Turtle Shell Shakers

Chickasaw Culture Keepers

Turtles are sacred in Chickasaw culture and today their shells are used to bring music and rhythm to traditional dances, just as they have throughout Chickasaw history. Dixie Brewer, a dancer for over 20 years and Chickasaw cultural demonstrator, explains that "women are the rhythm keepers for the dances" but those who wear turtle shells are especially knowledgeable about "the leader's song ... and how it should be danced to." Of the three types of shakers (turtle shells, deer toes and cans), turtle shells must be earned. Dixie was taught that "you had to learn how to dance before you could wear the turtle shells because they're so important."

To create the shakers, adult box turtle shells are filled with round, fingertip-sized rocks collected from a running river bed, sometimes from as far as the Homeland. Each shaker's unique sound depends on the amount and size of the rocks inside and holes are drilled along the back of the shell to ensure the music of tumbling rocks is clearly heard. The sacred process of creating turtle shell shakers is time-consuming and labor-intensive, so there are few people today who still make them.

Turtle shell shakers have been a part of Chickasaw culture for a very long time and the art of wearing shells is still passed down today. Dixie's own daughter is one of these young dancers, now wearing her turtles and keeping the tradition alive. There is a variety of opportunities for anyone to learn more about or even participate in traditional Chickasaw dances and songs by visiting the Chickasaw Cultural Center. "We have lost so many of our traditions and pieces of our culture that this is one thing we can't afford to lose," Dixie says.