University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Cherokee Dance Rattles


By: Margaret Bruchac

May 27, 2015

Sound and Motion in Museum Objects:
Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Band Rattles

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Sarah Parkinson

How should museums represent objects that incorporate sound and movement? This seems to be a unique challenge, since museums tend to rely on visual cues alone in displays that are static and mute.

Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Lab with Cherokee Ankle Bands (Stomp Dance Rattles). Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B.
Sarah Parkinson in the Penn Museum Collections Study Room with Cherokee Ankle Bands (Stomp Dance Rattles). Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
During a recent visit to the Collections Study Room in the Penn Museum, my analysis of a pair of Cherokee ankle bands presented a possible solution to this question in restorative methodologies. Although these objects were made to dance and audibly keep beat, they appeared to be silent and still when seen on the table in the study room. For me, this removed the possibility of imagining them in motion. However, by researching and reconstructing the context of their use and collection, and by connecting them to modern practices, I found that they began to “dance” once more in telling a story of continuing Cherokee traditions.

Ankle Bands: Object Analysis

According to the registration card, the ankle bands came from a Cherokee community in North Carolina called Big Cove Band. They were collected between 1932 and 1940 by Frank G. Speck and John G. Witthoft. The two ankle bands, labeled as 46-6-12 A and B, are nearly identical and were made to be a set. Each consists of a large square hide with some patches of fur. The dark stripes on each strand of fur indicate that this is most likely raccoon fur. On top of the hide backing, five turtle shells are strapped on with strands of leather, four in a square formation with one sitting on top of the square. Interestingly, two deer dewclaws are tied to each side of the bands. According to Native sensibilities, multiple elements can combine on a single object to increase its power. Therefore, the three different animals on these dance rattles—box turtles, raccoon, and deer—may signal the ankle bands’ connections to local fauna.

When I picked up the ankle bands to study the back, they rattled loudly. Unused to such a loud noise in the Museum, I was nervous, even though I had been careful in lifting them. I quickly realized that there were small pebbles inside each turtle shell, and I began to understand a larger story that had been obscured by my sole attention to visual elements. Instead of being purely aesthetic, these bands were meant to rattle and make noise each time the wearer took a step. Imagine them outside the silent Museum, and inside a living world complete with motion and sound—suddenly the ankle bands became more interesting!

Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Bands. Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.
Cherokee Stomp Dance Ankle Bands. Museum Object Numbers 46-6-12 A and B. Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission of the Penn Museum.

Motion and Sound in Cherokee Stomp Dances

These ankle bands, when viewed in the sterile context of a museum, only tell a small portion of their own story. Laying on a table, it seems as if their only use is as a visible artifact. Seen in a different context, however, it is clear that these were made to actively participate in Cherokee stomp dances. A woman would wear these bands on her lower legs so that each time she steps, the pebbles beat the inside of the shell to create a steady beat. Sound and movement are clearly key in this narrative.[1]

Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, portrait for "Native American and Hawaiian Women of Hope,” by photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Creek/Diné). Native Peoples Magazine, Spring 1997.
Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, portrait for “Native American and Hawaiian Women of Hope,” by photographer Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie (Seminole/Creek/Diné). Native Peoples Magazine, Spring 1997.

During stomp dances, participants dance around a ceremonial fire. Sometimes chanting and drumbeats accompany the sound of the movements. Although both women and men dance, only the women wear these “shell shakers” made from the shells of the box turtle. Native people from several nations, including the Cherokee, still perform ceremonial stomp dances around a sacred fire, continuing this tradition into the present.[2]

Retracing Object Histories: Putting Collections in Context

Often, the act of collecting separates objects permanently from their cultural context, and so objects lose major chunks of their histories. Fortunately, this is not the case with this set of dance rattles thanks to the careful ethnographic work of Frank Speck. Speck and his student, John Whitthoft, collected these dance rattles during the same period when Speck and Leonard Broom were writing Cherokee Dance and Drama.[3] They collected recordings and photographs from North Carolina’s Big Cove Band of Eastern Cherokee along with objects such as this. In doing so, they made it possible to reconstruct a more complete object history of these dance rattles. By seeing and hearing how these particular objects might have been used, it becomes possible to imagine their life outside the Museum’s walls.

When conducting the field research for this work, Speck and Broom worked closely with Will West Long (1870-1947), their chief informant, who was listed as a coauthor.[4] Will West Long was born in Big Cove; the town was culturally conservative, since they were a semi-isolated remnant band that stayed in North Carolina after the Cherokee’s forced removal to Oklahoma. A broad survey of the collection of his notebooks in the American Philosophical Society archives reveals that West Long spent a large portion of his life trying to preserve Cherokee traditions. These notebooks are mostly in Cherokee, and include topics such as medicine, charms, and Cherokee syllabary.[5] Other eminent anthropologists of the age, including James Mooney and Frans Olbrechts, used West Long as an informant on Cherokee tradition. His mastery of Cherokee dance and song, combined with his desire to preserve traditions, made Will West Long the perfect informant.[6]

A Story Reunited

Viewed in isolation, the Cherokee stomp dance rattles cannot tell their full story, in which motion and sound are integral. However, by carefully tracing the history of these objects, a more complete narrative emerges. Thanks to Will West Long’s passion for preserving traditional Cherokee culture, Frank Speck and John Witthoft were able to collect not only the dance rattles, but also recordings and images of the songs and dance that animated them and gave them life. By reuniting these elements, the Cherokee stomp dance rattles can begin to take on a new life in the Museum.

Footnotes:

[1] See the Cherokee Nation website for a more complete description of the Cherokee Stomp Dance.
[2] An example of contemporary Native American Stomp Dancing with turtle shell ankle band rattles can be seen in this demonstration at the Battle of Horseshoe Band, Alabama.
[3] Speck, Frank, and Leonard Broom 1951. Cherokee Dance and Drama. Norman, OK.
[4] For detailed information on Will West Long, see “Cherokee Traditions,” a project of the Hunter Library Digital Initiatives at Western Carolina University.
[5] See the Frank Gouldsmith Speck Cherokee Collection, Mss.572.97 at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, for a full inventory of the Cherokee notebooks, photographs, recordings, and other archival materials.
[6] Witthoft, John 1948. “Will West Long, Cherokee Informant,” American Anthropologist 50.2.

NOTE: For background on the “Speck Connection” project in Museum Anthropology, see Margaret Bruchac, The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects.


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