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History of the Native American flute

Construction of the Native American flute

Major Parts of the Native American style flute

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A. The Mouthpiece
B. The Slow Air Chamber Inside the flute
C. The Block (aka bird, totem, fetish)
D. The Wall Inside flute, separates the two chambers.
E. True Sound Hole Where the sound is produced
F. The Finger Holes Used to change pitch
G. The Tie Holds the block in place
The Native American flutes that Scott August plays on his recordings is, like the Recorder, a "fipple" flute. Almost every culture in the world has simple one chamber "fipple" flutes. The Native American flute, however, has two chambers. Its tube is divided into two sections by a wall or Stop (D). The breath from the mouthpiece (A), enters the first chamber, called the Slow Air Chamber or SAC (B). From there the air is forced through a flue between the Stop and the ornamental Block that sits on top (C). As it exits the flue it crosses a small, usually square, hole (E). The far side of this hole is called the Fipple. When the air stream hits the Fipple, it is split in two, which causes it to vibrate. This vibrating column of air then enters the second section of the tube, the Sound Chamber. The player, by covering and uncovering the Tone or Finger Holes (F) in the Sound Chamber, controls the length of the tube, which determines the pitch that is played. Most modern Native American flutes are tuned to a specific pentatonic minor key and can only play the notes in that key. To play in another key you need another flute. Native American flutes come in many lengths and bore [the tube] sizes. They are made of different woods but cedar is the most common.

Traditional and Modern use

Tradition has it that the Native American flute was primarily a courting instrument. A young man would make a flute, set himself off from the group he was with and play a song that he and his beloved knew. She would hear this and understand his intentions. Once he and his beloved were joined together, he would throw away the flute never to play one again.

Other traditions among the Plains nations held that a tribe could be identified from a distance by the sound and songs that a member of the tribe played as they traveled. There are many other traditions, some of which are very contradictory.

The lack of verified history can be traced to the early twentieth century when Native American children where taken from their homes and placed in "Indian Schools". Once there, they were prohibited from speaking their native language, performing rituals and wearing their traditional clothes. This forced abandonment stopped the flow of Native American oral history with its traditions, rituals and culture.

The Native American flute tradition died out and was soon viewed by many young native peoples as "un-cool", or worse, as an unwanted native icon. A few players persisted, and in the 1960s, thanks to the interest of people like Dr. Richard Payne, an avid collector, historian and author, the flute began a renaissance. Then in the mid-eighties, the Native American flute entered the New Age market and interest in it has been increasing ever since among both native and non-native Americans.

In native culture, songs are owned by the songwriter and are not played by others unless "gifted" to them. Many non-native people find these traditional songs "foreign" sounding, not unlike most music from non-western cultures. Historically designed flutes do not fit into western tuning and scales, but rather the personal scales of the maker. Measurements were traditionally based on the size of the maker's hand, finger or thumb.

Today the music of the Native American flute is blended with western instruments, in western scales. The sounds of Native American flutes can be heard in rock bands, jazz quartets, symphonic concertos, New Age music and mixed in with instruments from around the world. It still remains popular as a solo instrument, with its very personal, soulful , haunting and emotional sound.

Beyond Summer from Beyond Summer


The origins of the Native American flute are hazy and full of mystery. Bone whistles dating from Basketmaker times (B.C.300 - A.D. 300 ) have been found in northeastern Arizona, and bone flutes of the Pueblo I era (A.D. 800-900) were also unearthed in the Anasazi area. However, since most prehistoric flutes were made of plant material, i.e. river cane and wood, they have long since disappeared due to decay. A few examples, however, have been discovered.
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A set of four end-blown flutes made of Box Elder and dating to 625 AD were discovered by Earl Morris, in a cave in northeastern New Mexico, and similar flutes were found in Canyon de Chelly and the Verde Valley. They are commonly called Anasazi flutes after the prehistoric cultures that once lived in the area, popularly called Anasazi, but flutes similar in construction have been found throughout the Americas. These flutes were much different than the Native American Flutes of today. The sound is produced with the lips, not unlike a modern Silver Orchestral flute, but blown at the end. This is Kokopelli's flute.
These finds have lead many scholars to believe that the Native American flute originated in the American Southwest and then made its way north toward Utah. However there is growing evidence that pre European contact Native Americans were playing flutes throughout all of North America. Early explorers in what is now Virginia, noted many encounters with Native Americans playing flutes. George Percy, three time supreme commander of the early Virginia colony and Capt. John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, both wrote of flutes " made of Reed." Smith wrote in 1607 that "For their musicke they use a thicke cane, of which they pipe as a Recorder"

Pedro de Castaneda a member of the exploration of what is now Arizona and New Mexico by Coronado in 1540-1542 make several references to flutes in his journal. He writes of the explorers being greeted "with drums and pipes something like a flute, of which they have a great many."

We don't know what these flutes look like as none of the Europeans that wrote about them sketched drawings of them. The so called Anasazi flutes found in the American southwest have been dated from AD 625 to AD 1270, indicating a very long use. Even as recently as 1900 the Hopis, who have a long tradition with flutes dating back hundreds of years with their flute clan and flute ceremonies, were playing a flute very similar to the Anasazi style flute, with the exception of one finger hole missing. Yet even though the Anasazi end-blown flutes were being played for over 1500 years, the modern Native American flute, as we shall see below, is more like a European Recorder. How this change in design came about is a complete mystery.

The modern Native American flute first appeared in photos in southern Utah in the 1850s among the Ute tribe. One theory holds that from Utah, this more modern flute moved south into the area of Taos pueblo, which has a long history with the instrument. It then continued south to the now abandoned pueblo of Pecos, east of present day Santa Fe. Until the late nineteenth century Pecos was a major trading post between the peoples of the Pueblos and the Plains. Once there, it quickly migrated into the Plains. It is the Plains version of this flute that has become synonymous with the Native American flute of today.

Modern "Recorder-like" Native American flutes did not develop from the end-blown Anasazi flute. One theory is that recorders and fifes were taken as spoils of battles with Europeans. These instruments were then copied, but with changes reflecting the materials of the maker. Another theory is that Native Americans worked with organ makers. The pipes of a Pipe Organ have much in common with Recorders and Native American flutes. Recently there have been discoveries that seem to show that the Native American style flute pre date European movement into North American, making it completely indigenous. None of these theories however have been conclusively proven. The mystery around the origins of the NAF remain hidden even today.

Meso American flutes

In addition to Native American flutes from what is now the United States, there are also flutes from Meso American: Mexico and Central America. These flutes are similar to Native American flutes, in that they are both fipple flutes, but are also some notable differences.

The most obvious difference is that Meso American flutes are traditionally made of Clay or river cane. Rarely wood. Tradition holds that clay flutes embody the four sacred elements of life: Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. Earth is mixed with water to make the clay, which is then fired in a kiln. Finally the player's breath is the wind.

Another difference between Native American flutes and Meso American flutes is that Meso American flute lack the Wind Chamber. The player blows directly into the Flue. This is also how Tin whistles, Penny whistles and recorders work.

Meso American flutes are undergoing a revival thanks to a handful of talented makers.
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Mayan Moon Goddess flute

The Mayan Moon Goddess flute playing Sombra de La Luna from Sacred Dreams

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