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A Brief History of the Native American Flute

The story of how the Native American flute developed is relatively sparse on facts, but rich in folklore. And maybe that's fitting for an instrument that evolved in cultures where myth and legend were valued over verifiable facts.

However, there are some key signposts in museum artifacts, literature, and the archaeological record that shed light on the question “How did this wonderful instrument come to be?

This is a brief history of the Native American flute, touching on some of the key developments and turning points. Follow links from this page to go deeper in any direction you wish, and if you'd like to explore the myths and legends surrounding this instrument visit Legends and Myths of the Native American flute.

The Beginnings of Musicality

Human musicality most likely evolved in an environment rich in animal sounds. The rhythms that naturally spring up when walking or working with tools probably spurred the first rhythmic songs between 1.5 and 7 million years ago.

The voice makes and amazingly versitile instrument, as we know from how vocal traditions developed in isolated cultures. However, although the voice was probably our first melodic instrument, we only developed the anatomy needed for speech and articulate singing about 60,000 years ago ([Arensburg 1989]). Flutes followed soon after (on an evolutionary timescale).

The Hohle Fels Griffon Vulture Flute

Oldest
flute More information

The First Flutes — Rim-Blown

The oldest flutes we have were made from wing bones of a Griffon Vulture (shown on the right) and a Whooper Swan, as well as one from mammoth tusk ivory. These flutes were found in present-day Germany and France and have been dated to 33,000–43,000 years ago. Of course, flutes made of bone are far more likely to survive than wood, cane, or reed flutes.

These first flutes were all rim-blown flutes that required the player to make an embouchure on the rim of one end of the flute in order to make a sound. Here's a recording made by by experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein on a replica of the flute at the right:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

A store of thirty wing-bone flutes dating to 5750-5620 BCE was found in present-day central China (at virtually the same time that the L'Anse Amour bone flute was buried in a burial mound in Labrador). This one was found intact and is the oldest flute that we can play and determine the scale:

Jiahu Gudi - flutes from China 8,000 years ago

Oldest intact, playable flute, from central China. More information

It also requires and embouchure and is played using the rim-blown style. Here is a recording made on this 7,600 year old flute, part of the part of the Chinese folk song “Xiao Bai Cai” (“The Chinese small cabbage”), played by Taoying Xu:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

The rim-blown style of flute, as challenging as it is to play, can produce beautiful and haunting music. There are many historical examples of rim-blow flutes, including four flutes from the Broken Flute Cave in present-day Arizona that were constructed between 620-670 CE.

Several flute makers craft modern replicas and variations of the flutes from the Broken Flute Cave, generally called "Anasazi Flutes" today. And here are a few samples of music on these replicas:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

Hopi Flutes

A variant of the Anasazi style of rim-blown flutes are the Hopi flutes. These instruments are best described by Dr. Richard W. Payne, in this excerpt from a track on [Payne 2004]:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

Reed Instruments

Playing the rim-blown style of flutes requires the player to learn and maintain a challenging embouchure. In a step towards making these instruments easier and more accessible, instrument makers developed a new technology: one or two vibrating reeds to create the sound wave (making it technically not a "flute", but a reed aerophone like an oboe or an English horn).

Cycladic statue of a double-flute player, 2700-2500 BCE

Double-flute player. More information

The oldest flute that is believed to have used a reed is a double flute made of silver, found in the Mesopotamian Valley (largely present-day Iraq). This double flute was crafted in about 2500 BCE, at the same time that the beautiful marble statue of a flute player playing a double flute was created in present-day Greece.

Here's an excerpt played on a recreation of this double flute, accompanied by a recreation of an eight-string harp:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

The reed instruments still required an embouchure, but not quite as challenging as the rim-blown style of flutes.

 

Transverse Flutes

Another variation on the design of the flute sound mechanism is the side-blown, or transverse flute. It still requires an embouchure, but is easier to master for most players than the rim-blown embouchure.

