Flutes have been part of traditional Choctaw culture for a long time. In the Choctaw language, a traditional flute is called an uskala. This term was actually created by combining the Choctaw words oski or “ river cane ” and ola “to make a sound”. So, for our ancestors, the word “flute” literally meant “river cane that makes a sound”. The Choctaw phrase for “playing a flute” is uskala olachi (Byington 1915:453).
In the past, Choctaw flutes were used somewhat differently from the ways that flutes, even Native American flutes, are generally used today. Records indicate that at the time of European arrival, the most powerful chiefs of the Southeast had flutists in their tribunes, who played the flute to welcome guests. It is likely that some ancestral Choctaw chiefs, such as Tvshkalusa, had flute players as well. Also during this period, the first Chickasaw, and probably Choctaw ancestors as well, played flutes on the battlefield before making an attack (see Swanton 1946: 628-629). However, for the past two centuries, and perhaps forever, flutes have been part of Choctaw society, and primarily used as a tool by the Choctaw medicine people. There is little evidence to suggest that Choctaw flutes were traditionally played during courtship, as they were by the western plains tribes. Indeed, at least some of the Choctaw men who used them made efforts to keep their flutes away from women (Howard and Levine1990: 30).
Most Choctaw flutes were traditionally made from large pieces of river reed about 1 inch in diameter. Different tribes have different traditions and arrangements of finger piercings. Most Choctaw flutes have two finger holes. Most flutes made by other southeastern tribes have between zero and three finger holes, while flutes made by Plains tribes have five or six finger holes. Choctaw flutes are played by placing your mouth over the upper end of the flute and blowing through it. When the air hits the solid knot, it is forced out of the top hole and over a thin cane splint attached to the outside of the flute. This causes the splint to vibrate and make a sound. This sound resonates through the lower chamber of the flute. The player's two index fingers can be used to plug one or both of the finger holes. This effectively changes the size of the flute's lower chamber, creating sound of different pitches. The player can also plug the large hole at the base of the flute to get another tone. Different hand movements to cap the end of the flute are used by the player as notes to create a song (Byington 2010).
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