Will gives South Wing an authentic Indian rattle (made by Harlan's grandmother) and a singing top. Both are decorated with primary colors. The gifts symbolize the disparate parts of Will and show his willingness to give himself to South Wing and Louise. The colors echo his love of photography, color, and art; the gifts themselves are connected to aspects of his heritage.
When Martha decides to allow Will to have the rattle, she asks if he loves South Wing. He says he does. She asks if he was there when she was born; she says South Wing needs a father. She wants to know if Will loves Louise. Part of giving Will the rattle is him acknowledging his care for the two and his potential position in their lives.
The singing top that Will gives South Wing is similar to a top his father promised to send back to his mother. He says that it was painted with animals and made a nice sound. He tells Rose in his letter that the postal system must have lost it, and it might be awhile before he can afford to send a replacement. When Will gives South Wing the top, it's another sign that he's accepting his role as her father.
Medicine River deals with First Nations, the indigenous people of Canada, in modern times. A reader might think that the presents Will gives to South Wing for her birthday and for Christmas are simply presents. A rattle and a sound emitting top don’t sound particularly special, as they are typical and suitable presents for a small child. Therefore, it might be tempting to not reach much more than that into it. However, in my opinion, the author has not just randomly chosen what these presents were going to be. Instead, these gifts can be seen as symbols, as the nature of these gifts links in with the important key themes of the book and thus helps the author to underline these further.
Firstly, Will gives South Wing an authentic Indian rattle. The fact that it is authentic and handmade underlines the theme of heritage. Will is trying to juggle both his heritage and modern life as a photographer. By giving South Wing this rattle, Will shows how his heritage is important to him, and how he wants South Wing to grow up appreciating her heritage. The rattle serves as a symbol for their heritage.
Another main theme of the book is the theme of family and fatherhood. This is the other reason why Will’s presents are significant within the story. Will grew up estranged from his own father; he has no family of his own. South Wing is not his biological daughter, but by giving her these presents, Will shows how he treats her as if she was his real daughter. Therefore, both presents could also be seen as a symbol for family and fatherhood.
In Medicine River, Will gives Wilma, or South Wing, two similar gifts, one for each her birthday and Christmas. The two gifts are an authentic, handmade Indian rattle decorated in yellow and blue and a singing top (a top that emits a musical humming tone) that is colored with the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.
These two gifts have several symbolic meanings—the first being that they are a representation of Will's Native American heritage. It is important to Will to pass on knowledge of Native American traditions and culture, so he wants to give these gifts as a memento to South Wing.
Additionally, he states that every color in the world is derived from the primary colors. He is a photographer and loves to explore and discuss color, but the significance here is that he is saying everyone stems from the same basic elements—there is nothing truly different about the different races of people. Just as all colors come from the same basic elements, so too do all people.
In Thomas King's Medicine River, the gift Will gives Louise's daughter, Wilma, whom he calls South Wing, on her first birthday is a handmade "real Indian rattle" (p. 139). Will and his best friend Harlen specifically go to Harlen's grandmother to request the rattle because she makes them herself. The rattle she gives them is carved out of willow and covered in deer hide; the deer hide is "painted blue and yellow" (p. 140). The rattle noise is made with stones and seeds, and the rattle is also decorated with "strands of horsehair" (p. 140). Since the rattle is an authentic Indian rattle, one thing it symbolizes is Will's heritage. But Will is one who is caught between his heritage and the modern-day world as a photographer. The rattle is also decorated with the two primary colors blue and yellow, and primary colors are an essential aspect of art. Hence, the two primary colors symbolize Will's artistic ties to the modern world.
The Christmas gift Will gives South Wing is also decorated with primary colors. It's a top that emits the sound of music as it spins, a "sweet, humming sound" that changes in pitch as the top spins in a "perfect circle" (p. 260 - 61). The top is also decorated with the primary colors: "red, yellow, blue" plus the color green (p. 261). As the top spins, you can see the colors shift. Again, the primary colors symbolize his artistic ties to the modern world since all colors are derived from the three primary colors. But also, the top itself and the one color "red" symbolizes Will's own past and his reconciliation with that past. Through a letter he once read, Will learned that his own father had tried to send Will and his brother a musical top for Christmas and that the top was red and decorated with a "cute little animal" on the side (p. 9). Hence, in being able to get South Wing a musical top, he is allowing himself to bond with his father and ease the pain of not having his own father in his life.