Next to the drum, the most important Native American instrument is the flute. Earliest written accounts of explores and colonists often mention that the native peoples played ‘flutes’. Unfortunately, these accounts do not include pictures or descriptions of these instruments. It is probable that there were many different types of flutes in use, something confirmed by archeological evidence.
Native American Flute Features Unique Design
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.
Unwritten History of Native Amercan Flutes
Due to the lack of a written language, the history of the Native American Flute is not very clear. In pre-Columbian times, 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. Ethnologists sometimes refer to these stories "creation myths".
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.
The Hopi people have long had an organized group called a flute society. Among the Hopi, the flute is used by Flute Society members for ceremonial and healing purposes. It can be assumed that other Native American tribes had similar relationships to the flute. These ancient oral traditions usually confine the use of the flute to men, something that has changed in modern times.
Native American Flutes Today
Today, Native American flutes give pleasure to people all over the world. They are beautiful to look at, wonderful to hold, and magical to play. Native American style flutes are as satisfying for beginners as for seasoned musicians.
The Native American flute has achieved some measure of fame for its distinctive sound, used in a variety of New Age and world music recordings. The instrument was originally very personal; its music was played without accompaniment in courtship, healing, meditation, and spiritual rituals. Now it is played solo, along with other instruments or vocals, or with backing tracks both in Native American music and in other styles. There are two different types of Native American flute, the plains flute and the woodlands flute, each with slightly different construction.
1960s Roots Revival Centered on Native American Flute
The late 1960s saw a roots revival centered around the Native American flute, with a new wave of flutists and artisans like Doc Tate Nevaquaya and Carl Running Deer. Of special importance is R. Carlos Nakai, who has achieved mainstream renown for his mixture of the flute with New Age and ambient sounds. Mary Youngblood is the only Native American flautist to win two Grammy awards, although several others have been noted as Grammy nominees.
Notable and award winning Native American flautists include: Timothy Archambault, Charles Littleleaf, Jeff Ball, (Jeff Ball is non-Native)Douglas Blue Feather, Joseph Firecrow, Kevin Locke, Robert Mirabal, Jay Red Eagle, Robert Tree Cody, and David Atlas. A few classical composers have written for the Native American flute, including James DeMars, David Yeagley, Brent Michael Davids, and Philip Glass.
Buying Native American Flutes
Because Native American flute construction is significantly different than the construction of African, Asian or European flutes, it is now the accurate musical term for a wooden duct flute with a block whistle mechanism. As a result, any such flutes, even if they were made in Korea, can technically be sold as Native American flutes– just like Spanish guitars that were made in Cleveland Ohio are still called “Spanish guitars.” You have to look for the “made in Spain” label to find a guitar that is authentically from Spain, and you have to find an unambiguous statement that a flute is Native American made, if that is what you are looking for.