February 17th, 2020 Last Updated on: February 17th, 2020
From the earliest days until the present time, the indigenous people of North America have incorporated music into their spirituality, celebrations, and everyday lives. Among other instruments like drums and bells, Native American flute music has spread its melodic influence throughout many different tribal groups and cultures.
All different sizes, materials, sounds, and enjoyed by a diverse range of people, flute music from the native tribes have stood the test of time. Whether you are a member of an indigenous group or simply love unique musical styles, you can appreciate the history of this unique instrument, learn how to play Native American flute yourself, and even create one from wood and other materials.
Music is an essential element of most cultures all around the world. A single musical instrument may not give an in-depth understanding of specific people, but it can draw you into new appreciation and experience. The Native American flute has been a staple of tribal music across the land for an exceptionally long period of time.
Today, renewed interest in its unique sound and scope allows more people to enjoy these wonderful instruments.
The History of Native American Flutes
As with most things that rely on oral history and folklore to explain, the history of the Native American flute is uncertain and diverse. After all, even the best told tale changes over time, and the woodwind instruments enjoyed by indigenous people in North America have existed for an extremely long time. It is also important to note that flutes have been used in a wide variety of different tribes and regions. Therefore, their origin stories do not all match and can have widely varying details one from another.
Archaeologists and historical researchers always attempt to dive into the facts to explain the history of anything. The same can be said for the Native American flute. While the ancient history of flutes themselves began in prehistoric Europe approximately 40,000 years ago and also touched on ancient China and Africa with a variety of flutes crafted from hollow bones, the first Native American ones came much later in the evolution of musical instruments. (https://www.flutopedia.com/naf_history.htm)
Some of the earliest American wind instruments came from the Mayan civilization. These arc arenas made of clay had very similar mouthparts and ducts as moderate woodwind instruments. Originally, these would have only included a few holes to change the pitch when covered with the fingers. Over time, they had more refined characteristics like multiple segments that together and cone-shaped holes for improved tuning.
Flute Folklore From Long Ago
As with many aspects of Native American life, the origin of their instruments also came with a lot of legends and myths connected to them. Of course, they are as diverse as the nations and cultures they sprang from.
One such tale of the origin of flutes comes from the Lakota culture. The story speaks of a young man out hunting in elk but failing every time. After falling asleep in the woods, he heard a mournful sound unlike any he had ever encountered before. As he dreamed, a woodpecker came to him singing a similar haunting song, bade him follow, and led him to a cedar tree. When the woodpecker knocked a hole in a branch and the wind blew, the young man heard that amazing whistling sound once more. (http://aktalakota.stjo.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8821)
According to the rest of the story, the young man took the branch home and unsuccessfully tried to re-create the music he had heard in the woods. After another dream of the redheaded woodpecker, he got additional instructions about how to carefully drill and hollow the branch and create the first-ever flute. The beautiful music he created so astounded the villagers and brought music into their lives.
A Sioux story of the Origin of the Courting Flute tells the story of another unsuccessful hunter hoping to win the affections of a beautiful woman in the village. After four days of hunting, two beautiful youths appeared to him, gave him a flute, and told him that if he played it at midnight all the women would come out and follow him.
The Comanche tribe told a similar story of branches with woodpecker holes making music but added a main character of a grieving man who had lost his wife and four children. The lovely music of the branches so soothed his spirit that he crafted a flute to redirect his energy into beautiful music full of love rather than sorrow.
These and other legends about the origin of the Native American flute frequently involve branches pecked by woodpeckers. It would make sense that finding one of these by chance and hearing how the wind moved across it would inspire the people who would then discover how to make an actual musical instrument from it.
Physical Characteristics of Early Native American Flutes
Long, tube-shaped flutes came after more rounded ocarinas. They were developed over generations to improve sound quality and playability. General characteristics include a mouth hole of varying sizes that allows the player to control the flow of air, a slow air chamber in which the air collects before flowing into the rest of the flute, and a removable block designed to clean or protect the flue itself.
Although bone flutes did exist in the earlier years, the skilled instrument artisans usually chose the best wood for Native American flutes based on what was available in their local area. Generally, they were made from hardwood with high densities to softer pine and cedar woods. (http://fourwindsflutes.com/Materials/Acoustical_Woods_for_Making_Flutes.html). The choice usually came down to availability, ease of use, and the musical qualities that each one gave to the instrument. For example, softwood varieties would give a softer sound than the bright tones of a hardwood flute.
