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Marshall Powless Keeps Family Musical Tradition Alive

Marshall Powless has one of the coolest and most important hobbies among current National Lacrosse League players.

The Albany FireWolves forward, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk people, is an ardent maker of an Indigenous musical instrument called a horn rattle.

Residing on the Six Nations reserve in southwestern Ontario, Powless has been making the instrument since he was 12 years old, taught by his grandfather Arthur Johnson, a renowned instrument maker who was known throughout both Canada and the United States.

Music is important to the Haudenosaunee people, and the horn rattle is used in sacred ceremonies and at social gatherings.

“A lot of our songs go back to this rattle,” Powless said.

A horn rattle crafted by Powless

While many ceremonies involving the horn rattle are sacred and private, “we have what we call social songs which is meant for us to have fun, to come together and sing and dance with each other.”

Powless regrets that he didn’t spend more time making instruments with his grandfather when he was in high school, but as a typical 16 year old, he wanted to branch out and try other activities. When he got older and wiser, he made up for lost time and picked it up again. By the time Arthur passed in 2020, he and Marshall were very close.

“I wanted to keep the tradition alive,” Powless explained. “He had a little shop where he lived; it’s not very big but it has everything we need. I started going back there. Within the last 6-8 months, I’ve been there pretty steadily and made a lot more rattles. It’s a way that makes me still feel close to him, trying to carry on his legacy and the instruments he used to make.”

Powless compared the horn rattle to a maraca.

“It’s usually made out of cattle or bull horn, wood or firewood that’s laying around,” he said. “It’s a more modern instrument. Its predecessor was a bark rattle, made from trees, cut down in the winter or early spring so it still had sap in it. The bark was easily pliable, so you would fold it into a triangular shape, leave it for a while – two months or so – so it would dry out, then you could put the sound in. Corn seeds are still used sometimes, but nowadays most people use metal shot like bb’s.”

It takes a week to make one rattle, as he wants to get it just right to make his grandfather proud.

“He always told me to take your time on it,” Powless recalled. “The more you take your time on it, the nicer it will be. And that can go for anything… you’re creating. If you rush through it then it’s not going to be as good as you want. Take your time on it so you can make it as beautiful as you want.”

A young Powless working with his grandfather

The design of each rattle is unique based on the materials used, but Powless will also sometimes carve designs into the instrument to really mark it as something he created.

And he’s not just stockpiling them; he’ll sell the rattles for around $60 each depending on how much time and effort is put into each one. He can make some good money by selling the rattles, but what he’d rather do is trade them – send them as far and wide as he can to increase his impact.

That said, he’s only made one trade so far, sending a horn rattle to a reserve in the U.S.

“In return I got back a beaded medallion I gave to my mom for Christmas,” Powless said. “Honestly, I tell people I’d rather trade and get stuff back from them that I can remember them by. Money comes and goes, it’s not really a big thing for me, so I would much rather trade.”

He’s got quite the list of orders to fulfill, but when that’s done, he wants to branch out into other instruments, specifically the water drum, a small handheld drum with a leather top which is activated by a water reserve inside the instrument. To make one takes a lot more time than making a rattle.

Some people use plastic, like PVC pipes, to make the drum, so they’re more modernized. But Arthur Johnson made his drums out of wood, so Powless will do so too.

“I’m going to have to pretty much learn from scratch again because it’s been so long and I haven’t even seen it done in about four years. It’ll be a challenging process. I have a couple of little cousins that come down to help me; they learned from him as well so they’ve been trying to give me some advice because they’re a bit more familiar with it.”

Powless feels quite the connection to his creations. He’ll sing around the house with the instruments to practice for upcoming ceremonies so he can really embrace the Mohawk culture and help pass it on to the next generation.

“The reason why I make them is so the youth and our people can continue with these ceremonies and learning to play the instruments, because in a way, we’re starting to lose our ways and it’s scary. Doing this is a way that I believe I’m helping to keep our ways alive.”