University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Tlingit Raven Rattle: Transformative Representations


By: and Kayla Holmes

December 18, 2018

Shark, Raven, Bird, Human. What does it mean to find these life forms intermingled within a singular piece, in the shape of a rattle? In Tlingit society, the interactions among these beings and the mythologies associated with them represent cultural interpretations of individual and clan relationships. Specific aspects of these relations and beliefs led to the amalgamation of stylized versions of marine animals, birds, and other enigmatic figures in this hand-held rattle carved from wood.

Tlingit Raven Rattle, NA11761. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

This “Dance Rattle”— object number NA11761, aptly described as the “Shark on Raven” rattle—was an object purchased by art collector and ethnologist Louis Shotridge (Tlingit) during the 1927 Wanamaker Expedition to acquire Northwest Coast Native objects. During the late 1800s to early 1900s, the Canadian and American governments began pressuring Native people to set aside their cultural objects and adopt aspects of Western culture. Shotridge observed that many Tlingit objects were leaving their communities of origin, and landing in museums. The Free Museum of Science and Art (forerunner to the Penn Museum) had only a small collection of Northwest Coast Native objects, but Shotridge was determined to improve the representation of Tlingit culture at Penn. He persuaded Museum Director George Byron Gordon to fund travel expenses to Southeastern Alaska to collect objects for the Museum.[1] According to Associate Curator Lucy Fowler Williams, these were the first University Museum expeditions led by a Native person, and Shotridge “found the Museum to be a safe haven for Native materials.”[2]

Kayla Holmes and Lucy Fowler Williams. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Although Shotridge was very thorough in his documentation, he was young and still learning; thus, there are still mysteries surrounding some of the objects in his collection.[3] This rattle was purchased by Shotridge in 1927 for $30.00.[4] On a page that lists the contents of package No. 15 sent to Philadelphia, this object was described as a “Ceremonial Dance Rattle, Beautifully carved to represent the ‘Shark and Fish Hawk’ crest objects, supported by the ‘Raven.’”[5] Shotridge did not record the meaning of this specific iconography in this instance,[6] but these figures suggest that this rattle is perhaps related to the Sitka Kaagwaantaan Clan.[7] This rattle clearly contains aspects of transformation that mirror Tlingit beliefs and society, entangled with the mythology of the Raven.

Human, Bird, and Animal Relationships

The bulk of this Tlingit rattle is carved into the body of the raven, and on the raven’s back lies a shark, identifiable by the flat rounded head, eyes and down-turned mouth and teeth painted onto the sides of its face. The shark is held in place by the beak of another bird that sits at the base of the rattle near the handle. What does all of this mean? What are the relationships between these figures, and why are they present on a single rattle? What was this rattle’s purpose? In the absence of an interview with the rattle’s owner, it is difficult to discern an absolute answer, but there are some possibilities.

Shark’s head rests on Raven’s head. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

“All of these Tlingit objects hold stories that relate to families. . . families have these stories that connect them to what I like to call an undivided Native world.”[8] Raven rattles are actually very common; dozens of them survive in museum collections, and they are still in active use in tribal communities today.[9] These rattles illustrate the Northwest Coast Native worldview by portraying the relationships among humans and animals; within some creation myths, the two kinds of being are interchangeable. For Tlingit society, Raven is the central character of creation myths, seen as both trickster and creator. In one version of the Raven myth recorded in Wrangell, Alaska, for example, Raven “went under the sea and visited all of the fish people, teaching men afterwards, that fish are really human beings.”[10] If the worlds of animal and human are seen as interchangeable, and if fish are another form of humans, this could explain why the shark on Raven’s back has a human face. This belief also illuminates the underbelly of the rattle, which contains a set of faces that bear characteristics of human, animal, or bird-like features.

