rattle (Iroquois)

Title: Demo: Iroquois rattle. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

This closed-vessel rattle idiophone with both internal and external exciters originated amongst the Iroquois peoples of North America. Information about this instrument is drawn primarily from the National Music Museum (NMM) website, in whose collection there is a nearly identical specimen dated to the late 19th century (link provided below in Bibliography). Tortoiseshell rattles are mentioned and pictured in the literature on Iroquois musical practice, but such rattles are invariably smaller than the one pictured here and in the NMM collection, and also of different design. Sources concur that rattles are used by the Iroquois to accompany sacred dances held in ceremonial spaces called longhouses. It is unknown what, if any, symbolic meaning the star painted on the tortoiseshell carries, but the NMM states that “According to oral tradition, the turtle came from a place below the earth. On its journey to the surface, animals sprang from the mud and clung to the turtle’s back.” This at least suggests that in its context of usage tortoiseshell rattles carry extra-musical meaning.


The closed vessel of this rattle is constructed from the carapace (top shell) of a large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentine). The opening of the bowl-like shell is covered with a cured mammal skin that is held taut by rawhide lacing stitched around the rim of the shell. Before enclosing the vessel several small pebbles, the instrument’s internal exciters, are inserted. Through two small slits made in the membrane near where the tortoise’s head and tail were located a handle made from a deer tibia is passed. This handle, largely held in place by the membrane tension, is further strengthened with rawhide lacing (see detail image). Seven deer hinds' hoofs dangle from the ends of short rawhide cords attached to the handle and the shell’s rim. These serve as external sound exciters.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

This rattle would be held by its handle and either shaken or struck against the edge of longhouse wooden benches to produce rhythms for the accompaniment of dance.


Rattles in general are considered to be a very old type of instrument. Although no specific information on the origin/age of the Iroquois rattle was found, the Iroquois legend associating the animal from which this particular rattle was made (the turtle) with an origin myth might suggest it is of some antiquity. 

Bibliographic Citations

Fenton, William N. 1942. Songs from the Iroquois Longhouse. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Kurath, Gertrude P. 1964. Iroquois Music and Dance: Ceremonial Arts of Two Seneca Longhouses. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 187. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Music Museum. “Turtle Shell Dance Rattle, Iroquois Nation, Northeastern North America, late 19th century.” Website accessed April 25, 2015:


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: Iroquois

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

112.13 idiophone--vessel rattles: rattling objects enclosed in a vessel strike against each other or against the walls of the vessel, or usually against both

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: shaking

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: hollow spheroid vessel - closed

Sound objects per instrument: one

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - indirect

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - pellet/s, seed/s, bead/s inside closed vessel/s

Energy input motion by performer: shaking

Pitch of sound produced: indefinite pitch

Sound modification: none


17.7 in. length

Primary Materials

shell - turtle
membrane - mammal skin
hooves - deer

Entry Author

Roger Vetter