One artifact, the oldest existing North American flute that I am have an image of, is a bone flute excavated in East Texas and dating before 4000 BCE. Information on this artifact is sketchy (please contact me if you have more information), but the description in the display case at Heritage Village proposes that it was side-blown, like a transverse flute, and that the player changed pitch by cupping the end of the flute with one hand:

The East-Texas Flute, on display at Heritage Village, Woodville TX

The East-Texas Flute, on display at Heritage Village, Woodville TX. Photo by Robert Gatliff More information

Other interesting transverse flutes include:

Duct Flutes

Any flute that requires the player to make an embouchure, whether it is a rim-blown or side-blown (transverse), is going to be a challenge to learn to play. Some players give up on the flute before they develop their embouchure, and some players abandon the instrument when the constant practice needed to maintain their embouchure becomes daunting.

Enter the duct flute - an innovation that uses the instrument itself rather than the player's lips to create the right conditions for air to vibrate and create an air pressure wave that we hear as sound.

The duct (also called a “flue”) is a narrow channel that directs the stream of air across a sound hole to the splitting edge of the instrument. This is best shown by this moving image from Luchtwervels in een blokfluit «Air Vortices in a Recorder» ([Hirschberg 1999] Luchtwervels in een blokfluit «Air Vortices in a Recorder»). It shows how the air (moving from right to left) comes out of the flue, crosses the sound hole, hits the splitting edge, and sets up a vibration:

Vibrating air at the sound hole of a duct flute

Vibrating air at the sound hole
of a duct flute More information

This air vibration happens because of the specific shape of all the aspects of the flute, but in particular the shape of the flue, the sound hole, the splitting edge, and the flute's sound chamber. For more on information, see Flute Vibrations.

Duct Flute Tradeoffs

Creating a sound on a duct flute is a natural extension of the player's breath. The player simply breathes into the flute and the instrument sets up the air vibration that creates a sustained note.

However, since these flutes essentially have a "fixed embouchure", the player cannot control the shape of the embouchure like on a flute where the player's lips can be adjusted. So, in exchange for ease of play, there are some tradeoffs:

  • The range of duct flutes tends to be more limited than embouchure flutes.
  • The flue can gather moisture from the player's breath. Since the shape of the flue is critical to the sound that is created, accumulated moisture can affect sound quality and even disrupt the sound altogether.

History

Getting back to the history of flute development, there are duct flutes from many cultures:

It's interesting that, unlike rim-blown and transverse flutes, the earliest existing examples of duct flutes in the Americas pre-date any examples of duct flutes from Europe or Asia by thousands of years. Were duct flutes invented independently in the New World and the Old World? Is it possible that there was a reverse migration of flute technology from the New World back to the Old World?

Refinements

The innovation in the design of the recorder made musical expression accessible to a wider group of people. Many refinements were developed over time to compensate for some of the drawbacks of the recorder's fixed embouchure and other issues:

  • A conical bore was developed to improve tuning in the upper registers.
  • Multi-segment recorders were developed to aid in tuning to other instruments and to improve portability.
  • Key mechanisms were developed to extend the reach of the player's fingers.

However, there were some drawbacks that was not addressed:

  • The player breathes directly into one end of the instrument's flue. This means that very slight changes in breath pressure were directly translated into changes in the sound. While this is a benefit for experienced players, novice players needed to develop a high level of breath control before they got a consistent sound from the recorder.
  • The smaller, higher-pitched recorders can be somewhat less comfortable to play. Since these instruments are short, the finger holes are close to the mouth creating an acute angle at the elbows.
  • It can be difficult to keep the flue clean and dry, since it cannot be dis-assembled.

The Native American Flute

The Native American flute (NAF) is a variation of the duct flute concept that dramatically improves playability, especially for musicians with less experience.

Native American flutes have:

  • A slow air chamber that collects the breath before it is introduced into the flue. This acts as a bladder to smooth out variations in breath pressure and deliver a smoother airflow into the flue. It also lengthens the flute, which can help keep a small flute more comfortable to play.
  • A mouth hole whose size is independent of the size of the flue, and can be set by the flute maker to suite the style of Native American flute they are making.
  • An external block that can be removed to clean and dry the flue.

