Arts and Entertainment

After the Russians came to the Alutiiq region, the dance rattles went silent. A Kodiak artist has changed that.

Alutiiq dancers once shook hoop rattles like they were tambourines, the dangling puffin beaks jingling out the rhythm.

But when artist Hanna Sholl, 31, decided to make one of the handheld circular rattles early this year -- helping revive a tradition lost more than a century ago on Kodiak Island -- she didn’t use beaks.

She wasn’t ready to hunt and eat as many as 40 puffins to make the instrument.

“I’d need to eat all of them and use the rest for art, to be respectful to the animals,” she said.

Instead, she turned to deer hooves, available from subsistence hunters on the island, where she lives.

“The hooves have a beautiful, strong, danceable sound,” said Sholl.


The Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak recently acquired her rattle for its collection, officials said.

The museum features the Alaska Native culture that includes Kodiak and a chunk of coastal southern Alaska. The Alutiiq people are a distinct group from Aleuts, a coastal people further west.

The rattle is about the size of a tambourine, with a round frame of hemlock wood. Red-and-black wooden slats, carved in the shape of kayak paddles, provide handles. The hooves are attached with synthetic sinew.

“It’s a pretty lengthy process to make it,” Sholl said.

Creating them is a lost practice, said April Counceller, the executive director of the museum in the city of 6,000.

The Russian occupation of the region starting in the 18th century may have contributed to the demise, she said.

For decades, Native hunters were forced to work in Russian camps, targeting sea otters. They might have been unable to hunt many puffins then, she said.

When the forced hunting ended, Alutiiq dancing was discouraged by the Russian Orthodox and other churches, she said. People stopped making dance regalia. Only in recent decades has the dancing made a comeback.

“Revitalizing dance is important because it strengthens the culture overall, by strengthening the social fabric and bringing people together," said Counceller, who is Alutiiq.

The museum owns fragments of ancient dance rattles, but no complete versions. Intact ones, removed from Alaska long ago, reside in museums elsewhere in the world, she said.

The hooves are a “modern take” on the instruments, she said. Some say they produce a duller sound than puffin beaks.

“That’s part of the process of cultural change and innovation over time,” said Counceller. “We probably won’t go back to a time when we are eating the number of puffins we once did.”

To learn to make the rattles, Sholl studied photos from museums and researched the fragments at the Alutiiq Museum.

She traveled to the National Museum of Finland in 2012 to see the full version in person -- a rattle from the 1800s -- on a trip sponsored by the Alutiiq Museum.

The rattle was “packed tight” with more than 50 puffin beaks.

Seeing the ancestral objects, and learning about their spiritual significance, inspired her to make them.

She took a course to learn how to bend wood by soaking and heating it. She encouraged family members and friends to save deer hooves, which are larger than puffin beaks, requiring far fewer to fill a hoop. She combined traditional colors with modern styles to decorate the rattle.


She doesn’t sell the objects commercially.

“I’m not doing these to sell them," she said. “I’m doing them to protect the knowledge behind making them.”

With sponsorship from the Alutiiq museum, Sholl plans to teach children how to make the rattles at an upcoming cultural camp near Kodiak, she said.

“This is another important chapter in our cultural revitalization,” said Counceller.

Last weekend, Sholl was in Olympia, Washington, teaching at the first-ever Alutiiq cultural camp in the northwest.

The four-day camp, attended by about 30, allowed Alutiiq people living in the Lower 48 to immerse themselves in their culture, organizers said. It included traditional dance classes, skin sewing and cooking.

Sholl danced with a rattle made of small hoops adorned with shells.

Co-organizer Vickie Era, an Alutiiq woman raised in Alaska who now lives in Washington, said it’s a joy to see Sholl bringing back traditional ways.


“We are so hungry for this, to learn these dances and everything that goes with it,” Era said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or