Article inspired by the thesis of Judy Epstein Buss, on the presence of the Flute in the culture of the indigenous peoples of North America. This study provides an important link for understanding the traditional use of the flute and the music played by flutes in North American indigenous cultures. This thesis was written in 1977.


The Flute of the North American Indians 1
Hopi flutist - Mishongnavi people, Arizona - 1880-1900

The flute played an important and unique role in the culture of North American Indians. With the drastic changes that these cultures have undergone since the 1930s (frequent displacement, diffusion and acculturation), many cultural traits have disappeared totally or partially, among them the records on the flageolet (wind instrument of the flute family). Consequently, this study is almost entirely based on material collected before 1935.

Apparently, the manufacture and execution of flutes was a privilege of few among the indigenous peoples, therefore, many records about this instrument were lost. The same did not happen with the songs and stories because they were passed on orally and shared by everyone, which helped a lot in their preservation.

The diversity among Native American people was so great, so many beliefs, stories, myths, rites, that sometimes within the same village there were reports and descriptions of their own culture in different versions. This study was a major challenge for the researcher to gain a complete understanding of the flute's place in Native American culture.

In folklore, stories and records about North American indigenous culture, flutes, whistles and flageolets were vaguely mentioned. Due to the fact that those responsible for such records are not musicians, they did not take into account the difference between these instruments. And for this reason, in this study, the term “flute” will be used to refer to these instruments in general.


The Role and Meaning of the Flute in North American Indigenous Culture

Despite the wide variation between cultures, the flute appears to be almost universally seen as a phallic symbol. Around the world, the flute is associated with fertility, birth, life and death and is used in several rituals focusing on these subjects.

 Native American culture has produced a rich variety of mythologies and legends about the origin of the flute that demonstrate its supernatural power. The boundaries between myth and real life have become blurred. Thus, in rituals connected to the flute, a curious synthesis between the two is witnessed.

The flute seemed to represent particularly male fertility in Native American culture. According to mythology, as well as the ethnographies gathered throughout North America, it is clear that playing the flute was restricted to men only. Even at the Corn Milling Ceremony of the Pueblo Indians, a ritual performed only by women, reports describe a man playing the flute to accompany the singing and dancing of the women.

In all the material examined, only one example was found citing a woman playing the flute and in this case, the purpose was to teach a boy to play it. This example is in the book “The history of the origin of the flute”. (Frances Densmore - 1867–1957)

Flute making did not appear to be restricted to men. Myths reported that the flutes were made by shamans and dreamers, men and women, who are believed to have had direct contact with the supernatural and were able to attribute magical power to the flute. Numerous examples of women who made flutes can be found in mythologies, but there is no concrete historical evidence about this performance of women in the universe of flutes of Native peoples in North America.

The legends illustrate themes such as: nature of the magical powers connected to the flute, the power that this instrument has to control the climate, to attract women, in addition to its use as a means of transport.

An example that brings out especially the magical power attributed to the flute is found in the Apache myths and tales. The flute becomes a means of transport, a fact that Goddard says:

“… Is one of the recognized methods of fast transportation”  (Goddard 1919)

In several versions of the “Myth of Creation” story, a man who was looking for his missing wife used the flute to travel through the mountains:

"He left, traveling with a blue flute that had wings ... he went around the border of the world"  (ibid)

Many myths addressed themes related to the enchanting powers of the flute, being used as an instrument of seduction from men to women.

The North American Indian Flute 2
Chaiwa, a Tewa girl with a spiral butterfly hairstyle, photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1922


Fertility in Nature

In areas where corn is grown, there are beliefs that relate the symbolism of fertility and well-being with the symbolism of the flute. The writer Carlos Castaneda noted that around 1541, the use of flageoletes in the Corn Milling Ceremony was common among the Tewa Pueblos (The Tewa are North American indigenous peoples who spoke the Tewa language and share Pueblo culture. Their lands are near Rio Grande, New Mexico, north of Santa Fé). These rituals were performed by women, who used the sound of whetstones, dances and songs to compose their ceremony, but the interesting thing was to identify the presence of a flageolet being played by a man sitting at the door (Hammond-GP 1940).

