This month, we’ll notice the strangely shaped ornamental gourds that are visible in horn of plenty seasonal arrangements. Beyond this novelty, we’ll also note that gourds are imbedded in the ways of Native American culture — in their many forms and in all their native plant abundance. Their use and value, from practical utility to musical instrument — also make gourds carriers of Native American tradition.
SFA’s Master Potter Ron Carlos remembers receiving his first gourd rattle, and talked with BorderLore about the traditional uses of gourds. He reminds us that his perspective is as a member of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community tribe, and that his views may or may not be the same as those from other tribes:
When I was about 21, I received a top notch, high quality gourd rattle from the late Jose Robles aka Koorwat. Mr. Robles came from the Cocopah Tribe and was the lead singer of the Aylsha Song Series for his people.
My people also sing the Aylsha Songs Series. And whenever he (Mr. Robles) would come to my community to visit his relatives, I would go and visit with him and sing songs together.
On top of being a lead singer, Mr. Robles was a master gourd rattle maker and was always busy making rattles when he wasn’t singing for events.
Well, one time my cousin went to visit relatives in Somerton and visit with Mr. Robles. Upon their return home they came to my house and said they had something for me. They brought out this red rattle and told me, “Koorwat said ‘This rattle was meant for you…’”. It was overwhelming because no one had ever given me a gourd rattle as a gift.
I guess Mr. Robles felt my singing was worthy to have one of his gourds rattles accompany my singing.
Mr. Robles has long since “traveled on,” and I have put the gourd rattle away. I still use it for special occasions but not as my everyday rattle.
Varieties and Traditional Uses of Gourds
In my tribe, the gourds only had a few uses… They were mainly grown for rattle making; for use as water dippers; canteens, and to hold small things like seeds.
There are different types of gourds that are used for rattle making among the various tribes. The people of my tribe mostly use the “dipper” gourds for rattle making but other types can be used if they have the right shape.
I used to grow my own in my own home garden but nowadays I buy them at the Wuertz Gourd Farm in Casa Grande, AZ.
How Gourd Rattles Are Made
When making a gourd rattle, the neck of the gourd is cut off and all the seeds shaken out. There is a fibrous membrane that must be removed. It kind of looks like the inside of a pumpkin. Some people boil the gourd until all the membrane pulls away from the inner shell of the gourd. Other people use scraping tools to pull the membrane from the walls of the gourd.
Once the gourd is boiled clean, the gourd is set aside to dry thoroughly. If the gourd is scraped clean it is set aside until the fitting of the handle.
Now a piece of wood suitable for carving is collected. I normally use willow branches or cottonwood roots. Occasionally I will use mesquite root but that is very rare.
The wood is first carved to fit the end of the gourd. It should be a snug fit and sound like you’re popping a cork when taking the handle out of the gourd.
Once a snug fit is achieved, small seeds and/or sometimes pebbles are put inside to make the shaking sound. Once the desired sound is created… the wood handle is glued in place. Most people use modern wood glue to permanently set the gourd into place. Before wood glues were readily available… the people used various natural saps which were boiled down into a pitch as their glue.
Some people say rattles are not supposed to be painted or decorated for various reasons but I am not one of those people. (Haha!)
I paint my gourd rattles with acrylics in various colors and embellish with various designs. I normally use both O’Odham and Piipaash style designs on my gourd rattles. Finally, to make the acrylics waterproof I use a clear enamel as a sealant.
The Tradition of Giving or Getting a Gourd Rattle
The act of giving and receiving a gourd rattle should not be taken lightly… You can insult and embarrass someone with this seemingly innocent gesture. This is especially true among people who use gourd rattles as accompaniment to their songs.
If you give a “singer” a gourd rattle as a gift… It better be top notch! To give anything less could be construed as an insult. It’s like saying “Your songs are not worthy of an excellent well-made gourd rattle… Here take this second rate work instead. It suits your songs anyway.”
Also if a gourd rattle is given to you by a person considered a good carver, and you handle the gourd rattle carelessly, or set it down without shaking the gourd rattle like you are going to sing a song… it may also be considered an insult to the maker. Again it’s like referring to the gourd rattle as “It isn’t worthy of being used to sing with.”
On Teaching Gourd Rattle Making
I have taught many people… Adults and children. The act of passing tradition is set squarely on the shoulders of those with the knowledge. How is a tradition supposed to continue if those with the knowledge keep that information to themselves?
The knowledge of gourd rattle making isn’t hard to know but the spirit attached to it is. By that I mean… You can make a gourd rattle and not have any cultural or spiritual knowledge other than it is used to sing songs with. It, then, is literally just an object. But to make a gourd rattle, and know the spirit that comes with it, is a hard thing to do. It has to be part of your heart and desire to create what the spirit of the gourd or the songs instructs your hand and mind to do.
Many people learn the “How to…” But very few learn the “How come…”
- Watch a beautiful video by a Tohono O’odham Youth artist: My Rattle Awakens, by Chandra Thomas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JZ8PpX4VDg&feature=relmfu
- Learn about the Arizona Gourd Society: http://www.arizonagourdsociety.org/
- More on Gourd use by the Yuma County Cooperative Extension
- A collection of videos about Gourd use as musical instrument in various cultures: http://www.thegourdreserve.com/youtube_videos/Gourd_Music_instruments.html