When one first hears the name Sean Wei Mah, the last image that comes to mind is a full blooded Cree in long dark braids from the northern woodlands of Canada. Known as The Rattlemaker, Mah, 38, creates ceremonial rattles, serves as healer, and keeps his acting career alive by roles in TV and film productions such as DreamKeeper (2003) and The Blanketing (2013) to name a few. Few people can combine such diverse paths as healing, artwork and acting, yet Mah walks all with grace. Here the Medicine Man muses on his triple fold journey.
How did you learn the art of rattle making?
I am from a Cree Tribe up in northern Alberta, Canada. I did not leave the reservation until I was 18 and so was immersed in the culture and traditions of my people. This is where I learned my art. I started to make rattles when I was in my early teens. I was taught to make rattles and drums by the Artists and Medicine Men of my home reservation. We made rattles and drums out of necessity. They are a Medicine Man’s tool and are also used by many members of the community when attending ceremony.
There are numerous types of ceremony in the Native American world. Rattles and drums are always needed. This is where rattle and drum making can become an art form and source of income or trade. You had people making plain rattles, decorated with various items. You also had artist’s creating rattles and drums that were beautiful and powerful. I was inspired by both Artist and Medicine Man. I wanted to create powerful tools that were beautiful and functional; to respect the Spirit World, the Spirit beings, and the rattle itself.
There is a specific way to craft a rattle, akin to casting a spell, performing a certain rite. It brings the rattle to life as an empty vessel, a magical tool and instrument. This is what makes a big difference in making rattles and drums. Only a handful of us know or were given these gifts. I grew up attending ceremony quite frequently and I learned many songs. I love to drum and often drum at home for my children.
You are a drummer too, so do you also make drums?
I do make drums, yet I am enjoying rattle making a lot more these days.
To which group of Canadian Cree do you belong?
I am Woodland and Plains Cree, full blood. I had many great teachers from back home. The people there are what comprises raw human beauty for me: Native American people living, surviving, and enjoying their piece of Earth.
Do your middle and last names, Wei Mah, have any special meaning or significance? Are these family names?
My middle and last names are Asian in origin, from my late mother’s marriage to an Asian man many years ago, which resulted in my change of name. I had no say in this, and it has caused much confusion and questioning over the years. I can show up to an interview where they expect an Asian man and in walks this Native American warrior.
When were you first called to rattlemaking?
I was drawn to the art of rattle and drum making from an early age. I would visit different community members and watch them work. I would ask how they were made and if they could teach me. I caught on how to creating different shamanic tools such as drums and rattles and carving pipes. It seemed very easy for me, the visions were strong, and the crafting was easy. These tools came to me in dreams. When I left home to live in the city, I stopped making rattles and drums. I stopped carving pipes. It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I knew I had to make her a baby rattle. It was a traditional gift my tribe gave to babies and children. This started my journey of rattle making once again.
One biography says you are a shaman, healer, and medicine man? Tell us about this journey. Are there any differences between these three or can they rightfully be called the same thing?
I grew up around Native American rituals and ceremony. I’ve attended literally thousands of ceremony of different types. I started my training to become a Medicine Man in my early teens. I was recognized for having the blessing and gifts. I’ve had several Medicine Men teach me the ways, guide on my path, teach me the medicines. I’ve been shown a lifetime of magical and terrifying visions as part of this way. It’s a highly supernatural and magical practice, passed down several generations of Medicine Men from Spirit Beings themselves.
All ceremony, songs, and vision are given by the Spirit Beings, the Grandfathers, the Grandmothers, and ultimately, the Creator. It all requires permission. It’s been over 20 years now. I’ve been an apprentice, a medicine man, and recently teacher. I didn’t take a weekend workshop or a one year course to obtain a certification. I live this path. I didn’t “buy” or “purchase” my pipe and medicine bundle like many plastic shaman. I earned a pipe and was given a pipe when the Spirit Beings let the Medicine Men know it was time. I now share teachings, ceremony and do healing sessions. I kept my training to myself for several years, only sharing with very close friends and family. It is a highly political world once people find out what you know. It becomes twisted from something you faithfully believe and were taught into somewhat of a popularity contest and test of power. We do not use the term “Shaman” back home. We usually use Healer, Holy Man, and Medicine Man. Medicine Men can have different gifts, abilities, helper spirits, and ceremonies. They all work together, helping their community, walking a path of sacrifice, humility and humbleness.
How many years have you been making rattles?
I have been making rattles for over 20 years. I took a long break, but I am back.
How does Spirit become embodied in your work?
Spirit drives the entire vision. It encompasses each rattle from start to finish. We are creating tools passed down from the Spirit Beings for us to use here on Earth. The rattle represents the many Spirit nations on Earth such as Stones, Trees, Plants, and Animals. They all come together as one to form one magical rattle. The rattle is created in prayer, each step is part of a rite, each step involves prayer, you respect all on Earth and above. When I am asked to create a rattle for a person, I ask for a vision for that person. It may come in that instant or a few days. This is what inspires my art. I may get a vision out of the blue, which I am inspired to create. I may pray for certain rattles. I prayed to have a rattle granted that can be used in Spiritual Warfare. The rattle that came was the “Symbols of Protection” Rattle, used to cleanse, clear, protect, and fend off evil spirits. Prayer drives my daily life. It drives my art as well.
Has rattlemaking changed in any way over your years of creating them?
Rattlemaking has become so much easier with the use of modern day craft materials such as glues, acrylics, varnishes, scissors, and abundance of leathers and materials. I do not frown on these materials versus old school construction. I feel the power of the finished rattle just the same. It’s the intention, respect, and care that counts.
Do you have certain materials you prefer to use over others when constructing them e.g., river rock v other fill?
I use various fills in my rattles depending on their use, or if a customer requests a certain stone. I recently started using various crystals which opened up a whole new world of rattlemaking for me. You can feel the difference in power, sound and vibration.
What has been your biggest learning from making rattles?
My biggest teaching from making rattles is that people far and wide still need them and use them. And this makes me happy. We cannot forget about such sacred tools. We cannot forget what they were given to us to be used for.
Do you use your own rattles during ceremony?
I use my rattles in ceremony when I bless them. Other than that, I’m attached to a rattle I’ve had for over 20 years. I feel a rattle is coming for me though, one I will eventually create.
I have also been drawn to film and television as an actor, another art form I love. I have done many films, including HBO’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” I still pursue acting. I recently signed with a new agency in Vancouver, BC.
Have a look at some of Sean’s spirit-filled work on Shamans Market.