A Tlingit rattle
Lot 2074
A Tlingit rattle
Sold for US$ 48,800 inc. premium
Auction Details
A Tlingit rattle
Lot Details
Property of various owners
A Tlingit rattle
Carved in two sections, each hemispherical top worked in the shallow relief image of a bird, both sides identical with the exception of an arching band over the eyebrows: one side appearing as a pair of U-forms, the other side left plain, the perimeter finely grooved, painted in red, turquoise blue and brown pigments.
length 8 7/8in


  • Globular Rattle
    Tlingit, c. 1820-1860, collected 1868-1870, Wrangell, Alaska.
    Hardwood, paint
    8 7/8" High

    Among the Tlingit, globular rattles were the property of shamans, employed to call down the shaman's spirit helpers during healing and divining rituals. Bill Holm has written that the globular form of these rattles is related to the shape of the human skull, a visual metaphor representing the shaman's transmutation between the worlds of the spirit and the living. There seem to have been three very general but somewhat overlapping types among globular rattles: 1-Round or oval rattles that were finished smooth, with no sculpture or design work on their surface. 2- Ones that have both orbs decorated with relief-carved two-dimensional design work. 3-Those that display sculptured forms on one or both sides representing human or animal faces, often with the back half covered by two-dimensional design work. Naturally, there is a certain amount of overlap in these basic categories, and there are also unusual rattle compositions that are more or less globular in character, but that don't really fit into any of these basic types. This rattle, however, is a grand example of the second general type, with classic formline design work on both sides, each half nearly the same but with subtle differences between them.

    Each side of the rattle features a red border or rim, textured with close-set radial grooving. This sort of textured border was a common embellishment in the early historical period, and can be seen employed on bowl rims and surfaces, chest or box surfaces, box and chest lids, spoon handles, and other locations. It is one of the earliest forms of carved surface treatment, which, judging by certain archaeological precedents, predates the development of the two-dimensional formline design tradition.

    In the center of each rattle orb is composed a formline design representing a bird's face with a recurved beak. These images have often been referred to in the ethnographic literature as 'hawks'. Hawks, however, seldom appear as crest emblems in the Tlingit clan system, with only rare instances of hawk representations on such clan crest display vehicles as headdresses, totem poles, or house posts. One image that is often seen with a recurved beak on totem poles and sculptured headgear is Raven-at-the-Head-of-the-Nass, an important image from ancient mythology. Along with several other examples, the 'Seattle Totem Pole' includes this figure at the bottom with a strongly recurved beak of the type frequently attributed to a hawk in the literature. The Alaskan Tlingit carvers of the Seattle Totem reproduction, made in 1939, provided this identification. It is probably this face that is seen on both sides of this rattle, as well as on the breast of raven rattles and the fronts of some carved bowls.

    The designs on the two rattle halves are very similar, differing only in minor details and proportions, which is typical of traditional carvings. Although capable of doing so, most traditional native artists elected not to make two such images precisely the same. No two people, including most twins, look exactly alike, so it appears that native carvers were reflecting what they observed in the natural world. The designs on each rattle half differ in the size and proportion of the eyes/eyesockets, the formline elements used on the forehead, and the particulars of the design elements in the cheek area. Not only is the personal style of each design noticeably different, but the consistency and proportions of the rim grooving on each half varies a bit too, suggesting that two different carvers executed each side of the rattle, such as a master and his apprentice.

    This rattle, in addition to exhibiting older styles of design from the first half of the nineteenth century, also possesses an important and interesting provenance that includes a collection date between 1868 and 1870. The interior of the rattle contains two inscriptions. On one half is written "Indian Rattle Box". The other half of the rattle includes these words: "Made By the Alasky Indians - Brought By MR Loucks First Lieutenant Offcr my B....". The final word is indecipherable, possibly Battery, since Loucks was on station as part of the 2nd Artillery. Melville R. Loucks was stationed at Fort Wrangell between September 1868 and July 1870, during which period, according to family history, the rattle and pipe were acquired. There may once have been some minor damage to the end of the handle that was shaved down long ago, since the carving marks seen there have an old patina.

    Steven C. Brown
    October, 2010
  1. Wes Sparling
    Auction Administration - Native American
    220 San Bruno Avenue
    San Francisco, 94103
    United States
    Work +1 415 503 3408
    FaxFax: +1 415 503 3300
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