Gourd Rattles

by Richard L. Dieterle

In the New World, hollowed out and dried gourds were soon discovered to be good percussion instruments once pebbles or orther small hard objects were inserted within them. A rattle formed this way soon became an important musical instrument that soon evolved specialized functions outside the realm of music.

A gourd rattle is used in the Prisoner's Farewell Dance, also known as the Death Dance. It may be identified with a feathered insignia.1 The condemned man shakes the gourd with his right hand while he holds a sacred goad in his left.2 With his legs bound so that he can take only small steps, he dances through the village using the gourd to accompany his death song.

Gourd rattles were also used in connection with challenges. When one group of people wished to challenge another to an athletic contest, they would send over a man called a "Gourd Carrier."3 He tied a gourd rattle to his waist, and as he came, it would rattle. This made an unmistakable sound that foreshadowed his mission. The use of rattles in connection with issuing a challenge may have evolved from a natural exemplar. The rattlesnake when confronted will respond with a challenge issued from the rattle at the end of its tail. If the offender accepts the challenge by standing his ground, the lethal contest is on.

There have been gourd rattles invested with great supernatural power. In primordial times Earthmaker created a gourd rattle with his own hands and caused it to be painted white with clay. This sacred gourd was given to he Island Weight of the North. When he shook it, an apparition of a woman would appear. She would rush about the lodge, and when she stopped, the fire within would become propitious by rising straight up. Every time North shook this gourd, the woman would become older, until she had passed through the four stages of life. When he shook it for the fourth and final time, the fire became brilliant and upright, and the power of the gourd forced the evil spirits farther north, into the lands where the sun does not shine.4 The Island Weight of the South also possessed such a gourd rattle, which was termed "the messenger." This gourd rattle possessed the power of not only producing the apparition of a woman, but in driving all evil things into the north. With the aid of the spirits, this rattle even drove the clouds of ill winds far into the northern darkness.5 East too possessed an "Earthmaker-messenger" burnt black with age. With it he drove evil off the Road of Life and Death, and blew the thin white clouds of ill omen into the bad places of the north. His gourd rattle made the fire stand without wavering so that it reached to the very abode of Earthmaker.6

Sometimes magical gourds would draw in a message. Once there was a man who had great powers in hunting bears. The secret to his success was a small white bear which lived behind the partition inside his lodge. This bear was in possession of a small black gourd with magical powers. It was made black by fire. Whenever he would shake it, it would cause bears to tell him where they were. In this way the hunter always knew where to find bears and kill them. Once an enemy whom he abused found out his secret and turned the hunter into a squirrel.7

Links: Island Weights, Earthmaker, Squirrels.

Stories: mentioning sacred gourd rattles: North Shakes His Gourd, East Shakes the Messenger, The Brown Squirrel, South Seizes the Messenger, Holy One and His Brother, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, A Peyote Story.

Themes: someone possesses a gourd rattle of great magical powers: North Shakes His Gourd, The Brown Squirrel, South Seizes the Messenger, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth; a challenger comes shaking a gourd rattle: Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, The Roaster, Grandfather's Two Families, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Redhorn Contests the Giants, White Wolf.


1 Paul Radin, "Wears White Feather on His Head," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #4: 1-50.

2 Paul Radin, "Turtle's Warparty," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Notebook #28: 1-74; #29: 75-143.

3 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 123-129.

4 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 312.

5 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 326-327; the Hocąk text is in Jasper Blowsnake, Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3876 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Library, n.d.) Winnebago II, #7: 257-258.

6 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 293-294; the original text is in Jasper Blowsnake, Radin, Notebooks, Winnebago II, #7: 218-220.

7 Paul Radin, "The Squirrel," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #21: 1 - 85.