Article 2 – The Rattle: An Interview
By: Colette McKay
True Verbatim Transcript
Colette: Tansi. My name is Colette McKay and my spirit (traditional) name is kìcikìsokowi mikisiwì iskwèw, which translates as Heavenly Eagle Woman. I am a student at the University College of the North in the Bachelor of Arts, 3-year program. This interview is for my class ANS.2150 – Legends of Long Ago; it is about the Rattle. The person I am interviewing is David Blacksmith.
Colette: What is your English name and your spirit name?
David: My name is David Blacksmith. My spirit name is wasitew – that’s the name my grandfather gave me, years and years ago. “Reflection from the Light” is what that means – wasitew.
Colette: Where were you born and raised?
David: I was born in Norway House, which had the only hospital back in the day. So, my Mom went to Norway House hospital to deliver me. And, she brought me back. At that time, she was 14, I think, 15 years old. And she couldn’t raise me, so, my grandparents raised me. I was raised in Cross Lake – Pimicikamak.
Colette: Hhmm, interesting. So, I would take your traditional teachers as your grandparents?
Colette: What did they teach you? Did they teach you about the rattle?
David: Yup. When, well, as far as I can remember, I used to live with my grandfather. I don’t really remember my grandmother because she died when I was very young, eh. And, then I was raised by another grandmother. Her name was Mary Blacksmith – but she married into the McKay’s, so she became Mary McKay.
Colette: Oh, okay.
David: And after that, I was raised by Maguy Scott and Nelly Scott. Those were my Dad’s parents.
Colette: Oh, okay.
David: Yuh, I spent half of the time with my grandfather, Joseph Blacksmith. He was a bachelor. But there was a bunch of us that stayed with him. My aunt was there. And we kind of liked it there.
Colette: Oh, yeah.
David: I remember some of the traditional stuff that he did – he was an undertaker, eh?
Colette: [Chuckles uncomfortably] Oh, really?
David: Back then, they didn’t have autopsies and he made the coffins, he fixed the bodies, and as a kid – you don’t really care, eh?
Colette: Yeah [chuckles].
David: There was a backroom there; that’s where they brought the bodies or a body. And it was not part of the house, but it was the same wall. You would have to go outside to go to that place. It was like a big, giant room where he could clean the body and make the coffin and measurements – stuff like that.
Colette: Oh, okay. So… the undertaker, eh? Wow, all because there wasn’t that much services back then, I guess.
David: No, they didn’t even have a road!
Colette: Oh wow, well I guess, again, water way was the main means of travel.
David: Yup, water – boat. In the wintertime, it would be a lot easier because they would have a bombardier.
Colette: Ha, I remember those!
Colette: Alright, to you, what is the significance of a rattle?
David: Well, they call it ‘sisikwan’ – that’s what they call it. And there are so many different kinds of rattles nowadays, but back in the day, they only had hide which was from moose. They would have sturgeon skin, and walleye – okaw. The sisikwan was mostly used in the winter most of the time – because sikwan is spring, right?
Colette: Yes, yes that’s right.
David: Sisikwan would mean – spring is coming! So, they had a time for the winter. And then they would always miss the summer and spring because it was easy to survive. In the spring [and] in the summer, they would use these rattles when somebody would come over who was sick or something, or whatever, and the healer would use a rattle, smoke pipe, and smudge. They would find out from the rattle. Somehow they were able to understand the rattle and what it was telling them. They would know what is wrong with the person, and what medicine to take. That’s why they didn’t use it as a musical instrument. A smudge was when they used to dance the goose dance, the sun dance, and that was the only time they used rattles for musical instruments. Most of the time the use was for the healer, eh?
Colette: Only for healers, oh, okay.
David: Yes. Old ladies and old men would use that, eh.
Colette: You’ve seen it and I’ve seen what a rattle could do, too.
David: I saw that when I was growing up.
Colette: In the ceremony, is the rattle earned?
David: Is the rattle – what?
David: Well yuh, you have to. A long time ago, they used to wait for dreams, eh? You would have to have the dream of it. And I don’t know how exactly a person dreams of it. But generally, they would dream of it a few times before they told the medicine man or medicine woman. Then the medicine man translates these dreams. The medicine man tells you that you need to go and rattle. And then he tells you how to use it, when to use it, what to put in it – stuff like that. So, it was about dreaming. You would have to dream of it first before you actually use it.
Colette: Interesting. A vision before building!
David: And through the dreams, you would get instructions as to how to use it.
Colette: Learned through the dream, before contacting a medicine man. That’s how a vision works – I never knew!
Colette: Is there a spirit or spirits tied to the rattle?