The Oldest Known Native American Flutes
Although various museums and private collections have specifically named flutes, such as the Beltrami Native American flute that was found in 1823 by an Italian explorer of the same name, most are merely identified by the location where they were found. Some of these were from approximately 1250 CE, namely the Mummy Cave flutes found on an expedition into the “Canyon of Death” in Arizona. (https://www.flutopedia.com/dev_flutes_northamerica.htm#Mummy_Cave_Flutes) Despite them lying on the test of a mummified native man for centuries, they still played on a haunting tune when expedition leader Earl H. Morris blew into them.
Many older ancient flutes were found from the 200 to 900 CE years. These earlier examples did not have more intricate mouthpieces like newer types. For example, the Gypsum Cave, Nevada flute was a Yuma rim-blown variety, which was much simpler to play.
More Recent Native American Flutes From Colonial Times
As the years went on, the earliest instruments, which looked rather plain in comparison, became much more accurate and accessorized. In the mid-to-late 1800s and beyond, different tribes created their own unique styles and sounds of woodwind instruments. Some included unique carved elements such as horse-shaped flue blocks, leather straps or ribbons, and intricate carvings and even inlaid wood and stone.
Accepted Structure of Native American Flutes Today
While ancient history may involve everything from a random branch with woodpecker holes to an artfully carved leg bone, the accepted definition of a Native American flute takes on a very specific structure. Instead of a rim-blown design with a simple open hole at the end you would blow across like a bottle's mouth, most have more highly structured mouthpieces with an air chamber and a flue like you would see in a modern woodwind instrument like a clarinet. They do not have flat reeds that vibrate, however.
More modern examples of these indigenous style flutes do not follow any strict length or width requirements. In general, the size of the flute determines the sound that comes out of it. A very small and narrow flute will have a high-pitched sound, while a longer, wider one will be deeper. The size you choose for your first Native American flute depends on how you want your music to sound and how large your hands are.
What Keys Do Native American Flutes Use?
Although there may not have been any conscious thought into the keys or particular sounds of the earliest Native American flutes, people who craft or play the instruments today figure it out so they can write down the music and share with others. Some of the more popular keys include A, G, and F sharp. These are all major cord styles instead of minor. You can also find flutes in it G sharp, F, E and low C on some of the larger instruments. (http://indians.org/articles/indian-flute.html)
Native American Flute Accessories
The type of Native American flute accessories you purchase or own depends on whether you have a collectible instrument you wish to display or if you play yours regularly. If you want to display one or more flutes in an attractive manner, you need some sort of stand. While you can find ones that hang on the wall, the more common type is wooden stands that would sit on a table or shelf. These consist of basic structures with curved hooks that support either side of the flute.
For people who play their flute regularly and want to protect it from environmental changes and dust, a flute bag may be a better choice. You can find these long, skinny bags in a variety of fabrics from simple cotton to denim to leather. For a more authentic experience, purchase Native American made flute bags with unique decorations like blanket patterns, stitching, or even beadwork. You can also find cases for more than one flute or hard cases that offer more protection.
Finally, one of the most important flute accessories every musician needs is a maintenance kit. Although you can use cleaning cloths and solutions for other woodwind instruments, getting one specifically made for the Native American instrument makes sense.
Native American Flute Music Through the Ages
Ever since the first woodpecker-damaged branches and the late-night flute melodies that drew the women from their beds, Native American flute music has entranced and entertained people. The earliest melodies were undoubtedly quite simple because the flutes themselves with only four or six holes were not built to create complex melodies. As their construction got more sophisticated, the sounds they produce could do so, too.
As with a lot of other indigenous music across North America, flutes were used for celebrations, spiritual purposes, community gatherings or powwows, and for simple entertainment. Accompanied by drums and other percussion instruments, flutes became the default melodic instrument of most tribes.
Late 19th Century Indianist Movement in Classical Music
As more people of European descent came in contact with Native Americans, and their cultures begin to integrate more fully, an Indianist Movement came about in current music. (http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu%3A252817) This mimicked a general increase in interest in other types of “ethnic themes,” as well. Classical composers took interest in native melodies and styles that had been recorded on wax cylinders by anthropologists and other researchers.
Some may call it inspiration while others would call it a type of cultural appropriation. For many, this adoption of native music stylings and melodies performed by flutes and other instruments were a way to socially accept the “primitive savage” cultures that people of the time were trying so hard to eradicate.
