Native American flute

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Native American flute crafted by Gary Kuhl in 2003. Material: Myrtlewood. Collection of Clint Goss.

The Native American flute is a flute that is held in front of the person playing it, has open holes for the player's fingers, and has two separate parts: one for the breath of the person playing the flute and another that makes the sound of the flute.

The player breathes into one end of the flute. A block on the outside of the flute directs the player's breath from the first part to the second part, causing air to vibrate in the second part. The vibration causes a steady resonance of air in the second part that creates sound.[1]

Native American flutes are made in many different designs, sizes, and variations — far more other woodwind instruments.

Names[change | change source]

The Native American flute has many other names.:[2] American Indian courting flute,[3] courting flute,[4] Grandfather's flute,[5] Indian flute,[6] love flute,[7] Native American courting flute,[8] Native American love flute,[9] Native American style flute (see the Indian Arts And Crafts Act), North American flute,[10] Plains flute,[11] and Plains Indian courting flute.[12]

The correct way to spell the name of the instrument is "Native American flute" using capital letters for "N" and "A" and lower-case letters for the "f" in "flute".[13]

A person who plays Native American flutes is called a "flutist". The word "flautist" is used, but much less often.[14]

History[change | change source]

Native American flute, Lakota Culture, 1935 or before. Collection of Clint Goss.

There are many stories about how different Native American peoples invented the Native American flute. In one story, a woodpecker pecked holes in the branch of a tree while searching for termites. When the wind blew along the holes, people heard music.[15]

It is not well known how the design of the Native American flute developed before 1823. Some of the influences may have been:

  • Branches of trees or stalks of plants with holes drilled by insects that created sounds when the wind blew.[16]
  • The atlatl.[17]
  • Musical instruments made of clay made in Mesoamerica.[18][19]
  • The Anasazi flute, a type of flute developed by early Native American peoples.
  • The parts of the organ that make the sound of the instrument. Native Americans were taught to make these parts of the organ as early as 1524.[20]
  • The recorder — a musical instrument that came from Europe.

It is also possible that instruments were carried from other cultures during migrations.[21]

The oldest Native American flute made of wood is from 1823. It is now in a museum in Bergamo, Italy.[22]

Parts[change | change source]

Parts of the Native American flute

The Native American flute has two parts: the slow air chamber and the sound chamber. A plug inside the instrument separates the slow air chamber from the sound chamber.

The parts of the Native American flute can have many alternate names. The plug is sometimes called the internal wall. The slow air chamber is also called the "SAC", the compression chamber, or the mouth chamber. The sound chamber is also called the pipe body, the playing chamber, the resonating chamber, the tone chamber, or the variable tube.

The block on the outside of the instrument is a separate part that can be removed. The block is also called the bird, the fetish, the saddle, or the totem. The block is tied by a strap onto the nest of the flute. The block moves air through a flue from the slow air chamber to the sound chamber. The block is often in the shape of a bird.[23]

The slow air chamber has a mouthpiece and breath hole for the player's breath. Air flows through the slow air chamber and up the exit hole into the flue.

Blocks on two Native American flutes

The sound chamber contains the sound hole, which creates the vibration of air that causes sound when the airflow reaches the splitting edge. The sound hole can also be called the whistle hole, the window, or the true sound hole ("TSH"). The splitting edge can also be called the cutting edge, the fipple edge, the labium, or the sound edge.

The sound chamber also has finger holes that allows the player to change the frequency of the vibrating air. Changing the frequency of the vibration changes the pitch of the sound produced.

The finger holes on a Native American flute are open, meaning that fingers of the player cover the finger hole (rather than metal levers or pads such as those on a clarinet). This means that the player must be able to reach all the finger holes on the instrument with their fingers. The finger holes can also be called the note holes, the playing holes, the tone holes, or the stops.

The foot end of the flute — the end far away from the player's mouth — can have direction holes. These holes affect the pitch of the flute when all the finger holes are covered. They also relate to the "Four Directions" of East, South, West, and North found in many Native American stories. The direction holes can also be called the tuning holes or wind holes.

The picture shown above – Parts of the Native American flute with English-language labels – can also be seen with labels in Cherokee, Dutch, Esperanto, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, and Spanish.

A flute with a spacer plate, made by Richard W. Payne.

