Rattles

Canadian Indigenous musicians use other instruments too.  Prominent among them are rattles.

In the 1830s, George Catlin described how one language referred to the most common of the Plains rattles as she-she-quois.  Made of rawhide and containing pebbles, it produced “a shrill noise to mark the time” and could also be used as a drum-beater (1844/1965: 242).

David G. Mandelbaum described these bulb-shaped buffalo or deer hide rattles:

To make a rattle, two pieces of green hide were cut out, each in the form of a circle with a projecting lip, and were sewn together, one over the other.  Earth was stuffed inside and shaken out when the hide had dried in the desired shape.  Pebbles and red willow seeds were inserted.  A handle six inches long was fitted into the projecting mouth and bound in place with antelope-hide thongs.  Rattles . . . could be made and painted in accordance with vision injunctions (Mandelbaum 1940/1979: 98).

Other rattles the Plains communities favoured included the buffalo scrotum, as well as a “stick wrapped with deerskin to which was attached, in rows, the cut claws of a deer” (Hassrick 1964: 146).  Robert Jefferson, a Northwestern Canadian schoolteacher in the 1880s, described a rattle used in the Math-tah-hit-too-win ceremony.  It was made of thin rawhide, scraped to consistency and shaped while new, before becoming hard and dry.  The crafter placed two or three pieces of metal inside the rattle and tied to it a handle six to eight inches in length:

“When all is ready the maker begins to sing and suddenly brings the rattle into play. When the tune comes to an end, the rattle is passed on to the next man in the row who sings his song.  So, the rattle goes the round of the circle, skipping the women on its way, till it comes back to its owner” (Jefferson 1929: 90).  After this opening ceremony, the give-away itself commenced and continued for four nights.

Mandelbaum said that most Plains Cree used up and down wrist movements to play their rattles, but shamans might beat the rattle against the body.  During a thunderstorm, the Cree used a special rattle to accompany songs.  This instrument had dots burned into the upper half of its hide.

One warrior society’s regalia included a ring-shaped rattle.  Also, the leader of the Masked Dance carried a five-foot staff encased in a hide envelope to which deer hooves were attached.  He stamped this on the ground to provide a rhythm while singing (Mandelbaum 1940/1979: 98).  Hungry Wolf said crafters made another form of this rattle that strung buffalo toes together after boring holes and threading the toes with leather streamers.  A person could throw this at someone else, who then would have to dance (1977: 95).

Eastern Anishinaabeg communities and other First Nations in Canada’s central north-western regions had a flat disc rattle.  It was made of a flat stick looped back upon itself with the loop covered with rawhide.  In the Plains, people preferred to cover the disc with buffalo pericardium.  The TŁicho (Dogribs) made this  form of rattle, but used caribou skin parchment and filled it with shot.

In the 1890s, Frank Russell described a child’s rattle that he obtained from the Dogribs as having a “handle bent in the form of a figure six. It is eight inches long. The head is three inches in diameter and 0.8 inches in thickness” (Russell 1898: 180).

Many groups also have used wood in some form as a rattle or other percussive instrument. Sometimes these consist of a piece of bark folded over a handle after the crafter has inserted seeds or pebbles and then sealed the rattle with pitch.


Some people have elaborately carved wooden rattles.  Ojibwe makers are so skilful that they can often conceal the sound-making wooden balls inside.


On the West Coast rattle makers ingeniously carve images.  Usually the rattle has two halves that the crafters have fastened together.  Each half presents another side of a myth or lineage story that belongs to individual owner or group.

©2019 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Drum