Native American Flute Music Inspiration
Indian Arts And Crafts Act: Understanding What It Means
Photo of 3 Piegan Blackfeet Chiefs by Edward S. Curtis, 1900.
Though it is theorized that the Plains Flute may have originated in the distant past
amongst the Tohono O'odham of the Southwest, based upon an ancient
Meso-American design, many people are surprised to learn that the earliest
known examples of this woodwind instrument date no further back than the early
1800s. While Native Americans have been playing whistles and flutes for
millennia, written accounts and museum pieces are able to give us a glimpse
at only a few hundred years of Plains Flute history and these earliest
documentations originate in the northern Great Plains region, between the
Great Lakes and the Upper Missouri.
Honoring Plains American Indians
In your search for the right Native American flute for your needs, we encourage
you to spend some time learning about the Plains Indians, without whom, no
American would be able to enjoy this beautiful instrument today.
The map at
right outlines the historic home of the tribes that have come be called
the 'Plains Indians'. This vast area stretches from the Rocky Mountains in
the west to the Mississippi, from Canada's boreal forest perimeter to
northern Mexico. Historically, some Plains tribes lived mainly by hunting while
others practiced agriculture and many built new lifeways around the coming of the horse.
Anthropologists now estimate that some 95% of the Peoples of the American
continents perished as result of disease following first contact with
Europeans. The ensuing policies of genocide and relocation undertaken by the
United States government resulted in further incalculable loss of life for
Map of the vast region of the Great Plains;
historic home of the Plains Flute.
Most pertinent to an understanding of the losses and
sufferings of the Plains Indian Peoples is the intentional extermination of
the buffalo by government employees who saw this eradication as the fastest
means of subjugating Native Americans who had depended upon the buffalo for
millennia. Today, the only remaining wild buffalo live in Yellowstone National
Park and, shamefully, even these last remnants are under threat of
extermination from non-Native ranchers.
Portrait of The White Cloud,
Chief of the Iowas, by George Caitlin.
By the early 20th century, researchers had become convinced that all Native
American tribes were about to vanish from the face of the Earth, due to the
depredations they had suffered and most anthropological literature from this
time reflects this misunderstanding. Fortunately, for all mankind, Native
Americans of almost countless tribes are alive and well on both continents,
continuing to pursue lives of deep cultural meaning and purpose. In the
Great Plains Region, alone, the following tribes are some of those who call
this diverse region their historic and current home: Arapaho, Assiniboine,
Arikara, Blackfoot, Crow, Comanche, Cheyenne, Gros, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kiowa,
Kaw (or Kansa), Kitsai, Lipan, Lakota, Mandan, Missouria, Nez Perce, Osage,
Otoe, Omaha, Pawnee, Plains Cree, Plains Apache (or Kiowa Apache), Ponca,
Plains Ojibwe, Quapaw, Shoshone, Sarsi, Santee, Stoney, Tonkawa, Ventre,
Wichita, and Yankton.
Whether you have strong Native American roots or none at all and are
considering purchasing a plains flute to discover the music that is in you
to play, please honor the Plains Indians tribes and their experience. Music
has tremendous power to build respect and friendship. Your Native American
Flute can help you to appreciate the value of all Native People, without
whom, no one could enjoy these beautiful flutes.
Historic Plains Flute Materials
So far as we have learned, eastern and western cedar was the chief material
used in the construction of early Plains Flutes and thanks to the special
qualities of this wood which is resistant to warping, moisture and insects,
many of these flutes remain with us to this day. Other materials included box
elder, cane, pipewood and ash.
The magnificent flute, shown to the right, is made of sacred red
Pipestone (Catlinite Pipestone), embellished with lead inlay and a dog fetish.
This courting flute is attributed to the Sioux Nation, Minnesota, early 20th
Red Pipestone Flute, Sioux Nation, Early 20th Century.
National Music Museum
The Downy Woodpecker, a common sight in the Great Plains region of the North America. Likely, a woodpecker like this one might
have been pointed out as the bird who gave the flute to mankind.
