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Tsimshian shaman’s rattle

Tsimshian, shaman's rattle, c. 1750–80, birch, bone, hair, pigment, and metal pins, made in British Columbia, Canada, 35.6 × 22.9 × 11.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); speaker: Gaylord Torrence, Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Created by Smarthistory.

Video transcript

TORRENCE: This rattle is one of the most emotionally charged works in the Diker Collection. It’s a Shaman’s rattle. It was used in healing ceremonies. It’s essentially a portrait of the Shaman himself or a spirit helper, somewhere between life and death. It was created by a Tsimshian artist around the mid 1700s. The mouth is grimacing, exposing these very, very realistic teeth, carved in bone. It’s an emaciated form. There’s a great deal of realism in the broad plane of the forehead, and the carefully and sensitively rendered eye sockets, the cheekbones, the jawline that curves so beautifully towards the chin. Crossing the top of this rattle is a ruff of human hair, which certainly adds to the realism. This rattle is covered on the back with a very, very old style of form-line design, a visual language of the Northwest coast. The depiction is so abstracted, and frankly so archaic that it’s impossible to know for certain what is being represented here. Rattles were almost always accompanied in healing ceremonies of shamans. It’s believed that whenever a rattle was sounded that spirits were present. It’s carved of wood in two halves which were then sewn together. It contained a small group of pebbles or shot for the sound that it would create. There’s a remarkable sense of life and tension in this face, it’s this sense of expressive power. It’s one of the great, great works of the art of Northwest coast peoples.