Native American Flute Music Inspiration
Indian Arts And Crafts Act: Understanding What It Means
Seminole Chief Osceola (1804-1838), Florida
Painted by George Caitlin, 1838
Researchers conjecture that the coastal and swamp humidity of the Eastern
Woodlands, which stretch from the Maritime regions of Canada to the tip of
Florida, is the reason we have so few examples of early Woodlands flutes today.
Despite lack of much physical evidence, earliest first contact reports include
mentions of Eastern Woodlands Native Americans playing flutes, and while
descriptions are often vague, it is safe to say that flutes were well known
in this part of the continent for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
It is a story of bitterest tragedy that the Eastern Woodlands tribes who
first welcomed Europeans with such generous hospitality subsequently fell
victim to disease, betrayal and violence. The Eastern Woodlands are the site
of the famous Iroquois Confederacy which brought the long peace to the Peoples
of the North-eastern United States region, and also of the mighty Powhatan
Paramount Chiefdom in the region of Virginia. Far to the South, and many
generations later, the Seminoles of Florida, welcomed escaped African-American
slaves into their tribe and these ties remain today.
Historic and modern Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands include:
Eastern Woodlands Canadian Tribe,
Map of the Eastern Woodlands Region of North America
Whether you have deep Indigenous roots in the Eastern Woodlands, or none at
all, Native Flutes Walking encourages you to learn all you can about the
original inhabitants of this part of the continent. From the fascinating
history of the Cherokees, to the heroic struggle of the Seminoles, to the
remarkable Glooscap stories of the Mi'kmaq, here are cultures of immense
richness and value that deserve to be honored and preserved.
Historic Documentation of Uses of the Woodlands Flute
Because scant physical evidence of what we think of today as the Woodlands
Flute remains, researchers must often depend upon historic written citations,
penned by early Europeans who encountered Native Americans playing flutes.
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. Unfortunately, some written accounts
display the ignorance and prejudice of European writers who first encountered
Indigenous Peoples. Despite this, these records are important to anyone wishing
to trace the history of the flute in the Eastern Woodlands.
From Florida, we have the following account written by Cabeza de Vaca in
"We travelled without seeing any natives who would venture to await our
coming up with them until the seventeenth day of June, when a chief approached,
borne on the back of another Indian, and covered with a painted deer-skin. A
great many people attended him, some walking in advance, playing on flutes of
reed." (Page 26, Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States 1528-1543,
J. Franklin Jameson)
From Virginia, we have this account penned by George Percy, commander of
the Virginia Colony in the early 1600s:
"When we landed, the Werowance of Rapahanna came downe to the water side
with all his traine, as goodly men as any I have seene of Savages or
Christians: the Werowance coming before them playing on a Flute made of a
Reed, with a Crown of Deares haire colloured red, in fashion of a Rose
fastened about his knot of haire, and a great Plate of Copper on the other
side of his head, with two long Feathers in fashion of a paire of Hornes
placed in the midst of his Crowne."
(Page 13 Narratives of Early Virginia, Lyon Gardiner)
From Quebec in 1709, Antoine Desis Raudot, the Co-Intendant of New France,
included the following note in a letter:
"These, sir, are the occupations of the savages in their villages. Sometimes
they play a sort of flute made of reeds, the sound of which is disagreeable."
(Page 351, Occasional Contributions From the Museum of Anthropology of
the University of Michigan, No. 10, W. Vernon Kinietz)
In a 1748 discussion of the Sumac tree, naturalist Peter Kalm, who was an
associate of Benjamin Franklin, made this remark:
"The natives formerly made their flutes of this tree, because it has a
great deal of pith." (Travels into North America, Peter Kalm)
Concert tuning enables modern Woodlands Flute players to
play music with others. Here, Cherokee flute player John Ellis of
Turtle Mound Flutes plays to the accompaniment of guitar.
Many people seeking information about the Native American Flute are
surprised to learn that scholars believe this instrument, technically known
as the two-chambered duct flute, appears in the archaeological record no
earlier than the beginning of the 19th century. There is even a theory
that some Indigenous flute makers of this period were inspired by encounters
with organ pipes, which do have interesting similarities. Whatever the case
may be, both the Plains Flute and the Woodlands Flute appear to have been
based upon the very early flutes of the Tohono O'odham People of the
Southwest, which in turn were based upon an ancient Meso-American design.
It is speculated that the Woodlands Flute was first created just a little
bit later than the better-known Plains Flute.
Disease, relocation and the genocidal policies of the United States
government towards Native Americans threatened to destroy Indigenous cultures.
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 Native American Flute was remembered
by few. But for the dedication of a few remarkable individuals, this important
instrument might have been lost.
Thanks to Comanche artist, Doc Tate Nevaquaya and his contemporaries,
pride in Native American musicianship was reawakened in the 1950s and 1960s.
These efforts eventually led to the incorporation of the Native American Flute
into New Age and World music in the 1980s, with flutists like R. Carlos Nakai
receiving international accolades. Today, fans of the Native American flute
have wonderful options for choosing recorded music to listen to, books and
DVDs to learn from, and a choice between the Woodlands and Plains flute as
a personal instrument.
This, however, brings up an area of definition which has puzzled many.
