A critic's favorite: the raven rattle at SAM

At Seattle Art Museum, a piece with peculiar power hangs in a Northwest Native art display case. A tour with a curator helps our writer learn why this object, more than all others, speaks to him, fully alive, across the cultures.

Crosscut archive image.

Raven rattle, circa 1850. Tlingit, possibly Wrangell, Alaska. Gift of John H. Hauberg to the Seattle Art Museum.

At Seattle Art Museum, a piece with peculiar power hangs in a Northwest Native art display case. A tour with a curator helps our writer learn why this object, more than all others, speaks to him, fully alive, across the cultures.

In the filmThe Object of Beauty,” a small and valuable Henry Moore sculpture owned by Andie Macdowell disappears from her London hotel room. She suspects that her husband, played by John Malkovich, has sold it. He has not. A housekeeper has stolen it when she cleaned their room. The woman, who is deaf, eventually is found out and, when asked why, she simply says that the sculpture “spoke” to her.

Perhaps as youngsters we were dutifully trudging with our class or our parents through the local art museum, biding time until we could go home and do something far more interesting. Then out of nowhere, something hanging on the wall or placed on a stand captivated us and we were transfixed. In some important and ineffable way this object of beauty was speaking to us.

My first such experience was at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art with a portrait by the Venetian artist Titian of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Strange choice for a kid, no? I could not begin to tell you why it floored me back then. Maybe it was the size, majesty, and confidence of the man portrayed.

The only connection that it made with my own reality was that Charles had the massive jaw and under bite emblematic of his Habsburg family, reminding me of my friend Burtie who had the same, but as we lived in Brooklyn he likely was not from royal lineage. Now in his 60s, Burtie has grown a full beard and spooks me every time I see him as he now looks just like the Charles Five of my youth.

Were it 50 years later, and seeing the Titian for the first time, I likely would be traipsing through the Met with the pretentiously mellifluous voice of its former director Phillipe de Montebello whispering through my ear buds, offering me more information about the painting than I would ever want to know. Back in my youth I preferred the mystery of not knowing, just the wonder of discovery. I still do at times, though now learning more about art that speaks to me can add wonderfully to the experience.

I have had a long-time interest in antique ethnographic art from non-Western cultures. During any year, I see a large amount of this material in travels around the United States and in trips overseas. Much of it is beautiful, well made, and evocative. As much as I love these works, it is now rare that something speaks in the exciting way that the Moore did to the maid, or the Titian to me.

But then there is the raven rattle.

It’s at the Seattle Art Museum. It’s in the hall with Northwest Native art, and as you enter it’s hanging with other rattles in a case on your right. It is spectacular. I’ve seen a number of such pieces, but I am still most drawn to this one. I love the intense colors still clearly visible, the thin yet bold carving of the bird and human figures, the complementary and balanced straight lines, curves, and circles, even the cotton string around the handle that jumps out at me, part of, yet alien to the rest of the composition — maybe a later addition.

Above all else, the rattle is alive. The raven, with its upraised head is in flight, or ready to beat its wings above the earth. If the rattle is meant to be an intermediary between humans and the natural world then, even now, resting in a museum display case, it retains that power.

I’ve seen it a number of times, often making a beeline to it as soon as I enter, at other times saving it for a sumptuous dessert before I leave. I don’t know much about Northwest Native American visual art, so last week I met with Barbara Brotherton, the curator for these arts at SAM, to look at the rattle together and to learn more about its origin and purposes.

It’s dated to approximately 1860, is from the Tlingit people, possibly originating in the area of Wrangell, Alaska. In Tlingit, it has the beautiful name of Sheishoox, an onomatopoeia it is said for the “swish-swish sound of a rattle manipulated with a circular motion.” The wood is maple with a beautiful patina, it is painted with vivid colors, perhaps all natural; sinew and that cotton string hold the two halves of the rattle together, and there are a few hardly noticed small repairs.

Raven rattles, one of several types used by Northwest Native cultures, are also known as chief's rattles, for they are the only ones who may carry them. It is thought that shamans originally used them, but that tradition, perhaps as a result of Western incursion on Native culture, appears to have long ago ended. They are carried as a symbol of power, authority, and wealth, at times used to accompany songs, and employed by the chief in his own special dance. No one, at least outside Tlingit culture, is entirely clear on the multiple meanings of the iconography of this type of rattle.

The major figure is of the raven, a bird central to Northwest Native mythology. In its beak is held a small box that is said to contain daylight or fire. Carved onto its back are two figures. One is a man, leaning against the rear of the raven’s head in what appears a vulnerable, even suggestive position, his long tongue stuck into the beak of a bird’s head, probably a kingfisher.

The man is said to be obtaining the power of the kingfisher, a bird that communes with the air, water, and the earth. On the round bottom of the rattle is the head of another figure, perhaps a hawk, or as Brotherton suggests, it might be Gonakadeit, a wealth bringer spirit from under the waters.

As to who made this particular rattle, no one knows. According to Brotherton, all men in the culture would likely carve, but there were those who were considered “professionals” who had the task of making these and other extraordinary and complex objects. The raven rattle is probably carved from one piece of maple by knife and then divided in two. Stones or other weighted objects were placed within to make sounds before the two pieces were reconnected.

In photos of chiefs with raven rattles, the rattles seem always to be held upside down, or at least on their sides. If the rattle were to be shaken when it was right side up, the raven might fly away. Looking at the rattle I love, which is exhibited right side up, I sometimes wonder if it is only the confines of its display box that prevents it from taking wing.

To learn more about this piece was a pleasure. It added dimension and understanding, and gave me a deeper appreciation of what I was seeing. Yet this information, in at least one important way, is completely irrelevant to my experience.

I cannot see it through the eyes of its maker, through those of a chief, or any Tlingit. I can only show the piece the respect it is due and gain better understanding of it. Yet no matter how much I might learn,  the raven rattle will first and foremost continue to speak to me in that special and mysterious way, in that ineffable language that only it and I can understand.


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