Before the Creator formed the world, the sound of the shishigwen (rattle) filled the void with a steady rhythm. Many Potawatomi liken them with the ability to give life in Nishnabé tradition. Rattles imitate the resonance of water, ranging from sprinkles hitting the bark on a tree to a thunderstorm. It all depends on the materials used, the size of the container and the pieces that fill it.
“They all have a different look. They all have a different feel in your hand,” said Jason Wesaw, artist and Pokagon Band of Potawatomi citizen.
He began making rattles 15 years ago, and has gifted and sold hundreds in Potawatomi communities across the continent. Wesaw sticks to the style he developed through practice, and the possibilities keep the process enjoyable.
“I use anything from copper BBs to small little stones that I collect from the shoreline of Lake Michigan — just real tiny little stones,” he said. “You can also use things like beans or corn to fill in the shaker head of the rattle, and they’ll all give you a different sound.”
With a society founded on oral traditions, Nishnabé people utilize music as an essential part of ceremonies and social gatherings. Handmade rattles are one of the most common Potawatomi instruments with a rich history.
“Our songs originated out of prayer, out of communication to the Great Spirit, to Gzhemnedo,” Wesaw said. “And so that’s where drums and rattles have more of the importance in our traditional culture, where they come in is because they accompany our voice and singing those songs.”
Wesaw learned how to make drums from his grandfather who had a lifetime of experience in the craftwork. However, no one Wesaw knew made rattles, which left him to teach himself. He began studying them during a trip to Canada. Now, no two of his creations look the same.
“That might sound real simple. ‘Oh, yeah. It’s a rawhide rattle, and it’s attached to the handle.’ But within that, there’s limitless different combinations that you can do,” Wesaw said.
Wesaw’s rattle making instructions:
Wesaw sometimes looks at a few of his fabrications from before he fine-tuned his skills and found his style. Seeing them now, he feels less than impressed, but encourages all artists and craftspeople to keep creating.
“What it shows is that I’ve come a long way,” he said. “To continue to make stuff, you continually are refining it, finding better ways to make it, finding ways for it to look a little bit different than the last one, getting faster at making them. Whatever it might be, it’s all like a progression.”
He now teaches around four rattle-making classes a year in different Indigenous communities. Wesaw enjoys passing on art forms used for thousands of years and inspiring his students to connect with their ancestors.
“You can’t really rescue our language and produce fluent speakers without people having a connection to our ceremonies. You can’t have ceremonies without a connection to our songs,” he said. “All these things are so interconnected that, you know, sometimes if a person makes a rattle or a drum, that’s kind of like their entryway back.”
Many rattle songs celebrate the time of day, such as the Morning Song, or pay tribute to mbish (water) or segmekwé (Mother Earth). Different events or occasions inspire each one, including some powwow songs. Crafting an instrument for personal use gives participation another layer of meaning, according to Wesaw.
“The most important part is when you do something yourself, whether it’s a rattle or a drum, making your own regalia, composing your own songs — anything that a person does themselves — they’re actually putting their own spirit into that work,” he said.
The Potawatomi Gift Shop carries a limited number of Jason Wesaw’s rattles and smudge bowls for sale at potawatomigifts.com.