit energy and to call beneficial spirits to lend help to the living in their endeavors, such as memorializing the dead and passing hereditary names and cultural privileges on to their descendants.

Rattles owned by an individual would be carved to reflect the emblem of their clan, in this case a whale. With a low dorsal fin, no apparent teeth and a long narrow pectoral fin, this rattle most likely represents a humpback whale, a crest of certain Raven moiety clans.

Tlingit society is divided into two halves, known in anthropological terms as moieties, which today are most often identified as Eagle and Raven. In the recent past these were known as Wolf and Raven.

The humpback, a baleen whale with a low, arched dorsal fin and long pectorals, is raven side, while the Orca or Killer whale is known as an eagle-side crest emblem among the Tlingit. Haida and Tsimshian clans have a different arrangement and relationship of crests and moieties.

This rattle embodies a simple, straightforward representation, with a primarily sculptural form that contains few but significant references to the Northwest Coast two-dimensional design system.

The head of the whale is composed in reflection of the two-dimensional formline painting style, seen in the placement and relationship of the round eye to the position of the mouth, snout, and back of the head. The snout includes an arched nostril form, even though this type of whale has blowholes on top of its head rather than forward-pointing nostrils. These are a convention of the two-dimensional design style that supercedes a naturalistic concept of the whale’s appearance.

The pectoral fins, and possibly the tail, do not contain any two-dimensional design development. No formlines embellish the form of the fins, though the shapes of the fins themselves reflect that of a typical formline U-form.

The unpainted area below and behind the pectoral fins does in fact reflect the lighter underbelly of a humpback whale, a concession to naturalism that was becoming more prevalent in the late nineteenth-century period. The black pigment used in the painted surfaces contains graphite, which adds a certain grayish sheen to the surface that is often seen in nineteenth-century Northwest Coast objects. The red used in the rattle appears to be the trade pigment vermilion, also known as cinnabar, which was commonly imported for trade purposes by English and American fur-traders.

Provenance: The Bishop H.R. Powell Collection
American Museum of Natural History, 1898

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