The horrific times that involved a lot of cultural annihilation and forced assimilation undoubtedly affected the Native American enjoyment of their flute music. Near eradication of flute music occurred during this era in history. It was not until the late 1940s when some pro-indigenous legislation was passed that the traditions associated with native flutes returned. Luckily, this wonderful instrument carries on to the present day when it is largely appreciated for its unique sounds and scope.
Mid-20th Century Revival
Although discrimination and prejudice still existed, and still do today, the middle part of the 20th century saw a sudden revitalization in the popularity of Native American flute music. Throughout the 1960s, more free spirits and freethinkers interested in the New Age and multi-ethnic scene turned to indigenous sounds for enjoyment, relaxation, and inspiration.
Since these decades, more people have tuned in to traditional tribal music featuring flutes and unique fusions of folk music and more modern sounds. Classical composers like Philip Glass and David Yeagley have featured Native American flutes in their compositions while native musicians themselves like Joseph Firecrow and Jay Red Eagle have earned considerable renown.
Popular Native American Flute Musicians
While there are many different Native American flute players all across North America, some have risen in popularity. They hold shows, put out albums, and offer music on the internet in various ways. Although this list is nowhere near complete, these are some of the popular artists of the day.
With Navajo/Ute heritage, R. Carlos Nakai offers a wonderful collection of important albums and recordings throughout the years. His Canyon Trilogy received Gold Record standings, the first NA flute music of its kind to do so.
From the southwestern Peublo tradition, this Native American flutist offers Totemic Flute Chants with traditional music symbolic of different animals important to the people.
He is heavily involved in northern plains and Lakota/Sioux heritage and culture. He plays flute music that combines traditional Native American sounds with folksy modern aesthetics.
The first Native American woman to ever win a Grammy Award in 2002 for the “Best Native American Recording.” Her flute music is both indicative of her Aleut/Seminole heritage and newer sounds.
Robert Tree Cody
Traditional tunes accompanied by Will Clipman on drum creates the Heart of the Wind album of Dakota/Maricopa flute music.
How to Choose a Native American Flute
Now that you are excited about the history and culture surrounding Native American flutes, you may be ready to pick one up and learn how to play it yourself. Most people have no problem learning how to play basic melodies on this unique instrument. It is not highly complicated. However, it is helpful if you can read sheet music. This will open up the possibilities of what songs you can play even more.
Of course, when the indigenous people started playing flutes centuries ago, no one had songbooks or measured paper. Feel free to experiment with the melodies and sounds you can create with your wooden flute. Before you start learning where to put your fingers, how to blow, and the techniques to get the best sound out of the instrument, you need to pick the right flute for your purposes and your comfort.
How to Choose Native American Flute That Works for You
There are three important things to consider before you pay for a flute. First of all, while you have the option of buying one in person from a music shop or Native American craftsperson or ordering one online, it makes sense to see and hold one physically before you make a decision. However, because you want an authentic instrument, you may not be able to find ones for sale in your area. As with every other type of product in the world today, shopping online gives you a better chance of finding what you want. Remember that it is against the law in the United States for any non-native person or company to claim that any product is Native American-made unless it truly is.
Support the people who created these unique instruments by buying authentic ones.
What goes into the decision about how to choose Native American flute that works for you?
- Recognize that it is quite simple to get a sound out of the Native American flute. You do not have to worry about complicated movements or positioning. Of course, you need enough breath control to blow through the instrument. You also need enough fingers to cover the holes. (http://flutecraft.org/5-things-to-consider-before-buying-a-flute/35)
- Consider the size of your hands when choosing a flute. They come in a wide variety of sizes with usually either four or six holes. If you are buying an instrument for a child, teenager, or small adult, get a shorter or narrower flute. Larger adults may feel more comfortable with longer and wider ones. This is where picking up the instrument really helps. You can get the right impression for how it feels in your hands.
- Choose your favorite key. Native American flutes come in a variety of keys, which means they make different sounds when you simply blow through them. This also affects what songs you can play to some degree. The most common keys for these woodwind instruments are A, G, and F sharp. If you do not know what these sound like, you can easily search for YouTube videos or short audio clips on the shop website that will help you.
- Pick out flute you think is attractive. While you can get the same melodies out of a plane or a fancy flute, investing in a musical instrument helps you express your own personality and interests. Why not choose one that you think looks great?
- Consider the person or company that makes the flutes before purchasing. Not only do you want an authentic Native American brand, but you also need to trust that you will receive the flute you ordered without any problems.
Native American Flutes for Beginners
Unless you already have experience with Native American flutes and a burning desire to master this unique musical instrument, you probably should not make a large investment at the start. After all, once you play the flute, there is a high chance that you cannot return it anymore as it would be affected by your mouth and breath.