David: Yes, there is, depending on what it is made of. Those are thick. You can use them in your ceremony, as personal information for a patient. And then the sturgeon and walleye are for shaking pit. Because that is what the shaking tent is. They call it kosapacikan or kosapa, which means to submerge under water, to be under water. pacikan is to see underwater. That’s where they got those rattles from – the water beings. Well, those ones anyway, eh.
Colette: Oh, the rattle came from the water beings, you said?
David: Yes, water beings. Like, nimikwesew. All of them.
David: Yes, just like that – nimikwesew. It’s like a mermaid, I guess, but it’s not like a mermaid we see in books and stuff, eh? It’s kind of different.
Colette: For sure, nothing is ever as it is portrayed in books, movies, and theatrics. Besides, everything sounds better pronounced in Cree anyway.
David: Yes, my girl.
Colette: The rocks that go inside the rattle, do they have their own meaning? Does each rock symbolize something, or are they chosen also, or?
David: Not all rattles have to have rocks.
Colette: Really? Why not?
David: Some rattles use teeth from animals, mainly from their traditional tribe. Like, these teeth, some have pellets from a shell, and some do have rocks.
Colette: Just to clarify, rocks and other objects such as pebbles from shells, can be used for the pit of the rattle?
David: Of course! But, don’t forget that the individual has to dream about it, first. You can’t just go and grab – whatever – and start making your own. There has to be a message from the creator or the grandparents in your spiritual tribe, they will reach out to you through dreams and visions. Sometimes, before you even go [and] see them, they’ll be expecting you because they have a dream of you going to see them. It’s a spiritual connection that these medicine men and women can interpret these things. It’s a certain gift that not all are meant to have.
Colette: Yes, of course. Respect the pace and time. If your time comes to be noticed, it will happen when it’s supposed to – not when someone pushes the limits!
David: [starts shaking his rattle] Again, it’s within the dream, it’s important because you have to tell those to the dream interpreter, or medicine man, or whatever, but it’s not something to go and get it yourself. You need guidance; someone has to guide you, first.
Colette: So, they are not materials that I can gather on my own to build with. That makes sense, considering [that] you have someone potentially waiting for you to show up at their house; if they dreamt of you beforehand, knowing ahead of time that you had a dream of a rattle, also known as, a dreamer!
David: Yeah, you can in a way, but you know to start using for ceremony, they prefer you have guidance. They’re not going to hurt you or anything. It’s okay to make them and learn to make them.
Colette: Guidance is a huge obstacle to overcome before.
David: If you want to get deeper into the ceremony life [and] the traditional life, you must begin to dream of such things – not just go out and get them. And when you begin to have these visions, these dreams, you have to try to figure them out for yourself, and when you get stuck, seek guidance!
Colette: Speaking of ceremony life, how long have you been a ceremonial man?
Colette: Sorry, but what terminology do you prefer people to call you?
David: Well, I was not always a ceremony person, because when you’re a kid – they don’t allow you to do certain things or to go certain places or get certain stuff. So, you kind of observe; eh? One thing that stops people from doing these things – is alcohol and drugs. And if you’re going to do that – then you’re going to waste some time; eh? You’re going to have to wait until you are cleansed, pure and free from that. I have been doing this [for] about four years now. Give or take. But I knew about it a long time ago from my teachers in my childhood life.
Colette: Wow, at a young age? That must have been something to see and experience before you became a ceremonial man.
David: It was, I’ve seen the last of the mid-day Cree people. My grandfather attended a ceremony in sakitawak. By the name of an old man named, Bohtee. He held the last mid-day ceremony in his cabin and I went with the old man because he was invited.
Colette: Mmhmm, sakitawak! Go on.
David: They had lanterns back then, they were not very bright – they were very dim, like a candle, almost. And they darkened the room, it was fall time – I remember that – and it was about 15 people in it, that big.
Colette: Were you the only young one there?
David: Yes, I was the youngest of the last ceremony of that kind; to be in attendance. And let me tell you, I will never give up trying to bring that type of ceremony back. I spoke to the grandfathers and didn’t realize [it] until I was told later in life.
Colette: The guy who held the last ceremony, Chawtee, what’s his last name? Do you know?
David: Chawtee, I think it was a North (last name) but I am not sure. He was a mid-day old man back in the 20’s. And my grandfather went in their days with rattles, pipes, and a drum, and spirits came in. But I was very young at this particular ceremony, I was six years old. And I remember that ceremony.
Colette: What makes you remember that particular ceremony?
David: I remember the smell of medicine.
Colette: Do you remember the kind of medicines?
David: I’m not sure, I only have scent memory and I have not come across that particular plant, yet.
Colette: Oh, being young has its advantages and disadvantages.
