The Choctaw River reed flute

Flutes have been a part of traditional Choctaw culture for a long time. In the Choctaw language, a traditional flute is called a 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 reed that makes a sound”. The Choctaw phrase for “playing a flute” is uskala olachi (Byington 1915: 453).

In the past, Choctaw flutes were used a little differently than the ways that flutes, even Native American flutes, are generally used today. Records indicate that at the time of eur arrival, the most powerful chiefs in the Southeast had flutists in their stands, who played the flute to welcome guests. It is likely that some ancestral Choctaw chiefs, such as Tvshkalusa, had flute cad . Also during this period, the early Chickasaw, and probably ancestors of the Choctaw, played flutes on the battlefield before making an attack (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 of Choctaw people's medicine. There is little evidence to suggest that Choctaw flutes were traditionally cad during courtship, as they were by the western Plains tribes. In fact, 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 had their traditions and arrangements of finger holes. Most Choctaw flutes have two finger holes. And most flutes made by other southeastern tribes had zero to three finger holes, while flutes made by Plains tribes had five or six finger holes. Choctaw flutes are cad by placing the mouth over the upper end of the flute and blowing through it. When the air reaches the solid knot, it is forced out of the upper hole and onto a thin reed splint attached to the outside of the flute, causing the splint to vibrate, emitting a sound. This sound resonates through the lower chamber of the flute. The two cad fingers of the cad can be used to plug one or both finger holes. This effectively changes the size of the flute's lower chamber, creating sound of different pitches. The cad can also plug the large hole at the base of the flute to obtain another tone. Different movements with the hand to cap the end of the flute are used by the cad as notes to create a song (Byington 2010).


  • Swanton, John R. – 1946 – The Indians of the Southeastern United States.Bureau of American.
  • Byington, Cyrus – 1915 – A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language. Bureau of American Ethnology Vol. 46, Washington.
  • Byington, Presley – 2010 – Interview on Choctaw River Cane Flutes for Iti Fabvssa. May 26
  • Howard, James and Lindsay Levine -1990 – Choctaw Music and Dance. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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