Faces on Raven’s belly. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Tlingit Family Hierarchies

Shark and Raven are interconnected not only within mythology, but in Tlingit family structures. Every person within the Tlingit community has a kinship relation rooted in belonging to one of two moieties—called by the Tlingit “clans” or “sides”—divided into separate halves: Raven/Crow (Tléixʼ Laayaneidí) and Eagle/Wolf (Tléixʼ Shangukeidí).[11] Originally, each moeity contained around 30 groups who were further organized into “tribes” – “family lineages, or house groups of related families, descending from a common ancestor.”[12] In both Haida and Tlingit societies, which are matrilineal, children receive their clan, tribe, and lineage based on their mother’s family.[13] Each moeity/clan is exogamous, meaning one is expected to marry outside of one’s group; therefore, a Raven would be expected to marry an Eagle/Wolf and vice versa. Some groups within the Eagle/Wolf clan also use animal crests, including the wolf, eagle, bear, petrel, killer whale, halibut, thunderbird, shark, and many others.[14]

Since the shark crest was used by members of the Eagle/Wolf clan, I wondered if the rattle might represent kinship between someone within the Raven clan and someone within the Wolf/Eagle clan? Through subsequent research, we learned that the shark apparently lost its luster as a clan emblem during the era when Shotridge was collecting.[15] He noted that people of the Kaguanton (Kaagwaantaan) tribe were known as adventurous and brave warriors, but the emblem of the shark (apparently based on the slow-moving basking shark) failed to convey their ferocity. One of his informants, Chief Stuwuka, stated, “If this Shark is to maintain its rank in our history, why does not this indolent animal appear in a true man’s dream?” The shark, despite its “rows of sharp teeth,” was replaced by the wolf who was thought to be more aggressive and “bold.”[16] Even so, the shark “was still looked upon with respect, because it represented the efforts of the men who founded the party.”[17] Might that story be represented on this rattle? If so, what does the presence of the bird with its beak resting on shark signify?

Raven, Salmon, Fish Hawk, Kingfisher, and Shark

Perhaps the images on this rattle reflect oral traditions that surround the Raven. In a Sitkan version of the Raven creation myth, for example, after Raven brought the stars, the moon, and light into the world, he went off to explore. Along his journey, he caught a big spring salmon by using a piece of wild celery (yâ’naet) as a weapon. “Then, Raven, carrying along the spring salmon, got all kinds of birds, little and big, as his servants” to help cook the fish.[18] On this rattle, the bird’s beak appears to be holding the shark’s tail firmly in place. Does this indicate that the bird is helping Raven to carry away the shark? Shotridge describes the bird as a “Fish Hawk,” but hawks were typically represented with a curved rather than a straight beak, so this bird might be a Kingfisher, a bird with special “powers that related to its association with water and its access to other realms, namely land and sky.”[19] Are there other meanings?

Unlike Northwest Coast First Nations “crest art,” which tends to represent a specific clan or nation, these rattles (called sheishóox in Tlingit) appear to have been made as personal objects of power to be used by chiefs and other prominent individuals.[20] Since the motifs on Raven rattles often symbolize some aspect of initiation ceremonies, a “reclining figure” on Raven’s back can represent a novice seeking assistance from a more powerful being.[21] On this rattle, Shark is the initiate being touched by the beak of a bird. On another Tlingit Raven rattle in the Penn Museum, object #NA6844, there is a reclining human figure being tended to by a similarly feathered bird.[22] On these and other Raven rattles, the creatures on Raven’s belly represent the various forms of a “wealth-bringing, supernatural, sea monster.” [23] When these rattles are danced, they are held belly-up to make these beings visible; although Northwest Coast traditionalists consider that to be the proper position, most museums follow Euro-American directional norms by displaying these rattles with Raven upright in a flying position.[24]

Bird’s eye view of figures on Raven’s back. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

This Raven rattle thus alludes to many cultural characteristics and practices within Tlingit society, where the world is seen as ever balanced and related. The relations among different clans and different beings are most poignantly expressed when these symbols are actively brought into ongoing traditional ceremonies.[25] All life—people, animals, birds, fish, plants, landforms, etc.—are related to and come from “mythological time,” an era when Raven provided humans and animals with all they needed to survive. Just as Raven is the backbone of all life, Raven is the backbone of this rattle, and Shark and Fish Hawk/Kingfisher are fittingly situated along Raven’s back. In mythological time, Tlingit people and animals could conceptually move back and forth between worlds; they also do so in this rattle, which eloquently depicts nested relationships and transformations among many different beings.[26]