But in addition to the design of the Native American flute, there is a culture of flute makers who create instruments of their own design and orientation, in contrast with makers of recorders who work towards very similar design goals. The community of Native American flute makers produces a huge variation in Native American flute designs, which continues the tradition of innovation and creativity in the craft.

All these development have come with some tradeoffs versus the recorder:

  • Range on a Native American flute is generally limited to the span of one octave plus a few notes in the second octave (although there are exceptions).
  • Fingerings vary between flutes of different makers, or even between different flutes from the same maker.
  • Voicing (the timbre of the sound) vary widely among flutes, with no generally accepted best sound.

History

The oldest existing Native American flute is the Beltrami Native American flute, shown below. It was collected by the Italian explorer Giacomo Costantino Beltrami on a journey through present-day Minnesota in 1823.

The Beltrami Native American flute

The Beltrami Native American flute More information

The Hutter Flute

The Hutter Flute More information

Shortly thereafter, we have the Hutter Winnebago Flute, shown on the right. It probably dates from 1825.

Aside from the general development of flutes described above, the direct influences of the early Native American flutes are not clear.

Rim-blown flutes were popular in many Native American cultures. In addition to the Broken Flute Cave flutes from 620-670 CE we have:

… and many, many later examples of bone flutes and whistles such as the Ohio Valley Flutes.

To explain the path from the rim-blown style to the Native American flute, we have several theories. You'll notice that none of these theories have reference citations - the names of these theories are my inventions, and the information is from discussions I've had over the past years with people in the Native American flute community and my own research.

  • The Organ Pipe Theory proposes that Native Americans, working as organ pipe makers, used the duct flute concepts from wooden organ pipes to create a hybrid instrument. See Organ Pipes and the Native American Flutes for more information.
  • The Duct Flute Cross-Pollination Theory proposes that Native Americans studied the design of recorders (possibly taken during conflicts with Europeans) or tarkas and created a hybrid.
  • The Reed Flute Path (my personal favorite) proposes that the Native American flute evolved from a series of refinements that grew from developments in making flutes from river cane.

The Reed Flute Path proposes a series of flutes that led to the appearance of the Native American flute in or before 1825.

First, look at flutes such as the Kin-Boko Reed Flutes and bone whistles that use a notch and an inserted septum such as the Hutter Mandan Eagle Bone Whistle.

Then consider the Papago Flute, which is made of cane and uses the septum or node between two chambers in the cane as a plug. The block is essentially formed by the player's finger, creating a short flue. Here's a description by Dr. Richard W. Payne, in this excerpt from a track on [Payne 2004]:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

From the Papago flute, we get the Pima Flute, essentially a Papago flute with a cloth band that replaces the player's finger for the block.

And finally, look at what appears to be an experimental block design in the Màndeh-Pàhchu Flute. Of course, the these are just flutes that appear to form a lineage, but there is no established link between these designs.

In 2013, James A. Rees, Jr. proposed a path for early reed duct flutes that originated in NorthEastern South America, possibly migrating via the Caribbean islands, to the SouthEastern United States ([Rees 2013]). This is based on early ethnographic examples of two-chambered Brazilian bamboo flutes ([Izikowitz 1932], [Izikowitz 1935], [Izikowitz 1970], [Hall-RL 1997], page 114) and the discovery of the Breckenridge Native American flute.

19th Century Flutes

We have many examples of flutes from the mid- and late-1800s. Click on the images of these flutes for more information:

1880s Sioux Flute
Vibrating air at the sound hole of a duct flute

1880s Sioux Flute More information

Here is a flute made by Jon Norris of Jon Norris Music and Arts that is in the general style of a circa 1870 Oglala Lakota flute in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute (and currently on display in their New York branch). This particular flute is typical of many of the flutes of that era, made in the ornate “birds head” style.

