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Great Lakes Dewclaw Rattles with Spirit Messenger Imagery.

Wooden stick shaker type rattles strung with deer hooves or dewclaws were once fairly widespread among the Ojibwe and Potawatomi peoples of the North American Great Lakes region. In the nineteenth century, they seem to have been used in rites relating to the Midewiwin (Grand Medicine Society) and perhaps other indigenous ceremonies, and their use was recorded near Sault Sainte Marie on the Michigan-Ontario border as early as the 1820s by cultural anthropologist Henry Schoolcraft [1826-27],

Such ritual instruments are probably the precursor of a variety of other types of rattle used in a similar ceremonial context, including natural gourd and bent birchbark vessel rattles, which have persisted into more recent times.

Hooves and dewclaws were removed in their natural state from the animal's foot and carefully prepared for use --softened in heated water, trimmed with a knife and pierced with a hole at the apex for threading on leather thongs. They were then attached in bunches to the rattle handle, making a pleasingly audible sound when the rattle is shaken. This sound, in the context of Mide ceremonial, is said to represent the sound of thunder, sacred voice of the Thunderers.

Without doubt the most interesting feature of this particular style of dewclaw rattle is the carved effigy finial surmounting the wooden handle.

The first of the rattles shown here (Fig. 1), is in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts (acc. no. 81.532) and was originally collected by Milford G. Chandler, subsequently part of the collection of Richard A. Pohrt of Flint, Michigan. Identified in Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) records as Potawatomi, the rattle features a flat-section stylized head of a bird, with a series of indented arc-shaped notches to the front edge, just below.

Numerous rattles of this general type have been noted by the author, and are described in a recently published monograph study entitled Voices of Thunder [Green 2017], Whether carved in the form of a bird's head or an entire bird, the imagery embodied in the carving of such rattles combines the dual power of Thunderbird and Lightning, so prevalent in the ceremonial life of the Great Lakes peoples.

Dating circa 1875 and measuring 34.8 centimeters in total length, the carved finial surmounts a long, plain, round-section wooden handle, possibly maple, which tapers to a smooth point at the lower end. The length of the bird head finial is 7.6 centimeters. Attached to the handle, just below the carved finial, is a dense cluster of mixed deer hooves and dewclaws, each threaded on a hide thong.

While some of these rattles may be carved with a bird's head or the figure of an entire bird, a few rare examples depict anthropomorphic spirit figures.

The carved wooden dewclaw rattle featured in Fig. 2 (a & b) is an intriguing example of this latter type. Probably Ojibwe in origin, it was formerly in the collection of Mike Slasinski of Saginaw, Michigan, and was purchased by him many years ago at his local Burley Park flea market, just west of his home town.

Although the present whereabouts of this rattle are unknown, Mike was fortunately able to provide the author with quite a detailed physical description of it and, thanks to his keen curatorial eye and draftsmanship skills, made the two drawings which are included in the present article. To the best knowledge of the author, details of this important specimen of Great Lakes Mide rattle have never previously been published.

Measuring approximately 25 centimeters in length and dating circa 1850-75, the rattle is carved in the form of a naked human figure, bent forward as if touching the toes. The plain, tapered handle is carved from a hard wood, with a swollen terminal to the lower end. The handle has a glossy, dark brown to almost black surface patina and, as is typical of rattles of this type and period, the quality of the carving appears quite accomplished.

Attached to the shaft, just below the stooped human figure, is a cluster of deer hooves or dewclaws, approximately ten in number, strung on thongs of brain-tanned hide, approximately two inches in length.