This is an unusual and remarkable instrument because of the religious
connotations of Pipestone.
Historic Documentation of Uses of the Plains Flute
The oral traditions of many tribes include beautiful stories about flutes, including an oft-cited origin story of Woodpecker giving the first
flute to a young Plains Indian Man. One version of this story tells of how the young man had failed to win the heart of the young woman he loved.
No matter what this young man did, his beloved would pay him no attention and so he wandered off into the forest, feeling very badly. There, Woodpecker was drilling holes in a tree limb. The tree limb broke
off and fell into the young man's hands. When he blew through it, covering the various holes with his fingers, he found he could make a sweet-sounding
music that matched what he was feeling in his heart. The young woman was going along and she heard this music coming from the forest and followed it,
for it had captured her heart. This was how the young man won the hand of his sweetheart with the first flute, as the story goes. It is also documented
that flutes used for courting were thrown away once the object of a man's affections was won. They were not to be used again.
Researchers may run into confusion in the erratic terminology used to describe Native American Flutes in the earliest written documentation of them.
Europeans use the terms flute, flageolet, fife, pipes and whistle interchangeably in these early documents. When European-Americans first encountered Plains Flutes, they often wrote of them as sounding strange or rude. Used, as they were, to European
tunings, hearing something different must have struck them as off-sounding. Despite this, the first written accounts of this instrument are interesting
Artist, George Caitlin, who lived amongst a number of the Upper Missouri tribes during the early 19th century, wrote this account of the Plains
Flute as an instrument of courting in 1832:
"There is yet another wind instrument which I have added to my Collection and from its appearance would seem to have been borrowed,
in part, from the civilized world. This is what is often on the frontier called a 'deer-skin flute', a Winnebago courting flute,
'tsal-eet-quash-to'; it is perforated with holes for the fingers, sometimes for six, at others for four, and in some instances for
three only, having only so many notes with their octaves. These notes are very irregularly graduated, showing clearly that they
have very little-taste or ear for melody. These instruments are blown in the end, and the sound produced much on the principle of
a whistle. In the vicinity of the Upper Mississippi, I often and familiarly heard this instrument, called the Winnebago courting flute;
and was credibly informed by traders and others in those regions, that the young men of that tribe meet with signal success, oftentimes,
in wooing their sweethearts with its simple notes, which they blow for hours together, and from day to day, from the bank of some stream
-- some favorite rock or log on which they are seated, near to the wigwam which contains the object of their tender passion; until her
soul is touched, and she responds by some welcome signal, that she is ready to repay the young Orpheus for his pains, with the gift
of her hand and her heart. How true these representations may have been made, I cannot say, but there certainly must have been
some ground for the present cognomen by which it is known in that country." - (Letter #30, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians)
Indian Agent, Henry R. Schoolcraft, penned the following account in 1851:
Their instruments of music are few and simple. The only wind instrument existing among them is the Pibbegwon, a kind of flute,
resembling in simplicity the Arcadian pipe. It is commonly made of two semi cylindrical pieces of cedar, united with fish glue,
and having a snake skin, in a wet state, drawn tightly over it to prevent its cracking. The holes are eight in number,
and are perforated by means of a bit of heated iron. It is blown like the flageolet, and has a similar orifice or mouth pieces." - (Page 222, The American Indians, their history, condition and prospects from original notes and manuscripts)
In 1869, Rev. Alfred Longley Riggs who was a missionary among the Santee People, wrote this extremely detailed account of the flute:
"The pipe or flute is called cho-tan-ka, which means literally, 'big-pith.' It has two varieties, one made of wood, and the other of bone.
