History of the Native American Flute
I will confine this history to the flute we now call the Native American flute. There are several other types of flutes and whistles that were used by native peoples but they are not related in design to the Native American flute. The written accounts of early explores and colonizers often mention that the native peoples played ‘flutes’. These accounts do not, however, include pictures or descriptions of these instruments. So, it is probable that there were many different types of flutes in use. This is confirmed by archeological evidence.
The specific type of musical instrument we are concerned with is called a ‘two chambered duct flute’. This type of flute is now commonly referred to as the Native American flute. A two-chambered duct flute has a slow air chamber at the head end of the flute into which air is blown. Then, there is a duct or channel, which conducts air from this chamber to the splitting edge where part of the air is directed down into the sound chamber or bore of the flute. A solid area separates the two chambers. This design – as far as I can determine - is unique geographically to what we English-speaking people call the North American region of the planet.
The history of the Native American Flute is not very clear.
This is due to the fact that the indigenous peoples of North America – who are credited with the creation of the flute - did not have written language. So, there are no written records of the Native American flute in pre Columbian times. The Native peoples preserved their history in the form of stories that were passed from generation to generation. These stories told of how the people came to be who they are and where they are. And, the stories gave accounts of how they acquired different aspects of their cultural heritage. In many of the tribes these stories were expressed in the form of song. Some of these songs were so long and detailed they would take days to tell (sing). Usually they were sung in the context of nocturnal ceremonies.
Ethnologists sometimes call these tales creation myths. There are many such stories about how the flute was discovered – created – given – to the people. A common one concerns a woodpecker, a hollow branch and wind. Many others revolve around a young man wanting to attract the attention of a maiden. A little searching of the Web will turn up dozens of these stories.
Till the present day the Hopi people of the Southwestern area of what is now called the United States have had an organized group called a flute society. Among the Hopi the flute is used by Flute Society members for ceremonial and healing purposes. We may assume that other native tribes had similar relationships to the flute. Oral tradition usually confines the use of the flute to men. These constrictions have, however, been relaxed in modern times.
In historical times the first existing examples of the Native American flute appear to date from no earlier than the nineteenth century. Dr. Richard Payne, an authority on this subject, believed that what we now call the ‘Plains style’ Native American flute originated with the Northern Ute tribe. These early Plains style flutes were made of wood. They had the duct cut into the body of the flute. Examples of these flutes were collected in the 1820s. It is conjectured that these Plains flutes were a variation of a type of flute found in the Southwest among the Papago and Yuman peoples. Flutes crafted by these tribes are made of a river reed (Phragmites australis). These flutes are made by removing all but one of the nodes inside a reed of sufficient size. The craftsman then made a hole on either side of the remaining node and a duct was carved into the reed between the two holes. The player would use his finger as a block to cover the channel and direct air against the edge of the sound hole. The fingers of the other hand were used to cover the tone holes.
Dr Payne believed that knowledge of the Native American flute traveled from the Great Plains region south to the Taos pueblo community. From there it was dispersed to other Southwestern tribes, then to the Plains tribes of Oklahoma. Subsequently, the flute spread to other Plains areas and then to Northern and Eastern tribes.
Another line of thought conjectures that the inspiration for the design of the Native American flute came from the observation by native peoples of the construction of church organs. It is also possible that they arose by modifying the design of European recorders. All that we can know for certain is that - baring the invention of a time machine - the true history of the early development of the Native American flute is lost in time.
The current renaissance and refinement of the Native American flute began in the late 1960s when there was a Native roots revival centered on the flute. Up until that time because of the suppression of Native cultures by the Federal government and the consequent deterioration of tribal societies and cultural traditions the practice of making and playing the flute had almost died out. Its preservation is attributed to Elders on rural reservations. Native artists like Doc Nevaquaya and Carl Running Deer who had learned the art of making and playing flutes from their grandfathers were important figures in the revival. Some makers such as Raven Charles King and Arnold Richardson turned to historic flutes for their inspiration. The collecting and research of Dr Richard W Payne, MD and others also helped reintroduce the flute to native and non-native people.
Up until modern times the flute had been designed around the measurements of the body parts of the individual player. For example, the length of the flute might be measured from the shoulder to the wrist. The placement of tone holes was measured by the length of a finger joint. Consequently, these flutes were not tuned to any specific scale. Holes would be made and enlarged until the flute sounded good to the maker.
1970's & 1980's
During the decades of the 70s and 80s flute making began to shift from individual players making their own flutes to craftsmen making flutes in quantity for others to play. The tuning of Native American flutes began to be brought into conformity with western musical traditions. The mode one pentatonic scale was adopted for the tuning and playing the Native American flute. This helped further standardized the instrument. These developments combined to help make the instrument accessible to individuals from other cultures and musical traditions.
During the 1980s two individuals had a dramatic impact on Native American flute making and playing. The first was the music of R Carlos Nakai. His popular recorded flute music mixed traditional with New Age influences and ambient sounds to produce a composition that was universally appealing. His recordings and performances encouraged countless people to take up Native American flute playing for themselves. Second, was the publication of a series of books on flute design and fabrication by Lew Paxton Price. These little books contained a wealth of information on every aspect of making a Native American flute. At the time they were the foremost reference on the subject and they helped to guide many contemporary makers through the initial stages of their flute-making journey.
The Native American flute and flute playing has continued to improve and evolve though subsequent years. Modern electrical tools and fabrication techniques have allowed flute makers to improve precision and reduce crafting time. Flutes are being made not only of softwoods, cane and bamboo but also of exotic hardwood, plastic and metal. Multiple tone chamber flutes (called drone flutes) have been introduced. Flutes are now available in a range of keys spanning two octaves.
Presently, the Native American flute is probably being played in every area of the world. I myself have sent flutes to Europe, South America, the Near and Far East, Asia and Australia. Flutes are being used in traditional Native American ceremonies and contemporary healing modalities. Flute Circles are active, growing and bring people of diverse heritage together. It’s power of personal and interpersonal healing is amazing. I see a bright and expanding future for this simple and accessible folk instrument.