Soaring Eagle Sentinel

Sponsored by: Southern California American Indian Resource, SCAIR

Native American Flute Views in Review

Edited by Roy Cook

In the timeless past, 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, offering accounts of how they acquired different aspects of their cultural heritage. Many of the tribes expressed these stories in the form of song. There are many such stories about how the flute was discovered, created, or given to Native people. A common one tells of a woodpecker, a hollow branch and the wind. Many others revolve around a young man wanting to attract the attention of a maiden.
Native American flutes and whistles were used for many reasons. The Tribes of the NW Coast used bone and cedar whistles for different dances and spirit calling ceremonies. Flutes in the Plains and Prairies were used for entertainment by many tribes while traveling. Many of these songs still exist today. Elder is especially popular since it’s easy to hollow out. The Lakota Tribes used the flute for courting and love songs. The Hopi people have long had an organized group called a flute society. Hopis use a five-holed flute for their ceremonies. There is a strong association for the Hopis between the flute and the Locust, which is the musical and curing patron of the Hopi Flute societies. Locust medicine is used for wounds. When Locust plays the flute, it causes the snow to melt.

The Tohono Oodham has made them of cane. Reed flutes: Made of cane or reed, they are somewhat smaller than wood or bone, made in a different way, and geographic location is distinctive. Navajos have replaced a whistle in their Coyote Way ceremony with a four-holed flute made from either a big reed or a sunflower stalk. The Yuma legend of the flute involves two boys who were children of a bird. They went out to get material to make a flute. One took the material in his hand and said, “The girls will love me when I play this flute.” The idea of the flute’s being used to lure girls has remained with the Colorado River Pai peoples to the present day. The Apache associate the flute with love magic – if a young man plays his flute in the correct manner, the girl he has in mind cannot resist him.

Next to the drum, the most important Native American instrument is the flute. Earliest written accounts of non-Tribal observers often mention that the Native Tribal peoples played 'flutes'. It is definite that there were many different types of flutes in use in the North and South Americas.

The 'two chambered duct flute', now commonly referred to as the Native American flute, is a design unique, geographically, to North America. 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 these two chambers.

By Edward Wapp Wahpeconiah (Comanche/ Sac & Fox) RC edit.

Ed Wapp is a descendent of two flute players, Curtis Pequahno (Pottawatomie), and Jess Wapp (Sac and Fox), my grandfather. He has had an interest in the courting flute since his early childhood. In 1974, he was fortunate to receive a travel/study grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study and perform with Doc Tate Nevaquaya. Ed Wapp teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We thank Ed for granting permission to include his essay on Kevin Locke's Home Page.

The flute was once played by a young man as a means of courtship and at the same time heard informally by other tribal members, it is now played by a new generation of flute players who can be heard at tribal fairs, pow-wows, concerts of traditional music, and on commercial recordings, playing old traditional love songs, newly composed courting songs, and melodies adapted from various American Indian vocal genres.

There are two forms follow the characteristics of plains music with a melodic contour that is undulating and moves from a high to a low pitch. They also exhibit the characteristic beginning and ending ornamented sustained tone that was common to older flute melodies. "When the moon is full, I'll be thinking of you," as the title implies, is a modern courting flute song. It is metrically free flowing and is composed of two long descending melodic phrases that end with very elaborately ornamented sustained tones. One descriptive compositions, "I saw an eagle fly," was inspired by seeing an eagle in flight. Its melodic contour is undulating and contains some tones with long durational values. In combination, they depict an eagle as it ascends, descends, and soars through the sky. Through the use of melodic line and ornamentation the tune imitates the screech of an eagle. Another descriptive composition, "Comanche moon," was inspired by the effects the moon can have on one's moods and is expressive of the composer's innermost feelings.

At one time, the courting flute player's audience was small and intimate, confined primarily to the one being serenaded and secondarily to family and friends. Now, the audience that hears the beautiful and haunting sounds of the courting flute encompasses a wide range of people and situations. Audiences are now composed of Indians and non-Indians.

The most known flute players of the newer generation and whom I consider the most innovative in regard to the preservation and development of courting flute music are Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche), Tom Mauchahty Ware (Kiowa/Comanche), and Kevin Locke (Sioux). Kevin remains true to the vocal love song by first learning to sing the song, then converting it to a flute melody. His use of ornamentation is sparing and is mainly reflective of the ornamentation found in the Sioux vocal love song. He has recorded one commercial recording, Lakota Wiikijo Olowan " Lakota Flute Music by Kevin Locke (1982). As of 1996, Kevin had recorded 11 albums, appeared on three compilation albums and two story tapes. On the recording and in his performances, he uses flutes that were made by Richard Fool Bull and Dan Red Buffalo.

Louis W. Ballard Phd., American Indian composer of Cherokee and Quapaw descent, has utilized the courting flute in two of his compositions, Ritmo Indio and Mid-Winter Fires. These chamber works feature the mellow timbre of the courting flute, creating a unique nuance when used in combination with Western orchestral instruments.

Women have learned to play the flute and have actively performed on the instrument. For example, Cheryl LaPointe, Rosebud Sioux, played the courting flute as her talent for the Miss Indian America contest one year (ca. 1968).

John Rainer (Taos Pueblo), who taught American Indian music at Brigham Young University, offered a course on flute music, flute playing, and construction. He has produced many albums of inspiring and challenging quality.

Finally, the courting flute has changed conceptually, contextually, and musically. It will probably never be heard again in its traditional context, nor will the many old and beautiful love songs that were once used to court young women be heard again, but the beauty of the flute and the music that it can produce will never be lost.

Soaring Eagles are sponsored by Southern California American Indian Resource Inc.