The first is the most common, and much resembles the flageolet. It is made by taking the sumac--a wood which has the requisite "big-pith"--a
straight piece nineteen or twenty inches long, and, when barked and smoothed down, an inch and a quarter in diameter. This is split open in
the middle, and the pith and inner wood carefully hollowed out to make a bore of five eighths of an inch diameter, extending through the whole
length, except that it grows smaller at the mouth-piece, and at a point four inches below that, it is interrupted entirely by a partition three
eighths of an inch thick, which is left to form the whistle. The halves are glued together. Finger-holes one quarter of an inch in diameter,
and usually six in number, are burnt along the upper face. On the same face the whistle is made by cutting a hole three eights of an inch
square each side of the partition. Then, over these, and connecting them, is laid a thin plate of lead, with a slit cut in it, a little more
than an inch long and three eights of an inch wide. On top of this is a block of wood, two inches long and three fourths of an inch wide,
flat on the bottom, and carved above into rough likeness of a horse; and a deer-skin string binds the whole down tight. A brass thimble for
a mouth-piece, some ribbon streamers, a few lines of carving, and a little red and yellow paint, and the instrument is complete:
The pitch of the particular pipe to which this description mainly refers, seems to have been originally A prime, and changed to G prime
by boring a seventh hole. One formerly in my possession was pitched at E flat prime; and from it the airs which are here give were taken down.
The second variety of the cho-tan-ka is made of the long bone of the wing or thigh of the swan and crane. To distinguish the first from
the second, they call the first the murmuring (literally 'bubbling') cho-tan-ka, from the tremulous note it gives when blown with all the
holes stopped." - (Page 476, Tah'-Koo Wah-Kan; The gospel among the Dakotas)
In addition to their use in the arts of courting, the Plains Flute had various ceremonial uses specific to different tribes. Beyond this,
it is worth speculating that flutes were used simply for individual pleasure. Today, nearly all Native American flute makers encourage
their customers to use their flutes to find the songs within them. It is reasonable to conjecture that this positive attitude is also a tradition;
one that welcomes all people to take a flute in hand and play the music they sense within their hearts.
Cited earlier in this article is the near-miraculous endurance of the Indigenous Peoples of North, Central and South America, despite the
devastations of disease and government-mandated genocide. Having survived these almost unimaginable hardships, North American Indian Peoples
were then subjected to further mistreatment through efforts to 'assimilate' them into the non-Native culture of the United States in the late
19th and early 20th centuries. Families were encouraged to move off the reservations - the last strongholds of Native culture - into urban cities, and
Native American children were taken from their parents and put in boarding schools, effectively breaking the ties of tradition. By the mid-20th
century, the custom and craft of the Plains Flute was remembered by few. But for the dedication of a few remarkable individuals, this important
instrument might have been lost.
The late 1950's - 1960's saw a vital cultural rebirth of pride in Native American heritage. For centuries, Indigenous North Americans had been
told they were inferior to European newcomers, and generations of this type of thinking had created a crisis of low self-esteem amongst many
Native Americans. The second half of the 20th century of American Indian History is now, perhaps, remembered for the formation of the American
Indian Movement, and concurrent with this was the reawakening of interest in Native music, including the Plains Flute.
A number of gifted men are cited as integral to this Indigenous musical renaissance, including Comanche artist Doc Tate Nevaquaya who began researching
the history of the Native American Flute in the 1960s. Nevaquaya utilized materials stored at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian to understand
the construction of traditional flutes, and he gained access to 19th century recordings of Native American music. Reportedly, he listened to these
recordings, drawing inspiration from them for his art and for the new music he began to create. Today, Doc Tate Nevaquaya's son, Sonny Nevaquaya, is
carrying on the tradition and is a gifted flautist and educator.
Sonny Nevaquaya at the 2010 Nevaquaya Flute Retreat
Swamp Safari, Florida
Also notable in the story of the re-emergence of interest in the Plains Flute is Dr. Richard Payne (1918-2004), a scholar and collector who devoted years
of his life to writing about Indigenous musical traditions. His books include: The Native American Plains Flute, The Hopi Flute Ceremony, and Indigenous Aerophones of the Northwest Coast.
Dr. Payne's work inspired many new musicians, both Native and non-Native, to begin exploring native flute music.
