Published on August 16, 2013 by Amy
Donald Coolidge – Flutemaker: A good natured and sociable Navajo, Donald Coolidge has been making wooden flutes for more than seven years. His flutes may be crafted out of mahogany, maple, cherry wood, and even rare purple heart, but he likes the traditional cedar wood flutes best “because they smell so good”. His flutes also look good as they are beautifully finished, sometimes with turquoise inlay or intricate carving. However, Donald doesn’t make his flutes just for show, he also makes sure they sound good. If they don’t, he destroys them. His flutes represent him and he wants the world to see the best he has to offer.
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The nephew of a man named Calvin Coolidge, Donald Coolidge was dubbed “Donald Duck” by his Teec Nos Pos Boarding School buddies in the mid 60′s. Although it doesn’t carry the distinguished connotation his uncle’s name does, Donald obviously enjoys his nickname- most of his flutes carry the imprinted signature “Duck”. Indeed, the lilting music that can be played on Donald’s flutes may be reminiscent of the free spirit of waterfowl.
Adopted as an newborn, Donald was raised by a Christian Navajo family. At the present he’s not interested in pursuing either his natural family ties, nor his Navajo cultural ties. In fact, Donald is very content with life, playing one of his own flutes in a group known as the Red Men Christ Revival Band. The group travels around the Navajo Reservation doing jubilees, revivals, and preaching Christianity with the spoken word as well as with music.
The flute Donald uses was made from black walnut, and one of his first endeavors. When it was finished his father saw and admired it, so Donald gave it to him. Donald’s father died a few years afterward, and so the flute is very special to Donald now. Each time he plays it he thinks of his father. Donald is presently working on a recording of his flute music.
Donald learned to make flutes from his brother, Richard Harrison, whose nickname is “Little Bear”. This is another indication of their Christian upbringing as bears are considered bad medicine and strictly avoided by traditional Navajos.
A resident of Shiprock, New Mexico, Donald makes his flutes in a shop in his backyard. His flutes are different from anyone else’s as he engineered a “saddle” design on the mouth section. He uses hard woods because the harder the wood the better the resonance. He prefers making flutes that are about 24 inches long, as he believes they sound best. His wife also makes flutes, but hers are smaller and easier for her to handle. Donald uses his musical tone abilities in order to tune the flutes they both make.
The couple buy the wood they use from lumber houses. They have to strip it, glue it together, then cut it with a table saw, squaring it off. They use a router to round it off, a rod to route a channel through the center, and a drill to make the holes on the top. After it is sanded and varnished a 45 degree angle is cut for the airhole.
The couple’s two young sons also get in on the flute making business: they load up the sawdust in their play dumptrucks and haul it away from the shop. They sometimes also get to help test a flute’s musical aptitude.
“It’s fun,” Donald exclaims about their business, “I just love doing it!” He says he and his wife really enjoy working together. They spend about 4 to 6 hours a day, six days a week constructing the flutes.
Donald admits he enjoys the recognition the flutes bring him, and having visitors come from far distances just to see and buy his work. “The cash is extra,” he maintains, with a good natured laugh, claiming the love he has for his craft is his main motivation. And that view on life is as refreshing as his flutes are beautiful.