Another example of the close relationship between the flute and the corn, dated in a later period, can be found in a study by AM Stephen, of an initiation ceremony that took place at the Hopi Flute Society:

“When a young man from this people is brought to visit the flute altar for the first time, he must bring a handful of flour as an offering to the man he has chosen as a 'priest' or 'teacher'. The 'priest' launches the offering on the altar ... On the fourth night of the ceremony the novice is initiated and receives the ear of corn, which symbolizes his protective 'mother', and he holds this ear throughout the corner ... Afterwards this ear is placed in the house where this young man lives with his family. It guarantees good food and health for the body, which is why a symmetrical ear is always the choice ” (Stephen 1936).


The North American Indian Flute 3
Kiva in Spruce Tree House - Adam Baker


Blue and Drab, which are now extinct, have played a very important role in Pueblo culture. One of the main duties of these societies was to pray for rain and fertility, as well as for hot weather and good harvests. As the Pueblo Indians live mainly in a desert environment, the absence of rain was a threat to their physical existence. Thus, much of the pueblos' rich ceremonialism revolved around this concern. One of the most important events that took place in Pueblo culture was the Flute Ceremony, which took place in August. The ceremony and mythology are closely connected. Secret rites were performed in the ancestral rooms of this society, these ceremonies were not performed in the kivas (Kivas are large circular and underground rooms, used by the Pueblo peoples for their ceremonies), where most other ceremonies were performed. The precise details of this ritual were known only to the priests who were the main performers of the ceremony and responsible for transmitting it to the next generations of priests. The flute altar was a shrine covered with drawings and a large number of items full of symbolism. The image of the Locust (Grasshopper, Kokopelli) was represented on the flute altar, the hunchbacked flutist known throughout the Southwest as the symbol of “healing” in the flute society. This intriguing figure is linked to the hot climate, fertility and even more to bravery. The various roles assigned to this character cover many aspects of life: fertility, life, climate control for heating, rain, good harvests and war.

Among the Fox Indians, the flute was also a component of the “healing” package through the White Buffalo Dance. Dispelling storms is included among one of the many functions of this ritual.

It is interesting to note that the number four is always related to the flute and its supernatural meaning in rituals and myth. This relationship is expressed in various ways, such as in ceremonies in which participants circle a place or object four times, a specific action is performed by four people at different points in a ritual, or some aspect or procedure that lasts four days. In addition to being present in the most diverse forms in myths connected to the flutes.

The Visual Appearance and Structure of the Flute

The visual appearance of the flute is an integral part of its symbolic role. However, due to the scarcity of material on this aspect, it is difficult to obtain a sufficient understanding of the variety of flute design and color in North American indigenous cultures.

Among the main factors that determine the potential of a flute, we have the number of holes, which in the flutes of North American Indians is usually four to six. There are also three and seven finger holes, as well as some with extra holes in the bottom of the tube. But the evidence for the right number of holes is very vague. However, it can be speculated that the number of holes in some flutes is determined for symbolic rather than musical reasons. Since four fingers are more common, the number four is likely to once again play a symbolic role. In the myth “The Origin of the Flageolet” of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. Grandma, (character in the story) who made a flute out of a sunflower stalk, explains that “the seven holes of the fingers represent the seven months of winter”.

Some flutes had holes added to the bottom end of the tube. As with some Chinese flutes, these holes were not used for playing. It is not clear whether these extra holes were made for mere decoration or had any other function. It is not unlikely, however, that some indigenous villages were influenced by the Chinese. Merriam mentions the presence of Chinese influence in the latter part of the 19th century, when many Chinese came to western Montana. Flutes with these added holes can be found in several villages.

