The modern Native American Flute produces beautiful and haunting melodies, often replicating the sounds of nature. It is similar in sound and purpose to its ancestors, such as the traditional Anasazi and Kokopelli flutes, but different in design and construction. With a unique sound production mechanism, this style of flute in fact is different from all other wind instruments the world over (Goss). Due to this uniqueness, they are said to be one of the easiest instruments to learn, allowing a person with little or no musical background to create and improvise enchanting melodies. This amazing instrument was almost lost as Native American cultures and traditions were being stamped out by Indian Schools in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (August, “History”). Thankfully, it did not completely disappear and has seen a strong resurgence starting in the 1960s with its melodic and almost meditative tones, making it very popular in New Age music (Burton 91). Today Native American Flute music and the flutes themselves are quite popular, so popular, in fact, that it can be difficult to find a flute crafted by a Native American (Native American Indian Flutes). These wonderful instruments are pleasant to listen to and easy to enjoy, but with a bit of knowledge of their history and lore, design and construction, and playing techniques, they can truly be appreciated.
The earliest examples of the modern Native American Flute date back to 1823 (Goss). These flutes are quite different from their early cousins, the rim blown flutes and whistles. Rim blown flutes are hollow tubes with finger holes that are played by blowing across the open end to create sound, much like blowing across an open jug to make a sound. This style of flute is very old and is found worldwide. Some of the earliest examples were found in present-day Germany and France and are estimated to be between 33,000 and 37,000 years old. These ancient rim blown flutes were carved from mammoth ivory and the wing bones of large birds. The oldest playable flute is 7,000 years old, a bone rim blown flute found in central China (Goss). Rim blown flutes also have a long history in North America as well. Their influence is found in today’s modern Native American Flute. Most surviving examples of ancient flutes are made from bone. However, ancient wood and river cane flutes have been found at archeological sites in North America, dating to as early as 625 CE (August, “History”).
These early flutes are attributed to the Anasazi, Kokopelli and Hopi cultures. In the1930’s, four wooden flutes made of Box Elder were discovered in a northern Arizona cave that is now know as the Broken Flute cave. River cane flutes have also been found. Both cane and wood flutes are rare to find due to their fragile nature. Modern Native American Flutes are often made from wood and river cane or other hollow reeds, and have a very similar sound to their rim blown ancestors. The difference is in the sound mechanism. A flue is used instead on the modern flutes. A flue is basically a whistle or sound hole built into the body of the instrument. Flutes of this type are known as duct flutes and are played by blowing directly into the flue. Clay Ocarinas found in South and Central America are the oldest known flutes of this type, pre-dating the European Recorder of the late 1400s by over 2,000 years (Goss). Rim-blown flutes can be difficult to play due to the embouchure required to make the sounds.
That is, the sound is made by the way the lips of the player touch the instrument and the shape they are held in. On a duct flute, one simply blows in the instrument and the blade in the sound hole produces the musical note. The correct embouchure can be very difficult to master in the rim blown flute. The duct solves this problem, making it much easier to play the instrument. However, there are some drawbacks to the duct flutes. They are very sensitive to the player’s breath. The slightest change can cause unwanted changes in the sound of the note. Think of the squeaks and squeals heard when attending an elementary school recorder recital. This sensitivity can be useful to an experienced player but can be very daunting to a beginner (Goss). Moisture building up in the flue is another problem for duct flutes, causing the sound to change or completely stopping up the flute. Due to the nature of the design and construction, cleaning out the flue can be very difficult. Duct flutes also tend to have a higher pitch and less resonance than their rim blown counterparts, not producing the same melodic and harmonious tones.
The modern Native American Flute combines some of the best features of the rim blown flutes and the duct flutes, while adding innovative features of its own. No one is sure who made the first modern Native American Flute or when, but the oldest documented flute of this style is from 1823. This flute was collected by the Italian explorer Giacomo Costantino Beltrami while searching for the headwaters of the Mississippi River in what is now present-day Minnesota. This flute is currently housed at the Bergamo Museum in Northern Italy. The Beltrami Flute is the oldest known flute to have two air chambers, a slow air chamber and a sound chamber, and a flue with a removable block (Ellis 2). These are the features that set the modern Native American Flute apart from all other flutes, making it easier to play and providing it with melodic tones and the ability to imitate the sounds of nature. There are many legends and theories as to the origin of the Native American Flute. It is known that flutes in their various forms, whether modern or the more ancient Anasazi style, were used for ceremonies and for communication.