Opt for a less expensive model that is smaller and easier to handle while still fitting neatly in your hands. Do not invest in many Native American flute accessories before you are sure you will continue with your musical exploration.
Craft Your Own Native American Flute
As mentioned above, you cannot claim to have made a Native American flute unless you are in fact Native American. However, it is possible for anyone to learn the craft of flute-making with the same styles used traditionally. If you do not have the patience to wait for a friendly woodpecker to create a branch with hollow holes in it as the legends say, you will need to find your own piece of wood, take careful measurements, and use intricate tools to make everything as accurate as possible.
Interestingly enough, people are creating these styles of flutes from other types of materials. For example, instructions exist to create PVC pipe instruments that supposedly sound somewhat like the wooden options. (https://pages.mtu.edu/~suits/naflute.html) While this may be an interesting craft project that gives you some type of air-based music, you lose much of the authentic sound that comes from the carefully crafted wooden ones.
A Professional Perspective
The indigenous crafts people who create flutes for sale or use have learned how to do so properly over quite a few years or an entire lifetime. It does not have to be exceptionally difficult to create a flute out of wood, but it does take more than a simple how-to to get one that is anywhere close to professional.
That does not mean that the process is difficult for just anyone to take on. A single person could build an entire house if they followed instructions properly. If you want to make flutes, and all means get necessary information and training, the right wood and tools, and get started.
DIY Native American Flute Creation
Start with the right materials. Choose your wood based on availability, feel, and the type of sounds that you want from the instrument when it is complete. Softwood gives a mellower sound while hardwood creates sharper tones. Also, gather together the tools you have or go out and purchase or rent ones you are willing to spend money on. For example, creating a perfectly cylindrical flute may require a lathe. These are large and expensive pieces of machinery.
Different tutorials exist online and in books that will explain the how-to process of constructing an NA flute. (https://www.flutopedia.com/crafting.htm) As mentioned above, you may want to start with PVC. However, it is important to have respiratory protection as the dust and other materials that will come off during the crafting process can be dangerous for your lungs and overall health.
If your goal is more authenticity, it makes sense to choose wood. One of the more popular do-it-yourself manuals comes from Donn Shands. (https://www.flutopedia.com/refs/Shands_2010_HowToBuildASimpleNorthAmericanStyleFlute_2010_03_01.pdf) He gives precise information about how to construct a square flute with six holes that plays in the key of D. While this is a bit unusual for Native American flutes, it is probably the easiest way to construct this type of instrument without a lathe or other complicated tools.
Materials and tools needed include:
- Long, square block at least one-half inch wide
- Long, round dowel at least one-quarter inch wide
- Flat wooden slats around 1.5 inches wide
- Wood glue
- Tools like chisel, rasp, clamps, wood knife, etc.
- A drill or wood-burning tool
- Measuring tape, pencils, and other basic things
Before you get started, make sure you think of safety first. Use a sturdy apron to protect yourself against cuts. Use eye protection and a breathing apparatus to avoid getting sawdust or glue residue in your lungs. Also, do the project in a well-ventilated work area with sturdy surfaces that can risk some damage.
The rest of the DIY Native American flute project includes precise instructions and measurements you must follow if you want the right sound out of the flute. The general process includes gluing together the slats of wood around the dowel so the middle section is open and resonant. Drilling the finger holes takes special care to get them in the right position and make them the appropriate size. Some suggest that using a wood-burning tool to create round holes is easier than a drill. It also makes for a smooth, darker opening that looks more attractive.
How to Play Native American Flute
The time has finally come. Now that you know about the history and folklore surrounding the origin of Native American flutes, know how to choose one from an authentic craftsperson or build a basic version yourself, you are probably eager to begin playing. Do not worry. The process is quite simple and accessible for everyone. In fact, the best way to start playing is to simply pick up the flute and blow into it. This will help you get a feel for how to make the sounds with your breath. (http://flutecraft.org/how-to-play-native-american-flute-basics/27)
Hold Your Flute Comfortably
Begin by positioning the flute in your hands comfortably with your fingers over the holes. Use the flat pads of your fingers and not the tips. Recognize that you will not have your fingers on all the holes when you play a melody. Therefore, it is essential that you support the flute itself with your thumbs and other fingers on the bottom and sides.
If you have ever played any type of toy flute, whistle, or woodwind instrument, you are quite familiar with this position. Even if you have no experience with instruments at all, this will undoubtedly come naturally to you. Since you have purchased a flute that fits easily in your hands, you should not feel any uncomfortable stretching or strain.