The significance of the anthropomorphic figure is uncertain. It may represent Nanabozho (Nanabush), the benevolent trickster who features so prominently in Ojibwe legend, including the story of the world's creation and the establishment of the Midewiwin religion. [Green: 55]. Half spirit and half human, Nanabozho was sent by Kitschi Manido to instruct the Ojibwe how to live. It seems likely, therefore, that the effigy of this important mythological personage might provide the user of the rattle with a channel of communication with the spirit world, in the same way as the figures surmounting rattles carved with bird effigies carry the midew's songs when talking to the spirits. These figures are effectively sacred messengers, as is explained by twentieth century Leech Lake Ojibwe elder, the late Paul Buffalo (Gah-bah-bi-nays):

They're talking to the spirits. [....] Birds carry the message. Birds carry these songs. When you see the bird around, he's answering. Something's going to happen. [....] Birds are a good sign. [Roufs: Ch.30]

Vessel rattles such as gourd, bent birchbark and metal canister types may eventually have replaced dewclaw-strung stick rattles as, apart from simple bunched rattles and bandoliers, the common use of dewclaw rattles does not appear to have been recorded by later nineteenth centuiy ethnologists.


The author would like to thank Mike Slasinski of Saginaw, Michigan, for his detailed descriptions and drawings of the deer toe rattle once in his possession. A long-time scholar, collector and curator of historic and contemporary Great Lakes art and material culture, Mike is pleased to know that this rare and unique instrument from his collection is to be brought to public attention.

Grateful thanks also go to talented artist-illustrator Dann Jacobus of Vero Beach, Florida, for so kindly agreeing to produce the fine artwork image of the Mide midew (medicine man) for use in this article.

Editor's note

Readers may be interested to learn of Richard Green's recently published book on the subject of Great Lakes dewclaw rattles. Entitled Voices of Thunder, this profusely illustrated monograph study presents a 70-page survey of the various categories of carved wooden stick rattle with animal hoof and dewclaw attachments, seen only occasionally in our national museums and private collections, and rarely appearing in print. The book is available exclusively from the UK by contacting the author via the following email address:


Green, Richard. (2017). Voices of Thunder: A Case Study of Great Lakes Dewclaw Rattles. Oxford: Spellicans Press.

Roufs, Timothy G. (1997). When Everybody Called Me Gah-bay-bi-nayss, "Forever-Flying-Bird": An Ethnographic Biography of Paul Peter Buffalo. Duluth: University of Minnesota Duluth.

Schoolcraft, Heniy. (1826-27). The Literary Voyageur or Muzzeniegan, ed. Philip P. Mason (reprint ed. East Lansing, 1962).

The dewclaw rattles examined in this monograph study are ritual instruments once widespread among the Ojibwe and Potawatomi peoples of the Great Lakes region of North America. Used when communing with manidos or spirits in accordance with a religious tradition dating back generations, they are rare survivals found only occasionally in our national museums or private collections and seldom appear in print.

While they may strike us as visually impressive, esoteric works of art, to the people who made and used them they are potent vehicles of prayer and a channel of communication with the spirit world. The sound of the rattle is the sound of thunder - voice of the Thunderers.

Paperback, 70 pages, 297 x 210 mm, illustrated with 2 colour photos, 16 black and white photos, 47 line drawings.

Published on a limited edition basis. Copies may be obtained free of charge (plus shipping & handling) by contacting: Orders are restricted to one copy per person.

Caption: Great Lakes Midew, or Mide medicine man, using a wooden rattle with effigy carved in the form of a bird's head.

Original artwork by Dann Jacobus, used by courtesy of the artist.

Caption: Fig. 1: Great Lakes deer toe rattle, Potawatomi, with long, plain wood handle surmounted by a stylized bird's head incorporating indented notches symbolizing Lightning. A combination of hooves and dewclaws is used.

Detroit Institute of Arts, acc. no. 81.532, Founders Society Purchase. Illustration by the author.

Caption: Fig. 2 (a & b): Great Lakes deer toe rattle with effigy carved in the form of an anthropomorphic figure, probably the representation of the Ojibwe trickster Nanabozho, or some other messenger spirit figure.

Formerly in the collection of Mike Slasinski, Saginaw, Michigan. Illustrations by Mike Slasinski.
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Author:Green, Richard
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2018
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