A Brief Native American Flute History
“Through the deep, dark forest, to the meadow, a sound is heard. A sound of love. A small line of smoke is seen through the darkness: a young man, by the light of a campfire; a sound is heard… a sound of love”
Jeff Tang High School Student.
Young people have a natural affinity toward the Native American flute. Nearly lost from our musiculture for more than 50 years, the past 50 years has witnessed a remarkable resurgence of flute-makers and flute players. In particular, several skilled musicians are pushing the performance capability of these instruments to new and uncharted heights.
The Native American flute is unique in many ways but perhaps foremost is its design. It is one of the few, if not the only, end-blown and two-chambered flute known. The presence of flute/whistle instruments in the Americas has been documented for approximately 1500 years (there is scant evidence for possible flute making in the Anasazi area as early as 200 BC) but its origin remains obscure. This type of flute belongs to the group of instruments referred to as “flute-a-bec” related to a European style flute of the Middle Ages. Alternatively, it could be considered simply an end-blown fipple flute. In essence this instrument requires a mechanism for changing chaotic air flow to directed air flow in order to produce a sound The human voice perhaps was the first source of primitive music and early wind instruments may have started with a simple whistle providing the early Native American craftsmen a basis for expanding music capability. Additional constructive ideas could have come from another European instrument, the flageolet:
Instruments similar to the flageolet have been found in burial sites associated with the BasketMaker period, 500-750 AD. As the Native American flute slowly evolved it probably became increasingly a personal instrument. The more contemporary period of flute-making over the past 150 or so years was characterized by individuality although within some tribal groups, flute-making was a craft limited to certain persons and if one wanted a flute, a bargain had to be made with the flute-maker.
The Native American flute is not a “sacred” instrument at least not an instrument consecrated to a deity. On the other hand, it may be set apart or dedicated to some person or the memory of the person. An individual may consider his or her flute with respect and reverence. Its primary use was and is for personal playing pleasure. It was used for courtship and to some extent as an instrument for signals during horse stealing forays and to alert the village of an impending attack.
We are indebted to two women for much of the written historical information concerning the Native American flute. Most of their published papers are archived in various volumes of the Bureau of American Ethnology. One person forever linked to the study of Native American music is ethnomusicologist, Alice Fletcher. The other person was a music teacher from Minnesota, Frances Densmore. These two remarkable women focused primarily on Native American songs, but their published papers also include classic descriptions of construction and use of the Native American flute. The oldest known recording of Native American flute music was performed and recorded by Frances Densmore around the turn of this century by a Cheyenne named Turkey Legs. The Menominee said that “people could play any song on the flute, or they just “played” it. Singing was the dominant form of music but some singing; namely, love songs had no words. These “love songs” perhaps evolved along with the flute so when the flute appeared perhaps some of the men used the instrument instead of the voice. It is not known if the flute evolved to replace the voice for “love songs without words” or if it evolved simply as a musical instrument with several uses including courtship.
The Native American flute bears a remarkable resemblance to certain features of the organ pipe:
Some pipe organs have as many as 10,000 pipes but if we compare a single pipe from the organ with the Native American flute, similarities are obvious. The organ pipe consists of an air entry hole penetrating into the foot. The pipe foot and body are separated by a thin sheet of metal, the “languid”. Air flows over the “languid”, at the flue slit and into the pipe body where a combination of air column oscillations and an air jet over the “languid” produce sound. Now compare a Native American flute:
Air is blown into the air chamber through the mouthpiece. A narrow piece of wood extending through the entire internal diameter of the flute, serves as the “languid” and separates completely the anterior air chamber from the more distal variable body or tube. A small area on both sides of the “languid” is flattened (the nest). Air flows out of the proximal chamber window:
over the “languid” and splits on the edge of a metal or wooden plate. Part of the air flows down through the distal chamber window and into the variable body. Oscillation of air in the variable body along with opening and closing of the finger holes produces the melodic sound typical of this flute. A distinctive “warble” sound, unique to the Native American flute can be produced with careful craftsmanship around the “languid” area. The “saddle” is a descriptor for a piece of wood which is placed over the two chamber windows and the “languid”. This is a critical part of the flute for without it the flow of air is chaotic and without sound. Craftspeople use this part of the flute as an opportunity to construct various animal/bird forms thereby adding more “personal medicine” to the instrument. Tonal quality, scale and pitch are influenced by a number of variables including the flute total length, internal diameter, distance of the “languid” from the mouthpiece, distance of the first finger hole from the “languid”, finger hole to finger hole distance and finger hole diameter. Any hollow cylinder works, for example metal or plastic, but wood is the most traditional material for the Native American flute. Members of the cedar/juniper species have always been the most common wood source used by Native American craftsmen, but almost any wood can be used. In general, the cedars and junipers seem to result in flutes with the more mellow sounds.