A-Minor 1870 Lakota Flute Replica made by Jon Norris

A-Minor 1870 Lakota Flute Replica made by Jon Norris of Jon Norris Music and Arts More Information

Ethnomusicologists and the First Recordings

The first ethnographic recording was made in March 1890 of Newell Joseph singing a Passamaquoddy Snake Song. It was made by the American anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850–1930), using the new wax cylinder recording technology invented by Thomas Edison. Fewkes was initially trained as a zoologist at Harvard University, but later broadened his interests to include anthropology and archaeology and provided the earliest Ethnomusicological recordings ([McAllester 1996]).

There are about 20,000 Native American fieldwork recordings on these fragile wax cylinders, including:

The Indianist Movement

In the late 19th century, a movement began in the U. S. to incorporate indigenous ethnic themes into classical composition. A facet of this movement, called the Indianist Movement, began to showcase Native American musical traditions, or at least that portion of the traditions that was accessible to classical composers of the time. From about 1890 through the 1920s, American classical composers borrowed American Indian themes and synthesized them with Western Classical music forms and principles.

Compositions by Charles Wakefield Cadman, Arthur Farwell, Charles Sanford Skilton, Arthur Nevin, and many others appealed to classical music audiences during this time.

For a look at this movement, including the flute-related melodies that were borrowed and composed, see The Indianist Movement.

The “Progressive” Era

At the same time as Native American themes were getting wide exposure in the Indianist Movement, culture and music among indigenous peoples themselves entered a period of suppression that would last through the 1940s.

As part of the Progressive Era and possibly sparked by the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek (now a National Historic Landmark) in late 1890 ([Ostler 2004]), federal policymakers emphasized the assimilation of Native cultures into mainstream American culture. The U. S. government “discouraged or imposed bans on many forms of traditional religious practices, including the Sun Dance, use of peyote in ceremonial settings and observance of potlatch rituals” ([Duthu 2008], page 18). A program was established to separate children from the influences of their families and cultures and train them at distant boarding schools.

This description by R. Carlos Nakai is from the liner notes of ([Nevaquaya 2004]):

When our amerind world “turned upside down” with the dissolution and dislocation of tribal communitites by encroaching colonial expansionism, many songs, stories, and family histories contained within the lyrical message of tradition music — and many forms of material culture as well — were cast aside or forgotten in the struggle for survival.
 
Still, throughout the reservation period, certain individuals and families from tribal communities all over North America encouraged an underground railroad of the mythic sacred ceremonies and chants of The First/Original People, enabling remnants of the Old Culture to be passed on to each succeeding generation of Indigenes.

As with many attempts to eradicated indigenous cultures, “Native singers, dancers, and musicians created new opportunities through musical performance to resist and manipulate those same policy initiatives” ([Troutman 2009]).

The Native American flute experienced a severe decline during this period, almost to the point of eradication.

Re-Birth

During the 1940s, the policies toward Native cultures began to soften, and flute traditions resurfaced. In an amazing collaboration between cultures, Native American flute players as well as enthusiasts and researchers from outside of Native cultures were central in supporting this re-birth.

Belo Cozad

Belo Cozad, about 1939 More information

One central figure is Belo Cozad, a Kiowa flute player who made historic recordings for the U. S. Library of Congress in 1941. Here's an excerpt from one of the tracks he recorded:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

… and here's an excerpt from Eugene Chadbourne's biography of Belo Cozad on the All Music Guide:

Cozad was an enormous influence on native American music in general via his 1941 recordings for the Library of Congress. Re-released in 1997 by Rounder, this collection was something of a state of the union declaration for American folk music circa the early '40s. The collection concludes with Cozad's performance entitled “Kiowa Story of the Flute,” in which the artist, then in his seventies, details how the wooden flute song that he plays was obtained from an ancestor who learned it from a spirit. After these field recordings were first issued, they influenced several generations of modern artists ranging from classical composer Aaron Copland to the San Francisco psychedelic rock group the Jefferson Airplane.
 
