ORIGINS – Native American Flute History

Native American tribes orally passed down their stories, their teachings and myths, and with multiple genocides, the assimilation programs, and reservation systems that impacted their cultures, a significant portion of the culture remains lost to us. What we have, however, are the extant legends, fascinating stories, some rock art, flute relics, and a present day popularization of the Native American Style Flute that is based on its historical ancestor. Travellers’ journals from the 1400s tell tales of flutes being played by tribes they encountered, but no specific details on materials or design are mentioned. Later accounts tell us that woods such as ash, box alder, and cane were widely used, but that cedar was the most commonly used wood to craft a flute. Native American Flute History can be explored more through Clint Goss’s website Flutopedia.

MUSIC AND THE FLUTE IN NATIVE CULTURES

Customs and practices differed greatly among Native American cultures, given the large and diverse land mass that the people migrated and settled across. The flute however was a very common feature among all these cultures. It’s a feature that’s not unique only to North American cultures. One theory holds, as C. S. Fuqua reports, that the “flute migrated to North American tribes by travelling up from Mesoamerican peoples to native peoples in the Four Corners region, and then spread across the rest of the continent” (Fuqua, 2012). While the flutes were similar in design, the most notable difference was the material they were crafted from, with Mesoamerican cultures using clay, while Native American cultures used available materials such as wood and bone (Hensley, 2002). Lew Paxton Price writes that on the arrival of “the whites”, flutes changed to incorporate new materials such as beads, as well as gun barrels and copper plumbing (Price, 1990).

Both Native American cultures and Mesoamerican cultures used flutes as social and religious instruments, during ceremonies and rituals, and playing for the sheer joy of making music. From the Sioux tribal arts we learn of a flute used in “courting”, a tradition that did not continue to develop into the 20th century. Flutes were played by both men and women, and in some cases in Mesoamerica, mainly by priests or religious leaders (Marti, 1968). The Native American Style Flute, with which we are most concerned in the current publication, doesn’t date back as far as the Mesoamerican era; archeological findings did not discover flutes similar to the modern NASF dating prior to the 1850’s. Dr. Richard Payne, the avid flute collector, player, and researcher, writes that “examples of NASFs older than 150 years have not been identified […] though legend describes an earlier birth” (Payne, 1999). Could this earlier birth have been when Mesoamerican cultures travelled north, and prior to that, when the Bering Strait was crossed and Asian travellers brought with them their instruments and experiences (Fuqua, 2012)? Or, could it have been an independent creation by Native American peoples, a gift from the gods, or Great Creator?

THE LOVE FLUTE

Many tales of flute courtship talk about a brave but shy boy, who is too timid to confront the girl that he loves. Feeling ashamed and downhearted, the boy sets off on a journey by following an arrow that he shoots into the air. Magically the arrow hovers above his head and he is able to follow its path over four days. On the fourth night he is visited in his dreams by two Elk Men – half man, half elk – who gift him a flute. The Elk Men tell the boy he can use this flute to communicate the love that he feels for the girl. Feeling confident, the boy practises the flute and heads back to the village. When the boy arrives close to his village, he finds a place on top of a nearby hill, where he’ll most certainly be heard playing his flute. He lifts his flutes to mouth and lets it sing his love song to the girl in the village. Upon hearing the flute playing from her tent, she feels it was the song of her heart, and so she sets out to meet the boy. Needless to say, they fall in love (Goble, 1992).

This story has added some beautiful myth around Native American Flute history, and it’s a joy to share this tale with children.

TODAY’S NASF WORLD

Today the NASF is played widely throughout the world, though mainly in the USA, where NASF communities exist in most states. Flute players gather monthly at flute circles, where people share their new flutes and new songs, where they play together and experience the beauty of their flutes and their souls’ creations. There are also many professional recording artists who teach flute workshops and give one-on-one native american flute lessons. Here in Aotearoa/New Zealand we have our local flute community, an annual residential Flute Camp, and flute circles growing and developing in Wellington, Auckland, and Christchurch; be sure to check our website for updates, as well as our Facebook pages: Southern Cross Flutes and New Zealand Flute Circle. Join us as we craft our way into Native American Flute history!