Footnotes:

[1] J. Alden Mason, “Louis Shotridge,” Expedition 2 (2) (1960): 10-16.  Shotridge served as a curatorial assistant at the University Museum from 1912-1915, when he was appointed as an Assistant Curator, a position he then held until 1932. Also see The Louis Shotridge Digital Archives: Tlingit Art, Culture, and Heritage, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) website.
[2] Lucy Fowler Williams, Associate Curator and Sabloff Keeper at the Penn Museum, interviewed by Kayla Holmes on November 28, 2018.
[3] The Louis Shotridge Digital Archives: Tlingit Art, Culture, and Heritage. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
[4] List of objects collected in 1927 within the manuscripts (1926-1927) folder; Louis Shotridge Papers, Box 1.2; Penn Museum Archives.
[5] Document from Louis Shotridge describing the contents of package No. 15 within the manuscripts (1926-1927) folder, Louis Shotridge Papers, Box 1.2, Penn Museum Archives.
[6] Letters from Louis Shotridge to Jane M. McHugh, acting director of the Penn Museum from 1927-1929 within manuscripts (1926-1927) folder, Louis Shotridge Papers, Box 1.2, Penn Museum Archives.
[7] The figures of Shark and Fish Hawk were combined on a helmet collected during the same expedition in 1929, discussed in Louis Shotridge, “The Kaguanton Shark Helmet,” The Museum Journal, 1929, 20 (3-4): 341. In 2011, the Penn Museum repatriated the shark helmet to the Tlingit Kaagwaantan Clan of Sitka, Alaska. See “Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA,” Federal Register 76 (32) (February 16, 2011), 9049-9051.
[8] Lucy Fowler Williams, interview by Kayla Holmes.
[9] Raven rattles are similarly made and used by the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples. See Aldona Jonaitis, “Liminality and Incorporation in the Art of the Tlingit Shaman,” American Indian Quarterly 7 (3) (1983): 52.
[10] John Reed Swanton, Tlingit Myths and Texts, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 39 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1909), 430. Swanton notes that this version from Wrangell differs from the version recorded in Sitka, Alaska.
[11] X̲ʼunei Lance Twitchell, Lingít Yoo X̲ ʼatángi: Beginning Tlingit Workbook (Juneau, AK: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2017), 75.
[12] Erika Edwards and Raymond Bial, The People and Culture of the Tlingit (New York, NY: Cavendish Square, 2017), 27.
[13] Among the Northwest Coast peoples, all beings—human, animal, bird, fish, and supernatural beings—are conceptually associated with a particular clan and side. See Marianne Boelscher, The Curtain Within: Haida Social and Mythical Discourse (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989), 29.
[14] Edwards and Bial, The People and Culture of the Tlingit, 30-33.
[15] Shotridge, “The Kaguanton Shark Helmet.
[16] Ibid, 341.
[17] Ibid, 343.
[18] Swanton, Tlingit Myths and Texts, 5.
[19] See Jennifer Chambers Gould, The Iconography of the Northwest Coast Raven Rattle, Master of Arts thesis (University of British Columbia, 1973), 61, 75-76.
[20] Gould, The Iconography of the Northwest Coast Raven Rattle, ii-iii. Also see “Rattle” on Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge, Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution on-line.
[21] Gould, The Iconography of the Northwest Coast Raven Rattle, 20. Also see Jonaitis, “Liminality and Incorporation in the Art of the Tlingit Shaman,” 52.
[22] This other Raven rattle, with the bird and reclining human figure, object # NA6844, was collected by Shotridge on November 22, 1924 from the Snail House family in Hooniah, Alaska. He called it “Raven the Pilgrim,” and noted that it was “used on the occasion of the call-together to the rebuilding of the Snail House.” See specimen card in Alaska State Library, ID: asl_ms37_404.jpg, in the Louis Shotridge Digital Archives: Tlingit Art, Culture, and Heritage, Penn Museum.
[23] Gould, The Iconography of the Northwest Coast Raven Rattle, 20.
[24] Nuxalk traditionalist Sxnakila (Clyde Tallio) suggests that a carved Raven rattle displayed in a flying position might inadvertently come to life. See Jennifer Kramer, “Möbius Museology: Curating and Critiquing the Multiversity Galleries at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia,” in The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Transformations, Volume 4, edited by Annie E. Coombes and Ruth B. Phillips (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 502-503.
[25] For photographs and essays on living Northwest Coast cultural traditions, see Rosita Worl, Celebration: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian Dancing on the Land, edited by Kathy Dye (Juneau and Seattle: Sealaska Heritage Institute and University of Washington Press, 2008). For an example of an event where Penn Museum objects were re-incorporated into present-day ceremonies, see Robert W. Preucel and Lucy Fowler Williams, “The Centennial Potlatch.” Expedition 47 (2) (2005): 9-19.
[26] Susan A. Kaplan, Kristin J. Barsness, and Adria H. Katz, Raven’s Journey: The World of Alaska’s Native People (Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1986), 12.

