Flute Information

Most of the cultures of the world have had some form of wooden or cane wood-wind instrument at some point in their history.  For the most part this is a completely hollow instrument, some times closed at one end.  In some cases the instrument is built like a whistle with an elongated tube attached.  The North American Indian “flute” is actually a “ducted whistle”, not too much different from the Celtic wooden whistle.  The unique feature, however, is the separate slow air chamber, and North America is the only place where this style of two chambered instrument was made.  It has many different forms, was produced from cane, wood, bone and pottery.  There are different methods of controlling the flow of air over the sound head, and a number of different fingering patterns. But the basic design is unique to North America.

There are a number of stories and legends about the creation of the American Indian flute.  We have selected three of these and they are attached to this section.

The American Indian flute had both religious and secular uses, depending upon which American Indian culture in which it was found.  Not all American Indian cultures used a flute.  For example, none of the maritime cultures of the Pacific North West made and used flutes prior to the 20th century.  Other types of whistles (such as a free reed, and a single chambered ducted whistle) appear to have been known and used in the Pacific Northwest, but not the double chambered instrument we are familiar with.

Flutes were used as part of organized religious ceremonies among the Pueblo farmers in the desert southwest, but did not appear to have a secular use with those people.  The Apache used a whistle in some of their ceremonies to send messages to the spirit world. In recent years that whistle seems to have been largely replaced with the more typical style flute that we know today, and a secular use has developed.  Among the Plains tribes the flute appears to be mostly a secular instrument, used for personal enjoyment and courting.  Early historic accounts from the South East and North East mention the flute as being part of both religious and secular life at the time of contact.

Materials used in the manufacture of flutes also varied widely.  Many of the woodland groups seemed to prefer aromatic red cedar, but also used a wide range of other native woods.  The use of river cane was common in the latitudes were this plant is found, from east to west coasts.  Fired ceramic whistles and flutes are known from Mexico.  Historically the Hopi have made a river cane flute with a gourd used like a trumpet bell on the end.  Along the California coast the Chumash made a very specialized flute out of deer ulna bone, sealed with native asphalt and decorated with shell beads, in addition to the river cane flute common to the area.  The Nez Perce preferred elderberry, and some of the Great Lakes tribes used sumac.  Both of these are plants with long, straight stems that have pithy centers, which is deal for making flutes.  The people living along both slopes of the Rocky Mountains used mostly juniper.  The High Plains cultures used a wide range of native woods, including willow and cottonwood and osage orange.

We have a few tantalizing glimpses of how flutes were used in pre-contact America, however some of the early written records for the South East mention both men and woman playing flutes during welcoming cermonies Women used whistles during several of the dance ceremonies along the Northern California Coast, and women also played flutes in private for personal enjoyment among many of the Eastern Woodland and Oklahoma cultures. Across most of the Americas the written record is pretty scanty regarding flute use. The current prohibitions in many cultures over women playing flutes seems to have develope during the reservation perion (1880 – present), and the motivation for this is not entirely clear.

In an interview, Doc Payne (generally recognized as being a primary leader in the current flute renascence) mentioned that “… many native women are very uncomfortable being in a place containing so many flutes …” referring to the room housing his private collection.  When asked recently about women playing flutes a Nez Perce man responded: “Well, there are flute players, and flute listeners, and among the Nimiipuu women are the flute listeners.”  However having said this, he also recognized that one of the three people currently working to bring back the flute among the Nez Perce is a young woman.

Whenever these restrictions took place, and for what ever reasons, These prohibitions are breaking down with the renascence of the American Indian flute. Native women such as Mary Youngblood and Hovia Edwards have become flute advocates and performers of the first order.  Those of us that are active in flute circles also recognize that at least 50% of the membership and attendees are female.

Renascence of the American Indian Flute

This fantastic musical instrument was almost lost to us!  And in fact, much of the “culture of the flute” (the different meanings the flute might have had, and how it was used in the society) has been lost to many American Indian peoples.  There were probably several reasons for this.

