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Cage-like rattle with numerous carved wooden salmon attached to cotton cord - Donald Ellis Gallery

Salmon Rattle

Vancouver Island, British Columbia

ca. 1880

wood, cotton cord, cedar bark

height: 15"
width: 20"

Inventory # N3168


acquired by the Thomson Collection now at the Art Gallery of Ontario


A tag accompanying the rattle reads:
“Myron Eells Skokomish Indian Agency 
Mary C. Baker from Vancouver 
salmon rattle fish hooks”

The Reverend Myron Eells arrived at Skokomish Indian Agency in 1874 joining his brother Edwin, who was the U.S. Indian agent there. Myron worked as an active missionary on the reservation until his death in 1907, while recording in great detail the life of the native peoples of the area. Eell’s written notes were later consolidated in  “The Indians of Puget Sound: the Notebooks of Myron Eells” (Castile, University of Washington Press, 1985) 


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2005, pgs. 8-9


Jonaitis, Aldona, From the Land of the Totem Poles, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988, pl. 72

Wardwell, Allen, Native Paths: American Indian Art from the Collection of Charles and Valerie Diker, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998, pl. 120

Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2001, pg. 9

The sound of rattling is said to be pleasing to the spirits, and numerous types of objects have been created on the Northwest Coast to produce variations of that sound. Hollowed wood rattles in globular or bird and animal forms are common, but other types of sonorous instruments have also been made for this and related purposes. Large flat pecten shells were strung on a bent withe and shaken to make a clacking/rattling sound. Another type of rattle is a large wooden box, usually long and rectangular, with cobble-sized stones inside that when rolled end-to-end created a sound like thunder. Also known are smaller versions of box rattles that make a higher pitched rattling sound.

The engaging cage-like object illustrated here is perhaps the rarest form of Northwest Coast rattle. Precisely how these were used and in what ceremonial context is not known, but they may be related to First Salmon-type rituals wherein the first salmon of the new spring run was caught and treated as a ceremonial guest. The bones of this fish were deposited in the stream in a sacred manner in order to insure the return of the salmon.

In this whimsical sculpture, the multitude of fish collide when shaken, perhaps imitating the act of spawning, while creating a musical rattling to delight the ear and eye.

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