Rain Sticks: History & Purpose

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  • 0:05 The Sound of Rain
  • 0:59 How Are Rain Sticks Made?
  • 1:51 Where Are Rain Sticks From?
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

In this lesson, we will learn about the cultural origins of rain sticks in regions around the world. After looking at what anthropologists and archaeologists believe about the history of these musical instruments, we will explore how they are made and their many uses.

The Sound of Rain

Water is our most precious resource. Without it, no life can survive. Ancient cultures that make their homes in arid regions developed spiritual ceremonies to pray for rain. American Indian tribes developed a host of materials for rain-making ceremonies, including headdresses, costumes, dances, and the rain stick.

Though evidence of rain sticks being used in traditional tribal ceremonies is slim, it has become a popular musical instrument and icon in today's American culture. Many children's books and storybooks address the topic; for example, Bringing the Rain to the Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema (1981) and The Rainstick, a Fable by Sandra Chisholm Robinson (1994). The rain stick can also be a powerful vehicle to learn about North and South American geography, music, and the cultures and beliefs of indigenous people.

How Are Rain Sticks Made?

Traditional rain sticks can be made from various materials from the natural environment. They reflect the needs and resources of the culture from which they arise.

South American rain sticks are most often made from cacti, while the Huichol tribe of Mexico uses hollow reeds to make their rain sticks. West African tribes, such as the Togo and Pangwe, have made rain sticks from bamboo or reeds. To make a traditional rain stick from a cactus, artisans remove the needles from the cactus, reinsert them into the flesh, and then dry the whole thing. Pebbles or dried beans are then poured into the stock and the ends are plugged up to hold them inside. The result is a percussion instrument because it only creates a rhythm, not a tone. When held upright, the pebbles trickle down the inside of the cactus, hitting the needles as they go and creating a sound like falling rain.

Where Are Rain Sticks From?

The history of the rain stick is shrouded in mystery. What's most clear is that this musical instrument was used in traditional cultures as a ritualistic device. In cultures across the globe, it has been used in rain-making ceremonies for centuries. Nobody knows what country it originally came from. Whether in a ceremonial or a cultural ritual, the purpose was to bring forth the power of water from the sky.

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