Published on March 8, 2012 by Amy
The Native American flutes that Scott August plays on his recordings is, like the European recorder, a “fipple” flute. Almost every culture in the world has simple one chamber “fipple” flutes. The Native American flute, however, is not one chamber.
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Its tube is divided into two sections by a wall or Stop. Breath from the player enters the first section, the high pressure Wind Chamber. From there the air is forced through a Flue between the Stop and the ornamental Block. As it exits the flue it crosses a small, usually square, hole. 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 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 sizes. They are made of different woods but cedar is the most common. Below are some photos and audio samples of different styles of flutes.
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. Its main appeal, however, remains as a solo instrument, with its very personal, soulful , haunting and emotional sound.
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 Anasaziflutes 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 theAnasazi 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.
This theory however, does not tell us how the modern “Recorder-like” Native American flute developed 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. None of these theories however have been proven. The mystery remains hidden even today.