R. Carlos Nakai with whistle and flute
at the Santa Fe Indian Market
In the 1980's, new musical opportunities arose as a result of widespread interest in World Music and the development of a blended
style of music that would be termed 'New Age' in which modern and traditional instruments were frequently orchestrated into an emergent fusion music.
No one embraced these opportunities with more energy, spirit and talent than R. Carlos Nakai, who is now cited as the world's foremost
Native American flute player. Of Navajo and Ute ancestry, R. Carlos Nakai has recording more than 30 albums and published a celebrated book
on the Native American Flute, The Art of the Native American Flute. In addition to playing both his traditional and fusion music at
numerous public venues, Nakai is the flutist featured in the breathtaking soundtrack for one of the finest television documentaries on
American Indian History: How the West Was Lost.
Other acclaimed Native American flute players include Ronald Roybal, Charles Littleleaf, Mary Youngblood, Joseph Firecrow, Jay Red Eagle, and Robert Tree Cody.
Happily, there are many, many exceptional musicians who have turned their
talents to the Native American flute, and their music can be enjoyed both in
person and on published recordings. The work of Nakai and his contemporaries
is largely responsible for the popularity Native American flutes and music
enjoy today, encouraging people from all walks of life to listen and play.
In order to ensure that your purchase of a Native American-style flute is
a happy one, there are three questions you can ask yourself:
Question 1. What Are Your Needs In A Flute?
Are you a beginner who will be happy with the most economical, student flute or a serious musician with more specific requirements? Is the flute
for a man, woman or child? This is important to identify, as the size of flutes varies so much. Ask the individual flute maker which flute size
you will be able to play, based upon your arm and hand measurements.
Question 2. What Is Your Budget For A Flute?
You can spend anywhere from $50 for the simplest student flute up to $1500 or more for custom, professional flutes. Identify how much you can
afford to spend, and do a lot of looking around to find the best quality for your money. Remember, there are many poor quality Native-style flutes
out there that may look fancy with a lot of beads and feathers or other adornments, but that do not play well. Buy from trusted, endorsed flutemakers, only,
even if you are only buying the least expensive good flute on the market.
Question 3. Who Will You Buy Your Flute From?
This brings up the somewhat controversial question of Native-made versus Non-Native-made flutes and deserves clarification. While searching on the Internet,
you will find many websites selling Native-American-style flutes which are not crafted by Native American people. This is not automatically a bad thing. The
negative aspect of this is that some flute sellers illegally attempt to pass their flutes off as Native-made when they are, in fact, not. They may
be manufactured by non-Native U.S. residents, or they may come from China or another foreign country. There is nothing wrong with non-Natives making and
selling flutes, but it is illegal for anyone to sell a flute falsely listed as being Native-made. Such makers are legally obligated to describe their
flutes as Native American-Style Flutes rather than Native American Flutes. Do not trust any website that does not make it clear whether
the flute maker is Native or not. You have the right to know, and Indigenous
Peoples have the right to avoid exploitation of their heritage.
In searching for a Plains Flute, you will likely soon discover that there are very few Native Americans flutemakers who have websites. Only a handful
will show up for most searches, whereas there are many more non-Native-American flutemakers offering instruments for sale. Again, there is nothing
wrong with purchasing your flute from the latter category of craftsmen, and in fact, many famous Indigenous musicians endorse and celebrate the work of
these instrument makers, but just be sure any non-Native flutemaker is
disclosing that he is not of Indigenous origins before you do business
We have created the following tabular guide to introduce you to some excellent flutemakers, both Native and Non-native. This guide will give you a sense
of the price range, special features and other notes associated with each of
these respected companies.
High Spirits Flutes
$125 - $585
Cedar, Walnut, Birch
Beautiful fetishes and end carvings, inlays and specialty designs
CDs, books, cases, stands, videos
Gorgeous tone, stunning design and wide selection for everyone from beginners to
professional flute players.
Visit Site »
Littleleaf Native American Flutes
$250 and Up
Cedar, Exotic Hardwoods
Gem and shell inlays, unusual fetishes, stunning overall look
CDs, flute cases
Highly acclaimed by many flute players, but availability seems limited.