Some contemporary craftsmen have developed techniques to bore a solid piece of wood into a hollow cylinder for the flute. Most craftsmen still make flutes by hollowing two half-cylinder pieces, gluing the two halves then rounding the outside to a uniform cylinder using hand or machine tools. The real work then is in the tuning. Care is simple, keep the flute dry, avoid long exposure in direct sunlight, and don’t step on it. A flute should last a lifetime.
Written music for Native American flute melodies is beginning to emerge. A simple learning procedure is to obtain a tape or CD of music played on the flute, listen for the style and progression of notes then find a quiet spot and start playing your own songs. Remember these are personal instruments. It is unlikely to find two instruments that sound exactly alike. Even the best craftsmen have difficulty in making two, much less several, identical instruments. When choosing a flute, find one that sounds good just for you. If it does not sound right, you will not enjoy it. If you like the sound, the flute will remain a friend for life.
- ” The Art of the Native American Flute”, R. Carlos Nakai and James Demars, Canyon Records Productions, Phoenix, Arizona
- ” The Study of Indian Music”, Frances Densmore, Smithsonian Report, 1941, Facsimile Reproduction, The Shorey Bookstore, Seattle, WA, 1996
- “The Art of Courtship Among the 0glala”, William K. Powers, American Indian Art, Spring, 1980, Vol. 5, No.2, PP 40-47
- “The Plains Flute”, Richard W. Payne, M.D., The Flutists Quarterly, 1988, Vol. 13, no.4, The National Flute Association, Ind. Ann Arbor MI
- “The Native American Plains Flutes, Richard W. Payne, M.D. Toubat Trails Publishing Co. Oklahoma City Publishing Co., 1999
The flute melodies associated with this website are selected excerpts from relatively old recordings from a few of the Native American flute players of the early 20th century. The first excerpt is from a recording made by Belo Cozad, Kiowa. He is also depicted on the index page of the website. Some 20 or so years ago when I was learning how to craft Native American flutes, I received guidance from generous men of the Comanche tribe in Oklahoma, “Doc” Tate Nevaquaya, George “Woogie” Watchetaker and Carney Saupitty. Mr. Saupitty is the only one of the three still living. One day those many years ago, Mr. Nevaquaya sat down in his home, recorded several of his flute melodies and sent them to me to use as a model for the sound I was hoping to achieve in a traditional flute. The second set of excerpts on this site are taken from that tape. The final excerpt has a rather different story. Frances Densmore in her written contributions to the series, “Bureau of American Ethnology” wrote of recording some flute music during her study of Native American music. I had an opportunity to visit the Library of Congress to see the collection of flutes under the library’s care. During the visit I sought out a research librarian hoping to find a recording of the old flute music. I was told that none existed but when I could document that Ms. Densmore had published data on such recordings we went to the basement of the Library of Congress and began searching amongst boxes that had been there for almost 50 years. Finally a small dusty carton was found in a far corner of the Library basement and sure enough there was a wax cylinder marked “flute music recording”. The library staff kindly and laboriously made a tape from that cylinder. The background noise is almost overwhelming but through it all one can hear a plaintive melody played by Turkey Legs, Cheyenne. This one is the last excerpt, easily recognized by its background noise but nonetheless, a remnant of flute playing by a man from a long ago time.