The distance between the holes appears to approximate the size of the manufacturer's hand and fingers or those for which a specific flute can be made. Merriam describes how a Flathead Indian, a flute maker, makes the holes: "... the craftsman puts his fingers in the hollow tube in what appears to be the proper position and burns the holes in the wood ..."

The issue of distance between the finger holes needs further study. The holes in many flutes, especially those of three or four, are equidistant. In a six-hole flute, there are usually two groups, each composed of equidistant holes. In another example, Densmore talks about a flute maker Yuman, Captain George: "he marked places for three finger holes where his finger rested most conveniently"

In her book “The American Indians and Their Music”, Frances Densmore briefly discusses the question of the position of the finger holes: “Indians in all villages questioned by the writer said that the finger holes in the flute are spaced conveniently for the flutist's hand. ” Flute sizes and construction material can vary widely within a village, many different types of wood are used, including cedar, juniper, elderberry, reed and so on. Some less common woods used are the sunflower stalk, dry reed of wild parsnip. Other materials used: ceramic (Pueblo) gun barrel (Apache) red pipestone (Sioux).

Color and design are among the most revealing visual aspects of the connection between the flute and its symbolic role. A large number of flutes described or collected by ethnographers and ethnomusicologists have been painted in a variety of colors. Some colors, such as red, pink, black, yellow and green, are particularly common. The colors are applied to the flutes by spotting or drawing specifically symbolic figures, such as arrowheads, zigzags (depicting lightning), the water snake with horns and stars. Colors have a wide and complex variety of connotations. Each color can be linked to certain aspects of life and the universe. All directions in the world, for example, are represented by colors.

The North American Indian Flute 4
Native American Whistles - 19th Century Peoples Oglala Lakota, Sioux - Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Whistle with the end carved in the shape of a bird's head. The sound is generated by an air current that reaches the sharp end of a piece of broken feather placed over the opening on the side of the tube. These whistles are used in the ceremonial dance of the Heron.


Some of the geometric designs mentioned above are burned in the wood so that the black designs stand out in the lighter color of the wood. Another very widespread tradition is the ornamentation of flutes with animal effigies. A Papago flute in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ends with a bird's beak. The Sioux courtship flute has a bird's head. The Great Twisted Flute of the Sioux is ornamented with the effigy of a horse and painted red inside each hole. An Oglala flute on display at the Metropolitan of Art in New York is decorated with a sculpted rabbit. At the Heye Foundation Museum of American Indian in New York, Cheyenne and Winnebago flutes on display, end with bird heads.

In the intricate Native American culture, animals symbolize certain aspects of life or attributes, such as bravery, successful hunting and wealth. Therefore, it is not surprising to find animal effigies carved or mounted on flutes. Other ornamental and ceremonial devices often used include beads, shells, feathers, glass, metal shavings or even the fixing of small medicine bags.


The North American Indian Flute 5
Flute of the Winnebago Indians - Photo: Detroit Institute of Art


The previous discussion of the different elements that affect the construction and appearance of the flute supports the assumption that non-musical concepts greatly influence the manufacture of flutes. However, there is clear evidence that musical criteria also play an important role:

When analyzing the songs played through the flute, it is noticed that there is, in general, a uniform system in the musical style including scales. This probably would not have existed if its construction was based entirely on non-musical considerations. The strongest evidence that flute makers were concerned with the tones produced by their instruments is the fact that in many flutes a pitch block was placed to control intonation. A series of flutes to which a tuning block is attached are on display at the Museum of the American Indian in New York. The flutes in this collection with tuning blocks include those from Blackfoot, Semiole and Winnebago.

Throughout this study, we can see the strong presence of the flute in the culture of most of the indigenous peoples of North America and its entire relationship with the sacred universe of these peoples. Demonstrating that all the variations present in these instruments, be they through the material whose instruments are made, the number of holes and even the painting and finishing, all of these characteristics are somehow related to the supernatural beliefs or habits of the people.



Cover art: cidolart

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