Put the top of the flute to your lips and hold the instrument pointing generally downward and to the front. Some people suggest a 45-degree angle, but there is no real benefit to any specific measurement. If you feel more comfortable with it higher or lower, by all means hold it differently. The main goal is to sit or stand comfortably with your back straight and your lungs and diaphragm free to move as necessary. After all, you will need a lot of breath control to play an entire song.
Making Sounds and Using Breath Control
You do not need to put the whole mouthpiece in your mouth to play a flute properly. In fact, it should simply rest on your bottom lip and have your upper lip touching the top portion of the rim. You are creating a tube with your lips to convey your breath from your mouth to the flute instead of breathing into it directly. In the musical world, this is called embouchure. Some people find this easier than others although it is not a very complicated or uncomfortable position. It is necessary to control the flow rate and air pressure created to sustain notes for longer and play more of a melody before you breathe.
Blow into the flute. Instead of reading a lot of instructions about how hard to blow or how to move your mouth and when to breathe, simply experiment with different techniques and hear the types of sounds they make. For example, if you want a loud, short sound, you blow hard and quickly. If you want a soft warbling note, blow softer and change the amount of air going through the flute as the note sustains.
It may take you a while to train your breath control to sustain notes or play an entire melody. Practice with different breathing techniques to find one that is comfortable for you. The last thing you want is to run out of breath or feel like you just run a mile after playing your flute for a while.
It's Time For a Melody
Native American flutes with six holes use a basic pentatonic scale in a particular key. You make different notes by covering different combinations of holes. With all the holes covered, you make the lowest note. Uncovering the holes farthest away from your mouth makes higher notes. Also, the last two notes of the scale are made with the first and third whole and the third whole on its own. You can learn this in a basic tutorial or just experiment while listening closely to the sounds your flute makes.
Once you understand the sounds, you can start making melodies. Many people start with basic childhood songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Happy Birthday. If you are not taking Native American flute playing classes or working with an experienced musician, experimentation is the primary way you will begin crafting melodies of your own. Simply keep blowing and move your fingers to make something that sounds nice.
Of course, if you read music, you can play any type of song from traditional Native American melodies to classical tunes to rock songs. If you cannot read music, there are some instructions online that use pictures of flutes with the appropriate holes blacked out to show you where to put your fingers to create the song. The Internet is an amazing resource for these types of charts. (https://www.flutesonline.com/fingering_charts.htm) You can even find ones that combine the pictures of the flutes with regular sheet music. These can help you learn the different ways of playing songs.
Whether your interest in Native American flutes comes from a desire to learn more about your indigenous heritage or you simply love different musical styles and want to explore a new instrument, these ancient and meaningful flutes offer a lot of opportunity. Understanding the earliest presence of flutes in North America will help you recognize just how important they were for the people who came hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Their origins are steeped in mystery in many cases. However, any tribes from the far north to the Great Plains to the southwest have similar tales of hope, love, woodpeckers, and wind. These definitely give a glimpse into the reality of how people got the idea for these woodwind instruments to begin with. Whether it was experimentation with a hole-filled branch or mere chance that led to the discovery that wind, holes, and wood created beautiful sounds is lost to the ages.
Today, after many years of cultural dissolution and assimilation, the Native American flute music is again going strong in the community and across different cultures. Perhaps you were first exposed to it in conjunction with classical or New Age songs, have an affinity for all things Native American from an outsider's perspective, or recognize that playing these unique flutes is an important part of your family heritage. The amount of songs and musical artists thriving in the community today are a testament to the staying power of both the people's culture and creativity.
You can find the perfect Native American flute for you. Purchase an authentic one from an indigenous craftsperson from a shop, Native American event in your community, or on the Internet. Take special care to get one that fits your hands and your personal tastes when it comes to sound and musical possibilities. Invest in the right accessories to keep your flute safe and in good condition.
On the other hand, you could take your interest in these delightful instruments one step forward and try to make your own. While you will need a keen eye for detail and an accurate measuring stick, anyone with some do-it-yourself acumen should be able to create a simple flute. This can even add to the enjoyment of the overall Native American musical experience.
Whether you buy one or make one yourself, owning a Native American flute will open up many possibilities for expressing yourself in unique musical ways. Learn the songs that indigenous people played in the olden days and once they enjoy even today. Use the woodwind instrument to play modern songs, too. The sky is the limit when it comes to creating unique and magical sounds with Native American flutes.
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