Visit Site »
Shades of Rez
$135 - $1200
Plastic, Cedar, Maple, Exotic Woods
Simple designs with wide variety of beautiful woods
Hybrid Warbling Flutes, very unusual.
Visit Site »
Amon Olorin Flutes
$70 - $600
Resin, Red Cedar
Sensitive, handsome designs, interesting eagle open end carvings available
Hard flute cases, Q&A with R. Carlos Nakai, books
Endorsed by premiere flute player, R. Carlos Nakai. Hard to think of a higher
endorsement than that.
Visit Site »
Butch Hall Flutes
$50 - $275
Cedar, Walnut, Cherry
Nice, simple designs. Some inlay work
CDs, flute bags, books
Good choice for affordable student flutes, as well as more serious players.
Butch Hall is a recording artist.
Visit Site »
Custom Flute Shop
Recycled old growth hardwoods
Custom painting, carved ends, custom orders
Dream flutes - quite unusual
Endorsed by Grammy-winner Douglas Spotted Eagle and Flutemaker Charles
Visit Site »
Notes On Plains Flute Tuning
Historic documentation of Plains Flutes includes models with as few as 4 and as many as 9 holes (including a thumb hole). Today, most Plains Flutes have 5 or 6 holes, though variations certainly exist. 5 hole flutes are sometimes referred to as 'Lakota Style' or 'Plains Flute' and 6 hole flutes are sometimes termed 'Southwestern Style' but this terminology seems to be used very unevenly.
Those researching the history of the Plains flute are likely to encounter a myth that these instruments have always been tuned to the Minor Pentatonic scale. Current scholarship on this subject indicates that this simply is not true and that there was no conventional tuning amongst the Plains Flutes of antiquity.
Today, however, the modern flutemaker will typically create concert-tuned flutes that 'make sense' to the ears of modern Western players with Minor Pentatonic instruments being the most common. These flutes can be played in duet with other flutes or other instruments. Modern Plains Flutes are available in numerous keys. For example, one flute maker, Odell Borg, currently offers flutes in A, B, C, D, E, F# and G.
It is important to understand that the Native American Flute is not simply a museum piece. It is a living instrument, in that it is evolving in the hands of today's flute makers, just as it evolved in the hands of those who were making these woodwinds in the 1800s. While some view innovations as incorrect or threatening to the integrity of the Native American flute, others welcome them.
The above illustration shows a cross-section of the flute, and it is
worth studying the remarkable construction of this special wind instrument.
The Native American Plains Flute is the only flute in the world with this
specific double-chambered construction. The following is a brief glossary
of terms for the various parts of the flute.
This is the portion you blow into. On Plains Flutes, this is frequently
tapered, but not always.
Your breath first travels into this part of the flute.
This blocks your breath, which is then forced through the very narrow opening
at the top of the stop.
This narrow passage smoothes out the flow of air into a thin stream. This is
the part of the flute that is like a whistle mechanism, but on the Plains
Flute, it is typically mostly covered by the block.
Block or Fetish
This external element creates a seal over the narrow air channel. In some
Plains Flutes, the block may simply be a leather strap, but on more
decoratively-made flutes, the block can be a beautifully carved animal
fetish. The block is also sometimes referred to as the 'bird' or 'saddle'.
The fipple is a sharp edge at the edge of the sound hole which splits the
breath of air and directs it down into the sound chamber.
This the part of the flute that determines pitch. The longer the sound chamber,
the lower the pitch of the Plains Flute.
Tone Holes or Finger Holes
These are where the fingers are placed in playing the flute. When the tone
holes are open, the length of the sound chamber is effectively shortened,
creating a higher pitch. When the holes are covered, this lengthens the sound
chamber, creating a lower pitch.
Four Direction Holes
These are optional, but found near the open end of many Plains Flutes.
The open end of the Plains Flute may be a simple round, but it can also be
carved into animal heads such as ducks and birds, depending upon the taste
of the flutemaker.