Sources Cited:

Boelscher, Marianne. 1989. The Curtain Within: Haida Social and Mythical Discourse. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Edwards, Erika, and Raymond Bial. 2017. The People and Culture of the Tlingit. New York: Cavendish Square.

Gould, Jennifer Chambers. 1973. The Iconography of the Northwest Coast Raven Rattle. Master of Arts thesis. University of British Columbia.

Jonaitis, Aldona. 1983. “Liminality and Incorporation in the Art of the Tlingit Shaman.” American Indian Quarterly 7 (3): 41-68.

Kaplan, Susan A., Kristin J. Barsness, and Adria H Katz. 1986. Raven’s Journey: The World of Alaska’s Native People. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Kramer, Jennifer. 2015. “Möbius Museology: Curating and Critiquing the Multiversity Galleries at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.” In The International Handbooks of Museum Studies: Museum Transformations, Volume 4, edited by Annie E. Coombes and Ruth B. Phillips, 489-510. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Mason, J. Alden. 1960. “Louis Shotridge.” Expedition 2 (2): 10-16.

Preucel, Robert W. and Lucy Fowler Williams. 2005. “The Centennial Potlatch.” Expedition 47 (2): 9-19.

Shotridge, Louis. 1929. “The Kaguanton Shark Helmet.” The Museum Journal 20 (3-4): 339-343.

Swanton, John Reed. 1909. Tlingit Myths and Texts. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 39. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Twitchell, X̲ʼunei Lance. 2017. Lingít Yoo X̲ ʼatángi: Beginning Tlingit Workbook. Juneau, AK: Sealaska Heritage Institute.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Louis Shotridge Digital Archives: Tlingit Art, Culture, and Heritage.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA.” Federal Register 76 (32) (February 16, 2011), 9049-9051.

Worl, Rosita. 2008. Celebration: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian Dancing on the Land. Edited by Kathy Dye. Juneau and Seattle: Sealaska Heritage Institute and University of Washington Press.


This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out and consider similar materials, research articles and archives, Indigenous knowledges and histories, and non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With Erica Dienes. “Choctaw Beaded Sash: Crossing Histories.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Blackfeet Moccasins: A Gift to Charles Stephens.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Ben Kelser. “Children Among the Caribou: Clothes for a Young Innu.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”
• With Leana Reich. “The Mysterious Beaded Collar.”

For links to blogs from past Museum Anthropology classes, see:
2017: “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory”
2015: “Deep Description and Reflexivity: Methods for Recovering Object Histories”
2015: “The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects”



© Penn Museum 2018 Sitemap | Contact | Copyright | Disclaimer | Privacy |