It has been estimated that between one half and two thirds of the American Indian population was decimated by disease in the first few years following prolonged contact with European settlers [an excellent discussion of the reasons for this may be found in the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond].  To put this into context, every other person, or two people out of three, would be taken by disease in a very short period of time, and most likely older people – the care givers and the culture teachers – would be some of the first to go.  As a result the transfer of knowledge of how to make and play flutes and the use of them in an orderly society, was largely lost to any given group in a very short period of time. [Note: There is no indication in the historic record that disease was spread by intent.  It was not until the 1870’s that Dr, Robert Koch postulated a sequence of steps for directly relating a specific microbe to a specific disease, and the 20th century had come by the time these theories were commonly accepted.]

Flutes by their nature are generally fairly small and fragile items, which in most societies are considered very personal property.  It is likely that many were buried with their maker/owners, and it is likely many more were lost or destroyed in the troubled times following contact with the advancing European based culture.  You have to question how many flutes made the long walk with the Cherokee from Tennessee to Oklahoma, or how many flutes survived the attack of Black Kettle’s Cheyenne at Sand Creek, or how many flutes were captured with the Nez Perce at Big Hole and taken to Vancouver Barracks – Probably not very many.  Flutes came out pretty low on the “need to take it” list when packing for basic survival, which was a scenario faced by native people on a fairly consistent basis for a lot of years.

Native flutes also sounded different to the ears of Europeans.  They were generally in a pentatonic minor scale, thus not useable for most European music of the period, and the native users did not follow European musical conventions in their compositions.  Indigenous flutes were individually tuned to the maker’s wishes, and the resulting music was often discordant to European ears.  Because flutes were used in courtship, and in native ceremonies, many superstitious Europeans thought them to be “pagan” and “evil”.  As a result, the use of flutes for any reason was strongly discouraged by European missionaries, Indian Agents and teachers in boarding schools.

As a result of these factors, the native flute went into a period of decline, preserved by only a very few flute makers and players through the last decades of the nineteenth  century, and the first half of the twentieth.


Kokopeli dancers

Kokopeli is the primary fertility spirit among the Hopi Indians of Northern Arizona.  Kokopeli comes as both male and female entities, although the male personalization is the most dramatic for anyone who has seen the dances where he appears.  While he is often depicted as having a hunched back, the Hopi do not depict him playing a flute.  Who, then, is that mysterious figure portrayed in Southwestern rock art, depicted with a hunched back, strange hair cut, and playing a flute?

While we modern followers of the American Indian flute often refer to this figure as “Kokopeli”, we really don’t know who or what this figure is intended to portray.  There is some evidence to suggest that he is a peddler (the hunch back actually being a pack) wearing a distinctive style headdress, and playing a flute to announce his presence.  He is sometimes portrayed with a woman companion, sometimes dancing, and in many cases involved in life regenerating activities. It is doubtful that we will ever really know for sure, and while the designation may bother the Hopi a little, this figure will probably be continue to be known as “Kokopeli” for a long time.  Whoever he represents, this memorable, energetic little figure well represents the modern spirit of the American Indian flute!

Is the American Indian Flute a “Sacred” Instrument?

Our flute has many personalities – It can morn like a loon, it can bugle like an elk, it can trill like a warbler.  It has many moods – Expectant for the sunrise, happy when calling the bubbling brook, complacent in the dusk at works end, and seductive when calling a lover.  For a comparatively simple musical instrument, the flute is may things, and can represent these images and moods to those who play, and those who listen.  I suppose that it might be easy to represent such an instrument, capable of all these things, as “sacred”.

However, to me this is simplistic.  The flute is nothing more or less than a piece of wood, or a piece of reed, with holes bored into it.  You can paint it, decorate it, tie feathers or beads to it, and it is still a stick with holes.  It is not until a human picks that stick up, and blows air into it that it become something else – It becomes what ever that human wants it to become, and the sound is a representation of part of that human’s soul.

So to me, the flute is not “sacred” any more than a trumpet or an organ is sacred.  The flute is simply a tool that allows humans to communicate thoughts to one another.  While some of those thoughts may be sacred in nature, the flute is simply a stick with holes.