Spacer Plate[change | change source]

Another way to build Native American flutes uses a spacer plate to create the flue. The spacer plate sits between the nest area on the body of the flute and the block. The spacer player is usually held in place by the same strap that holds the block onto the instrument. The splitting edge can also be part of the spacer plate.

The spacer plate is often made of metal, but spacer plates can be made of wood, bark, and ceramic.

Dimensions[change | change source]

Many old Native American flutes were made using measurements of the body. The length of the flute was the distance from inside of the elbow to tip of the index finger. The length of the slow air chamber was the width of the fist. The distance between the sound hole and first finger hole was the width of the fist. The distance between finger holes would be the width of a thumb. The distance from the last finger hole to the end of the flute was the width of the fist.[24]

Currently, makers of Native American flutes use many methods to design the dimensions of their flutes. This is very important for the location of the finger holes, since they control the pitch of the different notes of the instrument. Flute makers may use calculators to design their instruments,[25] or use dimensions provided by other flute makers.[26]

Materials[change | change source]

Many Native American flutes are made from river cane, bamboo, wood, or even plastic. Some makers of Native American flutes use ceramic or glass.

Music[change | change source]

Many Native American flutes have a musical scale called the pentatonic scale in a minor key. This musical scale is used in most Native American flute music. However, some makers of Native American flute now use different musical scales. Also, many makers of Native American flutes tune flutes carefully so that they sound good when played with other instruments such as guitars and pianos.[27]

Native American flutes may be large or small and have a wide range from very low notes to very high notes. From the largest flutes (lowest pitch) to the smallest flutes (highest pitch), they span a range of about three and a half octaves, from C2 to A5.[28]

Early recordings of Native American flutes are available from several sources.[29]

Fingering[change | change source]

Fingering for the main musical scale (pentatonic minor) on many Native American flutes.

Most Native American flutes have either five finger holes or six finger holes. However, a flute may have no finger holes or as many as seven finger holes, including a hole for the thumb. Different makers employ different musical scales and fingerings for their flutes.[27]

Nakai tablature for Native American flutes, showing the notes of the primary scale - the pentatonic minor scale.

Written Music[change | change source]

Written music for the Native American flutes is often in the key of F-sharp minor, although some music is scored in other keys. However, music written for the Native American flute uses a key signature of four sharps. This is known as "Nakai tablature". Many pieces of written music adds finger diagrams below the notes to show which finger holes to cover for that note.

The use of a standard key signature for written music that can be used across Native American flutes in a variety of keys classifies the instrument as a transposing instrument.

Two Native American flutes, made since 2005

Revival[change | change source]

A Native American flute player performing for donations in a train station in New York City.

There were few Native American flute players before 1960. However, use of the Native American flute increased in the late 1960s. Many people began playing Native American flutes, such as Doc Tate Nevaquaya, John Rainer, Jr., Sky Walkinstik Man Alone, and Carl Running Deer.

The music of R. Carlos Nakai became popular in the 1980s. The album "Canyon Trilogy" was issued in 1989. In 1998 it was the first Native American music album certified as a Gold Record by the Recording Industry Association of America. Canyon Trilogy was certified as a Platinum Record on July 8, 2014.[30]

Mary Youngblood won two Grammy Awards in the Native American Music category for her Native American flute music in 2002 and 2006. Today, Native American flutes are being played and recognized by many different peoples and cultures around the world.

Community Music[change | change source]

Groups of players of the Native American flute meet every month or two. These groups are known as flute circles.[31]

These organizations help flute circles within their country:

  • WFS — World Flute Society (U.S.A.)
  • RNAFF — Renaissance of the North American Flute (U.S.A.)
  • JIFCA — Japan Indian Flute Circle Association (日本インディアンフルートサークル協会) (Japan)

Documentaries[change | change source]

  • Songkeepers (1999, 48 min.). Directed by Bob Hercules. Produced by Dan King. Lake Forest, Illinois: America's Flute Productions. Five distinguished traditional flute artists - Tom Mauchahty-Ware, Sonny Nevaquaya, R. Carlos Nakai, Hawk Littlejohn, Kevin Locke – talk about their Native American flutes and their songs and the role of the flute and its music in their tribes.[32]
  • Journey to Zion (2008, 44 min.). A documentary by Tim Romero. Santa Maria, California: Solutions Plus. A film about Native American flute players attending the Zion Canyon Art & Flute Festival located in Springdale, Utah, the gateway to Zion National Park.[33]