David: They burnt it on the stove. And you can see the stove light. That was the only light that was on when they shut off all the lights. It took about four or five hours to have the ceremony. I remember them talking to a spirit and the spirit talking back to them. They had a drum and they hung it on one of the poles. That’s how they took turns. I do remember that. And the old ladies, they were there, I don’t know if that was my grandmother, I don’t know if that’s my grandmother but there was an old lady there, I remember. I didn’t want to fall asleep because I didn’t want to miss it.
Colette: You were intrigued at a very young age with the traditional life. Wow.
David: And that was the last ceremony they did. After that, it was banned. Or the church didn’t allow the people to do that, to practice.
Colette: Let’s go back to the word, sakitawak. In my understanding, I remember it meaning halfway, but it can also mean that where two waters meet in the open.
David: Very good! Yup. Sakit means half way and awak means a lake.
Colette: So it means waters meeting halfway. Two open waters.
David: [shakes rattle] But it doesn’t mean all of the lake, only some of it.
Colette: Oh, ok.
David: Like, when you’re a person, speaking – they call that “epikwiskwet,” [which] means his neck is sticking out behind something. And sakitawak is a lake, but not all of it.
Colette: The area of which you’re talking about, sakitawak, is that the area near York Factory post, further northwestern to Cross Lake, or is it the area in which my Kokum Martina, still resides?
David: That’s apitaw – halfway from kisinaw to northern store, Hudson Bay. That’s where they use to meet.
Colette: Hudson Bay Company had one of their posts there then?
David: That’s where they met and some of them buried their dead. And it’s half ways. That’s why they call it, apitaw.
Colette: Interesting. The landmarks may still be present, where would I find this?
David: Oh, iskwew. It wouldn’t be visible today. It was a canoe ride away from where you’re used to seeing near your Kokum’s [Halfway in Cross Lake, MB.]. Not a stone’s throw away, but a good paddle length away.
Colette: Well, I have seemed to come to the end of my questions and I wish I didn’t. I was able to receive all the information, and more, from you in regard to the rattle. Thank you, your time is much appreciated and I thank you so much for speaking with me, teaching me, and allowing me to document your information on the rattle. This is very good insight in terms of ceremony and in every day life. The traditional life is very intriguing and I hope to attend your ceremony soon.
David: No problem. You are more than welcome to attend on behalf of your kids and partner. Your daughter is welcome again. And I hope Piponàskos is feeling better.
Colette: My son, Piponàskos has been great since you last had a rattle ceremony for him. The dance did work because he is not ill any more and that sickness actually left his body a few days after I attended the ceremony you held—I went with my girl. It’s more believable than a book; that had a chance to be changed multiples times throughout time. I guess it’s the experiencing part that intrigues me?
David: Yes, the rattle did wonders for your boy and other sick people that attended. Take care on your journey and hope we cross paths soon.
Colette: Ekosi, wasitew.
David: Ekosi, my girl, kìcikìsokowi mikisiwì iskwèw (Heavenly Eagle Woman, my spirit name).
Colette Hohn (Nee: McKay): kìcikìsokowi mikisiwì iskwèw, Cree for “Heavenly Eagle Woman”.
Originally from Pimicikamak Cree Nation, Colette is a loving mother to a handsome boy and a beautiful girl. She is married to their father and they all reside in The Pas/ Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Her passion for reading and writing began when her Grade 4 teacher read, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Her favourite past times include making memories at concerts, traveling, spending time with her children, extended family, and her friends. Aside from her studies, you can find her playing baseball in the summer or watching hockey in the winter and cheering on her children as they partake in sports activities too. Currently she is expected to graduate from Bachelor of Arts at the University College of the North – The Pas Campus in June 2020. Her mind is set on continuing her studies as an undergraduate in the Kenanow Bachelor of Education After-Degree program in the fall of 2020. Her future aspirations include obtaining a Master of Arts in Education and collaborating with Cree Teachers to revitalize the language.
Wāsitew, Cree for “Reflection from the Light,” English name: David Blacksmith.
Wāsitew was born in Norway House even though his family was in Cross Lake. During those days there was no clinic in Cross Lake, and his mother had to go to Norway House for the delivery. Intrigued and infatuated with the traditional lifestyle since a young age, David sought to remain with his grandparents in Cross Lake as they were his teachers. Wāsitew has been a traditional man for years. He is well known and highly respected for the Tie-Up Ceremony, Sweat Lodge, and Rattle making. These are his forms of healing and providing them to others is his passion. His stories of making rattles have shed light on our understanding of rattles: a rattle was not intended to be a musical instrument, but an instrument used for healing purposes.
Mrs. Colette (McKay) Hohn is enthusiastic about learning about culture, history, and society through reading literature. In the three courses she has taken with me, she demonstrated her knowledge about Indigenous traditions and culture as well as Western education. I believe that she will be an excellent teacher after she graduates from the Kenanow Bachelor of Education After-Degree program. (Dr. Ying Kong)