There was a time before flutes . . .
Many generations ago, the people had drums, gourd rattles and bull-roarers, but no flutes. At that time, a young man went out to hunt. The people in his camp were hungry as meat was scarce.
He found the tracks of an Elk and followed them for a long time. The Elk, wise and swift, is the one who owns the love charm. If a man possesses Elk Medicine, the girl he likes can’t help liking him, too. He will also be a lucky hunter.
This young hunter had no Elk Medicine. After many hours, he finally sighted his game. Although a skilled hunter, the Elk always managed to stay just out of range, leading him deep inside a thick forest. The tracks had disappeared and so had the Elk. There was no moon. He realized he was lost and, it was too dark to find his way out.
He came upon a stream with cool, clear water.where he stopped to drink and eat food that he had brought with him. He rolled himself into his fur robe, propped his back against a tree and tried to rest. But he couldn’t sleep because of the strange noises that filled the forest, the “groaning” of trees in the wind, and the cries of night animals such as the owl. It was as if he was hearing these sounds for the first time.
Suddenly, he was aware of an entirely new sound, one that neither he nor anyone else had ever heard before.The sound was mournful and ghost-like; it made him afraid, so he drew his robe tightly about himself and reached for his bow, making sure it was properly strung and ready for immediate use.
As frightening as the sound was, it was also like a song, sad but beautiful, full of love, hope and yearning. Before he knew it, he was asleep, dreaming of the bird called wagnuka, the redheaded woodpecker. In his dream, wagnuka appeared singing the strangely beautiful song and telling him, “Follow me and I will teach you.”
The sun was already high when the hunter awoke the next morning. On a branch of the tree against which he was leaning, he saw a redheaded woodpecke who flew from tree to tree, but never very far, looking back all the time as if to say, “Come on!” Suddenly, he heard that wonderful song again, and his heart yearned to find the singer. Flying toward the sound, leading the hunter, the bird flitted through the leaves, while its bright red top made it easy to follow.
At last, the woodpecker lighted on a cedar tree and began hammering on a branch with his strong beak, making a noise like the fast beating of a small drum. A gust of wind arose, and again the hunter heard that beautiful sound right above him.
Looking up, he discovered the song came from the dead branch on which the woodpecker was tapping his beak. He realized it was the wind which made the sound as it whistled through the hole the bird had drilled.
The hunter took the branch, a hollow piece of wood full of woodpecker holes that was about the length of his forearm. He walked back to his village bringing no meat, but happy with his discovery.
In his tipi, the young man tried to make the branch sing for him. He blew on it, he waved it around, no sound came. It made him sad. He wanted so much to hear that wonderful new sound. He purified himself in the sweat lodge and climbed to the top of a lonely hill. There, resting with his back against a large rock, he fasted, going without food or water for four days and nights, crying for a vision which would tell him how to make the branch sing.
In the middle of the fourth night, wagnuka, the bird with the bright red top, appeared, saying, “Watch me,” turning himself into a man, showing the hunter how to make the branch sing. In his dream, the young man observed very carefully, as instructed.
When he awoke, he broke off a branch from a cedar tree and, working many hours, hollowed it out with a bowstring drill, just as he had seen the woodpecker do in his dream. He whittled the branch into the shape of the birds with a long neck and a open beak. He painted the top of the birds head with washasha, the sacred red color. He prayed. He smoked the branch up with incense of burning sage, cedar and sweet grass. He fingered the holes as he had seen the man-bird do in his vision, meanwhile blowing softly into the mouthpiece. All at once, there was the song, ghost-like and beautiful, that drifted all the way to the village, where the people were joyful to hear it. With the help of the wind and the woodpecker, the young man had brought them the first flute.
NOTE: This legend has been edited from historical documents and is believed to be of public domain.