It was also a crucial recording in helping to spark the 1960s folk music revival. Native American music as represented by Cozad, however, did not benefit that greatly from this type of interest, which focused more on American old-time music and particularly blues. But the art of native American flute playing would receive a bigger boost in the '80s, as the genre known as new age music began opening up entirely new markets. The peaceful, slow, and haunting sounds of native American flute players fit quite snugly into this concept, although being lumped together with the piano playing of George Winston and displays of incense and crystals may not have been what Belo Cozad had in mind.

Among other Native American flute players that gained prominence were Dan Red Buffalo (Lakota), Richard Foolbull (Lakota), George Watchetaker (Comanche), Abel Big Bow (Kiowa), and Woodrow Haney (Seminole) ([Payne-R 2002] Heart of the Wood — The Story of Contemporary Native American Flutemaking).

Dr. Richard W. Payne

Dr. Richard W. Payne More information
Photo by Jeff Calavan

Doc Payne

One key figure is Richard W. Payne, M.D. of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Doc Payne (as he is know in the Native American flute community, and “Toubat”, an Indian given-name) described his early flute experiences to me in 2002: when he began travelling to Central and South American countries for the U. S. Armed Forces to study the progression of disease, he became enchanted with the indigenous muse he found, and the sounds of local flutes.

According to Mark Slater in an interview with Dan Ricketts, Belo Cozad (1854–1950) gave Doc Payne his first flute, a Kiowa-style flute that used a flat metal plate for the splitting edge. This began a collection that would grow to the largest private collection of indigenous American flutes in the world ([Bee 2006], and see [Phippen 2009] for recordings on some of his flutes).

Doc Payne also studied the Native American flute's history from direct sources, spending time with the old flute players such as makers Kiowa elder Abel Big Bow and Richard Foolbull (Lakota). It was Abel Big Bow who gave Doc Payne the name “Toubat”, derived from a Kiowa word for “wind instrument” (liner notes of [Payne 2004]).

Doc Payne began making flutes and “he is attributed with saving the Native American flute from extinction by returning flutes from his collection to Native Americans” (liner notes of [Payne 2004]). Here's one of his flutes that he gifted me in 2002 (see The Warble for a story about this flute):

Doc Payne "Toubat" flute

Doc Payne "Toubat" Flute Larger image

Here's an except of Doc Payne playing the Kiowa Love Song, from ([Payne 1999a])

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

Doc Tate Nevaquaya

"Doc" Tate Nevaquaya More information

Doc Tate

Doc Payne met Comanche painter “Doc” Tate Nevaquaya in 1967 and the two soon struck a barter: a Nevaquaya painting for one of Doc Payne's flutes. This took Nevaquaya down a new music path that led led to his 1979 recording, Comanche Flute Music ([Nevaquaya 1979]). The recording includes flute music as well as spoken segments by Nevaquaya that explain the meaning of the songs and give other information on the “Plains Indian courting flute”.

Here's an excerpt the Comanche Moon Song, from the 2004 re-release of Comanche Flute Music:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

Tom Machahty-Ware (a direct descendent of Belo Cozad), Kevin Locke, R. Carlos Nakai, and many others point to Doc Tate as the inspiration to pick up the flute ([Bee 2006]).

O. W. Jones

O. W. Jones More information

O. W. Jones

Another flute aficionado of the Native American flute during this period was, Dr. Oliver W. Jones. O. W. Jones, as he is known in the Native American flute community, took an interest in flutes and began a long road in learning to make the instrument. (The information in this section is largely from O. W. Jones, personal communication and his interview).

O. W. Jones began from the writings of ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore (see over 50 of her references from [Densmore 1906] through [Densmore 2009]) as well as sketches of flute design he had received from Vernon McNeal of Bucone College. He also studied flutes in the collections of museums, especially the Dayton C. Miller collection at the Smithsonian, heard flute recordings made by Frances Densmore on the Cheyenne reservation in the 1920s, and received advice and feedback on the flutes that he crafted from Comanche flutemakers Corney Saupitty, George “Woogie” Watchetaker, and Doc Tate. He also connected with and got advice from Doc Payne (who happened to have been one of his professors in medical school). (this information from O. W. Jones, personal communication and the videos).