They are known in many Native American Tribes as courting or love flutes, made by young men and used to win the heart of the young ladies they love. Often in the legends, a wise man or spirit directs a young man to make a flute from a special tree or branch and then to play it for the one he loves. In one legend, a woodpecker made five holes in a hollow branch. Following a mysterious prompting, a young man felt led to take a particular branch and break it off. While he was examining the branch, a breeze blew through it, making beautiful sounds, so the young man took it to the medicine man. He said it was a gift from the Great Spirit and instructed the young man to play it for the woman he loved. It is said, from that day on, that many courting flutes have been carved with the head of a woodpecker (Burton 89-90). These legends demonstrate some of the other important aspects of this style of flute, the spirituality attributed to the instruments themselves, their ties with nature, their decorations, and the special uniqueness of each flute. Traditionally flutes were made in proportion to the player’s body, making every flute individual in its sound (Burton 90).
This tradition has carried over to today, and there is no convention governing what the best flute design is or how it should sound or look (Burton 90). Unlike many western instruments that strive for uniformity, the Native American Flute does not. Flutes come in all shapes and sizes, in different octaves with different hole patterns, different blocks and carvings, and are made from a wide variety of materials. All of this leads to a free-form musical style that lends itself well to novice players with little musical experience. Design features such as the duct make the modern Native American flute easier to play, also making it more accessible to the beginner. Like many flutes, the modern Native American Flute has a blowhole and finger holes. Most are end-played, unlike the transverse playing of the modern orchestral flute. It shares common features with other duct flutes. Like the penny whistle and recorder, which are also end-played, it has a flue, true sound hole, and cutting edge. There are several features that set this style of flute apart from the rest.
Like all flutes, they are made from a hollow body, but unlike the others, the hollow center is divided in to two chambers. The smaller/shorter chamber next to the mouthpiece is the slow air chamber, and the larger/longer chamber is the sound chamber. A shallow channel called the flue connects the two chambers. The flue is covered with an adjustable block called the fetish. Located at the foot end of the flue is the true sound hole and the cutting edge leading into the sound chamber. The cutting edge produces the sound, and the sound chamber amplifies the sound and controls its pitch. Six finger holes are cut in the sound chamber to change notes (Ellis 2, 23). Five finger holes are traditional, but a sixth hole is now common. However, it is usually kept covered and used to play notes in scales other than the pentatonic (five note) scale, giving the flute a more diversified range.
It is the slow air chamber and the fetish that really set the modern Native American Flute apart from the rest. As mentioned earlier, the duct flute is easier to play than a rim blown flute, but it has the draw backs of being overly responsive to changes in breath and prone to blockage. The slow air chamber of the modern Native American Flute acts as a buffer, almost like a bladder. This evens out the airflow through the flue, thus making the sound of the flute more mellow and less prone to the effects of unintentional changes in breath. This, in particular, makes it much easier to learn to play (Goss), allowing beginning players to produce good notes much more quickly than on other flutes (August, “NAF”).
The fetish, which is the block of wood that covers the flue, is a further improvement over other duct flutes. In recorders and penny whistles, the flue is an integral part of the mouthpiece and usually cannot be disassembled for cleaning and is prone to fouling (Goss). On most modern Native American Flutes, the fetish is tied over the flue with leather laces allowing for easy removal for clearing and cleaning. The adjustable fetish also allows for fine-tuning of the flute. Another name for the fetish is the totem. Often the fetish is carved in fanciful shapes; totem animals are a popular choice (Burton 89). This provides yet another expression of individuality and spirituality for the instrument.
Along with the carved fetish, the bodies of the flutes are often decoratively carved, sometimes with simple geometric patterns but more often with animals. The Beltrami flute had both simple lines carved in the body and a stylized bird’s head at its foot (Goss). Today bamboo flutes are available that are simple and plain, inexpensive and fun to play. On the other hand, some flutes are works of art, still quite playable, but serving as showpieces for their makers’ skills, costing hundreds of dollars.
The modern Native American Flute is a beautiful and unique instrument that was almost lost to history. Each flute is a work of art, reflecting both visual and auditory artistic expression. The innovative design of these traditional instruments allows even the most novice of flutists to begin playing music from the heart and to enjoy a deep connection to the past.
August, Scott. “NAF Part 5 Ancestral Puebloan, “Anasazi” Flute.” Web log post. Echoes From The Mesa. N.p., 9 Oct. 2005. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. —, “The History of the Native American Flute.” CedarMesa.com. 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.
Burton, Bryan. Moving within the Circle: Contemporary Native American Music and Dance. Danbury, CT: World Music, 1993. Print. Ellis, John. Making a Knock-About Flute from “Urban Bamboo” Melbourne, FL: John Ellis, 2009. Print. Goss, Clint, Ph.D. “The Development of Flutes in the Americas.” Flutopedia.com. – an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute. N.p., 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. “Native American Indian Flutes.” Native American Flutes. Native Languages of the Americas, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2012