Monday, February 24, 2014

Making A Clapper Stick - A Native California Instrument

A recent project of mine has been to create my first elderberry clapper stick.  I finished making it just in time to demonstrate it’s use on a native plant tour I guided at the beautiful Rosemont Preserve.

Clapper sticks are an ancient Californian musical percussion instrument made from a split and hollowed out stalk of the Elderberry tree (Sambucus mexicana).  Native people in California didn't play drums to accompany them in song and dance as other cultures may have, but instead used this unique instrument, along with a traditional four-holed elderberry flute.  For this reason, the elderberry tree was known to native Californians as the Tree of Music.

A clapper stick is made by splitting a straight branch part way to it’s handle, and striking the split ends together against the palm to produce a rhythmic, clapping sound.  To make my clapper stick, I first selected and harvested a young, straight elderberry branch.  I then carved away the bark, save for a section I kept in place as the handle.

Once that was done, I used a saw to split the branch and then hollowed out the pith from the center of it.  Once the basic shape was complete, the carved portions were sanded down.

I painted four stripes onto my clapper stick with the red dye of the cochineal insect, which lives on the prickly pear cactus.  Cochineal has long been used as dye by native people throughout Central and North America, and became a sought-after commodity following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521.  As a final decorative touch, I tied a hawk feather above the handle with deerskin, and added a strip of rabbit pelt below the handle for decoration.

I now have a wonderful way to demonstrate on my hikes how the Tree of Music has been used here in California for thousands of years.  The elderberry branch, cochineal dye, deerskin, hawk feather, and rabbit fur are all local materials which can be found throughout the area.

The author displaying a clapper stick.  Elderberry tree in the background.

Enjoy these videos below, and hear the sounds which have echoed across this land since time immemorial.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blue Corn Atole

I felt inspired Friday morning to make myself a breakfast of blue corn atole in preparation for a long day of work after reading of it’s use in Rudolfo Anaya’s classic novel Bless Me, Ultima.  

Atole, from the Nahuatl word atolli, is a maize porridge which has been eaten in Mexico for thousands of years.  According to Daily Life of the Aztecs, breakfast for the Aztecs “nearly always consisted of a bowl of atolli… thick or thin as the case might be, and either sweetened with honey or seasoned with pimento.”

In Anaya’s novel, the curandera Ultima uses blue atole to heal:

“’Ay,’ Ultima said, ‘we have begun our cure.’ She turned and looked at me and I could tell she was tired. ‘Are you hungry?’ she smiled.

‘No,’ I replied. I had not eaten since breakfast, but the things that had happened had made me forget my hunger.‘Still, we had better eat,’ she said, ‘it might be the last meal we will have for a few days… Lay your blankets there and make yourself a bed while I fix us some atole.’

I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Ultima prepared the atole… 

‘This is good,’ I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long.

‘There is much good in blue corn meal,’ she smiled. ‘The Indians hold it sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?’"

Blue Corn Atole

1 cup water
1 cup milk or milk substitute (hemp, rice, soy)
1/4 cup roasted blue corn meal
1/2 tsp vanilla extract 
Generous dash of cinnamon 
Maple syrup, agave nectar, or honey to taste


1.  In a saucepan, whisk water, milk, cornmeal, and cinnamon until there are no lumps.  

2.  Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until it begins to thicken.  

3.  Bring to boil, then add sweetener to taste and reduce heat to a simmer.  Continue to stir and prevent lumps from forming for a minute or two.

4.  Turn off heat and let sit for a few minutes.  Serve in a bowl or hot mug.