This history is retold by O. W. Jones in a series of YouTube video interviews that are avaialble.

It turns out that one of Jones's flutes that he traded in Santa Fe was one of the first Native American flutes that wound up in the hands of R. Carlos Nakai, and thus played a key role in what was to be the renaissance of the instrument ([Bee 2006]).

Renaissance of the Native American Flute

During the 1970s, flute makers began making flutes for others rather than just for themselves, and some made flute crafting their livelihood.

From Ronnie Payne's Heart of the Wood ([Payne-R 2002] Heart of the Wood — The Story of Contemporary Native American Flutemaking):

Some learned their craft from relatives in previous generations. Hawk Littlejohn (who actually began making flutes in the 1950s), and Tim Spotted Wolf learned from their Grandfathers, while Sonny Nevaquaya learned from his father, Doc Tate. Others met Dr. Payne and discovered his wealth of knowledge, including Dr. Oliver Jones and Michael Graham Allen. Many turned to historic flutes for their inspiration including Raven Charles King and Arnold Richardson. And there were a number that taught themselves including Carl Running Deer, Zacciah Blackburn and Lew Paxton Price. The early 1980s added a few more makers including Lakota George Estes and Ken Light.

The Coyote Oldman Connection

Then, in the 1980s, a friendship developed between Doc Payne and Michael Graham Allen that would eventually set a new standard for tunings on the Native American flute. According to Butch Hall (personal communication) and others, Michael was an experienced player of the shakuhachi, a Japanese rim-blown flute that has traditionally used the Pentatonic Minor scale as its primary scale. Doc Payne showed Michael the details and construction techniques of his Native American Style Flutes, and Michael also began crafting them. However, he ultimately used the Pentatonic Minor scale that he knew well from his shakuhachi experience. These early flutes by Michael Graham Allen were five-hole flutes which echoed the style and natural pentatonic progression of the shakuhachi.

Michael's flutes (under the name Coyote Oldman Flutes) became popular among players, and many other makers (including Kai Mayberger, the maker of my first Native American flute) began crafting flutes heavily influenced by the Doc Payne and Coyote Oldman construction style, but using the Pentatonic Minor scale as the primary tuning.

More Renaissance

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a confluence of several trends and events caused and explosion of awareness and interest in the Native American flute:

  • R. Carlos Nakai emerged as the most prominent player, with a blend of a traditional playing style that appealed to the emerging New Age genre. Nakai's first album appeared in 1983 ([Nakai 1983]). Since then he has released 50 CDs and received four Grammy award nominations to date ([Titon 2009], page 64).
  • Books on playing the Native American flute were written by R. Carlos Nakai ([Nakai 1996]), Tim Crawford ([Crawford 1997]), and others.
  • Lew Paxton Price released a series of books that covered all aspects of flute construction at a detailed and technical level ([Price 1990] and others).
  • Makers developed techniques for producing flutes with power tools that were reliable and repeatable. They also began experimenting with materials (exotic woods, cane, bamboo, plastic, and metal), tunings, construction techniques, designs, multi-chambered flutes, and a wide range of keys.

This was followed by a culture of informal flute circles that sprang up to feed the interest of players and makers, as well as workshops to provide basic education and a forum for music-making. The Internet provides venues for people to exchange information, recordings, and, more recently, live “open mic” sessions.

And, perhaps most importantly, people who had no knowledge of the history and culture surrounding the Native American flute were drawn to the instrument simply because of the haunting sound. Many who had been turned off by the structure and technical aspects of studying Western style music were drawn to the inherent ease of making music on an instrument, and the invitation to “play from the heart”.

The renaissance of the Native American flute was reflected in a renaissance of each player's musicality and self expression, and was an invitation to begin exploring the cultures and traditions surrounding the Native American flute.

 

 

 
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