While the majority of antique Plains Flutes were made of cedar wood, flute
makers today choose from many different beautiful woods, and sometimes
resins or plastics in the least expensive flutes. The following is a list
of materials frequently used in the making of Plains Flutes today:
- Birch (red or yellow)
- Cedar (western red, aromatic, yellow)
- Maple (birdeye, tiger)
- PVC pipe (some flutemakers express concern over possible toxicity)
- Recovered hardwoods
The block element of the Plains Flute may often be made of a different wood
than the main body of the flute.
Some flutes feature inlays of turquoise and other semi-precious stones or
Some flutes may be decoratively painted.
Native American flutes have gained tremendous popularity over the past three
decades because of their wonderful sound, ease of playing and personal
spiritual significance. Native Flute instructors always emphasize the fact
that everyone can play this instrument which requires no knowledge of western
music reading or previous musical experience. This is quite true. Even a
beginner can get an appealing sound from a good Plains flute the first time
he picks it up.
In addition to offering the simple satisfaction of being able to make music,
the Native American flute has become popular because it offers fun. Students
can take their flute with them wherever they go: to school, to the woods or
beaches, to gatherings and events. The chance to play with other musicians
can be very enriching and instructive.
Beyond the pure pleasure of playing music, there are spiritual benefits to
be enjoyed from regular playing of the Plains Flute. Some Native American
prophets are calling our era a time of change and transition in which Americans
are finding that earlier plans for using resources and controlling nature are
proving to have been mistaken, in the long run, and discovering that a
different way of living is essential to our ultimate survival. Indigenous
elders from all over the globe are urging all people to rediscover their
spiritual connection to the Earth, to quiet down, to slow down.
In April of 2010, more than 35,000 people from countries all over the world gathered
together in Bolivia for the World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth
where a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth's Rights was drafted along
the lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This remarkable
conference presented Indigenous lifeways as the key to combating climate
change and the abuses of corporate multi nationalism.
Whether or not you are strongly
involved in environmental or spiritual issues, daily life seems to be
presenting signs to so many of us, in so many ways, that we are at a
crossroads and need to choose a wiser path than the one American society
has been walking along for the past few hundred years.
Indigenous lifeways do offer an alternative, proven to work by the fact
that these modes of living sustained millions of humans for countless
generations while leaving air, water and soils clean. Slowing down is perhaps
the major key to beginning to perceive our place on the Earth in a different
way, and music is a excellent first step towards this calmer, more
Recommended Books and Films on Plains Indian History
- Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
- In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen
- Video Documentary: How The West Was Lost
Recommended Books on the Native American Flute
- The Art of the Native American Flute, R. Carlos Nakai
- Love Flute, Paul Goble
- Flute Magic: An Introduction to the Native American Flute,
Tim R. Crawford
Recommended Websites about the Native American Flute
The Plains Flute May Be Right For You If...
- You have Indigenous Plains Indians ancestry
- You respect and admire Plains culture
- You want an instrument that is easy to play the first time
- You want an instrument on which you can improve with practice
- You enjoy soft, soothing tones
- You appreciate beautiful woods and workmanship
- You feel you have music inside you waiting to come out
Native American flute makers encourage their patrons to quiet their minds
and play the musical feelings they sense within. While you are playing this
deeply personal music, you may begin to notice things around you that you
didn't take time to pay much attention to before. You may be sitting out
in a field, and start to notice that in the summertime, little gold and blue
butterflies seem to be everywhere certain flowers are. You may see and hear
the presence of birds with a fresh outlook. Perhaps taking your flute outside
to play will mean you begin to notice a change in the seasons, or even phases
of the moon or the rotation of the stars. You may feel the sun shining with
great warmth on you and your flute, or have the wind whisk your breath away
and play a wild tune of its own through your instrument. This simple act of
playing the Native American Flute on a regular basis may become a form of
healthful meditation and prayer for you which allows you self expression
while grounding you on the Earth and teaching you the part you have to play
Native Flutes Walking wishes you joy through music, and a good
journey along the Native flute path.