What are the differences between the Plains Flute and the Woodlands Flute
in modern times? Though there is considerable disagreement about this, we
offer the following diagram and chart to help the researcher understand
the most commonly cited differences between these two types of two-chambered
Almost always carved into the body of the flute.
Usually carved into the block.
Frequently blunt-edged, fitting against the lips.
Generally tapered, fitting between the lips.
Edge generally blunted.
Edge generally sharp.
Frequently burned in with rods.
If you are shopping for a Native American Flute, you will find exceptions
to the above points on the chart. You will find Plains Flutes with blunt
mouthpieces and Woodlands Flutes with tapered mouthpieces, etc. However,
the most distinguishing difference commonly found between these two types of
Native American Flutes is the flutemakers' practice of crafting the flue
into the body of the flute on the Woodlands Flute and into the block of the
flute on the Plains Flute.
Modern Woodlands flutemakers sometimes claim that the construction of the
Woodlands Flute is the more difficult of the two, and that it produces a
louder, clearer, less reedy sound. In searching for your own personal flute,
you will be able to choose the tone that seems best to your ears.
Cedar, Exotic Hardwoods
Extremely unusual woods, unique fetishes
Sheet music, online newsletter
Played by Grammy-winners including Robert Mirabal and Bill Miller and
NAMMY-winner Jan Michael Looking Wolf.
Visit Site »
Turtle Mound Flutes
$50 - $250
Cedar, Sassafras, Ash, Hackberry, Walnut, Cherry
Colorful fetishes, paintings, carvings. Very unique
CDs, accessories, hand drums
Award-winning flute maker. Beautiful samples of custom flute projects on
Visit Site »
Wild Wind Creations
$185 - $425
White cedar, Sweetgrass, Sumac
Simple, beautiful Miqmaq flutes including Grandmother's flutes
Unique opportunity to own a Miqmaq-style Eastern Woodlands Flute.
Visit Site »
Hawk Hurst Flutes
$55 - $90
Beautiful simplicity of form and materials
CDs, books, workshops
One of the few rivercane flute makers on the web.
Visit Site »
$145 - $310
Walnut, Maple, Cherry, Exotic Woods
Extraordinary craftsmanship, beautiful woods, distinct visual look
CDs, cabinets, display racks, bags
Endorsed by celebrated Native American flute player, Mary Youngblood.
Visit Site »
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 Woodlands Flute is the only flute in the world with this
specific double-chambered construction.
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 Woodlands 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
This is the portion you blow into. On Woodlands Flutes, this is sometimes
blunted, 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. On the Woodlands
Flute, the flue is nearly always carved into the body of the instrument.
Block or Fetish
This external element creates a seal over the narrow air channel. In some
Woodlands 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 the edge of the sound hole which splits the
breath of air and directs it down into the sound chamber. On Woodlands Flutes,
it is often blunt.
This the part of the flute that determines pitch. The longer the sound chamber,
the lower the pitch of the Woodlands 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 Woodlands Flutes.
The open end of the Woodlands 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.
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 Eastern Woodlands flute the
first time he picks it up.
In addition to offering the pleasure of making music, the Woodlands Flute
is an instrument of reflection, meditation or prayer for many who play it.
If you are looking for an ideal way to quiet down in hopes of forging a
stronger connection with yourself and the Earth, Native Flutes Walking
recommends spending time with the Native American Flute.
Take your flute to a forest, beach, park or out under the stars and let
your innermost feelings find expression through your own personal music.
And, perhaps, while you are playing this music, you will find yourself
reflecting on some of the most valuable teachings that have come to mankind
from the Eastern Woodlands Peoples. The Iroquois Confederacy was founded
upon the teachings of a prophet known as "The Great Peacemaker". The numerous
tribes in the area we now call New York State had been living in a state of
fear and violence, but The Great Peacemaker encouraged them to overcome their
differences so that they could stand together in unity and brotherhood.
Surely, this is a lesson our world could benefit from taking to heart.
Your Woodlands Flute will also offer you the opportunity to enrich the
lives of others. You might bring meaningful music to family gatherings,
local schools, elder care facilities or to a friend who needs some spiritual
uplifting. Others may notice the joy you take in your flute and from this
experience, decide to find a flute of their own. This peaceful mode of
self-expression and sharing can create good feelings and bonds between
people from all walks of life.
Nearly all Native American flutemakers encourage their customers to view
time with the flute as personal time. This is not a time to strive to be
perfect, exact, or regimented. It's just you and your flute - a moment to
enjoy. You can't go wrong making music on the Native American Flute because
what you play is all about you. If you express what is in your heart, your tune
will always be true.
Recommended Books and Films on Native American History
- We Were Not The Savages, Daniel N. Paul
- 1491, Charles C. Mann
- "Strong Medicine" Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say, Amy Hill Hearth
- 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 Woodlands Flute May Be Right For You If...
- You have Eastern Woodlands indigenous ancestry
- You respect and admire Eastern Woodlands cultures
- 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 strong, clear tones
- You appreciate natural materials and fine workmanship
- You feel you have music inside you waiting to come out
Native Flutes Walking wishes you joy through music, and a good
journey along the Native flute path.