References[change | change source]

  1. Clint Goss (2016). "FAQ for the Native American Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2016-02-16.
  2. Clint Goss (2016). "Names of the Native American flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2016-02-16.
  3. Edward Wapp, Jr. (1984). "The American Indian Courting Flute: Revitalization and Change". Sharing a Heritage: American Indian Arts, edited by Charlotte Heth and Michael Swarm. Contemporary American Indian Issues Series, Number 5 (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, UCLA): 49–60. 
  4. George Catlin (1841). Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. Volume 2. the author.
  5. Lew Paxton Price (1995). Creating and Using Grandfather's Flute. Love Flutes Series. 2. ISBN 0-917578-11-2.
  6. Isaac Weld, Jr. (1800). Travels Through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (Fourth ed.). Piccadilly, London: John Stockdale.
  7. Mary H. Eastman (1853). The Romance of Indian Life — With other tales, Selections from the Iris, An Illuminated Souvenir. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Lippincott, Grambo & Co.
  8. Butch Hall (1997). Favorite Hymns — In Tablature for the Native American Courting Flute. Butch Hall Flutes.
  9. Lew Paxton Price (1994). Creating and Using the Native American Love Flute. Love Flutes Series. 1. P.O. Box 88, Garden Valley, CA 95633: L. P. Price. ISBN 0-917578-09-0.
  10. Lew Paxton Price (1990). Native North American Flutes. ISBN 0-917578-07-4.
  11. Richard W. Payne (1988). "The Plains Flutes". The Flutist Quarterly 13 (4): 11–14. 
  12. Richard Keeling (1997). North American Indian Music: A Guide to Published Sources and Selected Recordings. Garland Library of Music Ethnology, 5; Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 1440. New York: Garland Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8153-0232-2.
  13. University of Chicago (2003). The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. pp. 366–377. ISBN 0-226-10403-6.
  14. based on searches on the Google search engine performed on February 26, 2016 for "Native American flutist" (about 23,800 results) and "Native American flautist" (about 3,090 results).
  15. Clint Goss (2010). "Legends and Myths of the Native American Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13.
  16. Clint Goss (2016). "Proto-Flutes and Yucca Stalks". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2016-02-23.
  17. Robert L. Hall (1997). An Archaeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual. University of Illinois Press. pp. 114–120. ISBN 978-0-252-06602-3.
  18. Susan Rawcliffe (December 1992). "Complex Acoustics in Pre-Columbian Flute Systems". Experimental Musical Instruments 8 (2). 
  19. Susan Rawcliffe (2007). "Eight West Mexican Flutes in the Fowler Museum". World of Music (Bamberg, Germany: Journal of the Department of Ethnomusicology, Otto-Friedrich University) 49 (2): 45-65. 
  20. Clint Goss (2016). "Organ Pipes and the Native American Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2016-02-26.
  21. Clint Goss (2010). "A Brief History of the Native American Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13.
  22. Clint Goss (2010). "The Beltrami Flute". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-23.
  23. Robert Gatliff (2005). "Anatomy of the Plains Flute". FluteTree. Retrieved 2016-02-18.
  24. Clint Goss (2015). "Native American Flute Finger Hole Placement". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2015-12-6. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  25. Clint Goss (2016). "NAFlutomat — Native American Flute Design Tool". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2016-02-21.
  26. Clint Goss (2016). "Flute Crafting Dimensions". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2016-02-21.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Clint Goss (2010). "Native American Flute Fingering Charts". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13.
  28. Clint Goss (2010). "Keys of Native American Flutes". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13.
  29. Clint Goss (2010). "Early Native American flute Recording Discography". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2010-12-13.
  30. "RIAA". 2016. Retrieved 2016-02-22.
  31. World Flute Society (2016). "Flute Circles, Clubs, and Groups". WFS. Retrieved 2016-02-18.
  32. Joyce-Grendahl, Kathleen. "Songkeepers: A Video Review". worldflutes.org. Suffolk: International Native American Flute Association. Archived from the original on 2010-08-12. Retrieved 2010-08-13. And: National Museum of the American Indian. Archive copy at the Internet Archive
  33. "Journey to Zion documentary website". Archive copy at the Internet Archive

Other websites[change | change source]