Native American flute

Native American flute
Native American flute crafted by Chief Arthur Two-Crows, 1987

The Native American flute has achieved some measure of fame for its distinctive sound, used in a variety of New Age and world music recordings. The instrument was originally very personal; its music was played without accompaniment in courtship, healing, meditation, and spiritual rituals. Now it is played solo, with other instruments or vocals, or with backing tracks.[1] The flute has been used in Native American music, as well as other genres. There are two different types of Native American flute, the plains flute[2] and the woodlands flute,[3] each with slightly different construction.



A busker in New York City's Broadway-Lafayette subway station playing a Native American flute.

There are many stories about how different Native American peoples discovered the flute. A common character in these stories is the woodpecker, who put holes in hollow branches while searching for termites. The wind would blow around these branches, creating sounds that the people noticed and eventually sought to recreate[4].

The actual development of the flute most likely did not follow this pattern. The most common theory is that it was developed by the Oasisamerica Ancient Pueblo Peoples, as the "Anasazi flute" that was based on the Mesoamerican flute designs from the south.[5][6]

The oldest extant Native American flute was collected by the Italian adventurer Giacomo Costantino Beltrami in 1823 on his search for the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is now in the collection of the Museo Civico di Scienze Naturali in Bergamo, Italy[7].


The late 1960s saw a roots revival centered around the flute, with a new wave of flautists and artisans such as Doc Tate Nevaquaya, John Rainer, Jr., Sky Walkinstik Man Alone, and Carl Running Deer. Although the Native American Music category was eventually removed from the Grammy Awards roster in 2011 and no longer exists, Mary Youngblood was the only Native American flautist to win two awards during its tenure. Several other flutists were also nominated during it's course.

Flautists and composers

Notable and award winning Native American flautists include: R. Carlos Nakai, Joseph Firecrow, Robert Mirabal, Charles Littleleaf, Kevin Locke, Douglas Spotted Eagle, Timothy Archambault, Troy De Roche, Jeff Ball (non-native), Douglas Blue Feather, Jay Red Eagle, Robert Tree Cody, David Atlas.

A few classical composers have written for the Native American flute, including James DeMars, David Yeagley, Brent Michael Davids, Philip Glass and Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate.[8]


Native American style flute, cedar

The Native American flute is the first flute in the world constructed with two air chambers – there is a wall inside the flute between the top (slow) air chamber and the bottom chamber which has the whistle and finger holes. The top chamber serves as a secondary resonator, which gives the flute its distinctive sound. There is a hole at the bottom of the "slow" air chamber and a (generally) square hole at the top of the playing chamber. A block (or "fetish") is tied on top of the flute. In a plains flute, a spacer is added or a channel is carved into the block itself to form a thin, flat air stream for the whistle hole (or "window"). In contrast, a woodlands flute has the channel carved into the top of the flute, allowing for a less reedy sound.[2][3]

Some modern flutes, called "drone" flutes (originally of Aztec origin) are two or more flutes built together. Generally, the drone chamber plays a fixed note which the other flute can play against in harmony. The drone may also change octaves as it resonates with the melody played on the adjacent flute.[citation needed]

The "traditional" Native American flute was constructed using measurements based on the body — the length of the flute would be the distance from inside of the elbow to tip of the index finger. The length of the top air chamber, as well as the distance between the whistle and first hole, would be one fist-width. The distance between individual holes would be one thumb-width, and the distance from the last hole to the end would generally be one fist-width.[2][3]


Native American flutes can be made from various materials. Juniper, Redwood and Cedar are popular, as they provide a nice aroma. The soft woods are generally preferred by most flute players, because of the softer tones produced by the wood. Other harder woods such as walnut and cherry are appreciated for the clear, crisp, richness of sound that they can produce. Although traditionally flutes would be made from river cane, bamboo or a local wood, more exotic rain forest woods or even plastics and bamboo are now used.[2][3]

Indigenous music of North America:
Native American/First Nations
Chicken scratch Ghost Dance
Hip hop Native American flute
Peyote song Pow wow
Tribal music articles
Arapaho Blackfoot
Dene Innu
Inuit Iroquois
Kiowa Kwakwaka'wakw
Navajo Pueblo (Hopi, Zuni)
Seminole Sioux (Lakota, Dakota)
Yaqui music Yuman
Related topics
Music of the United States - Music of Canada

Legal issues

Commercially in the United States, only flutes crafted by enrolled Native American tribal members of a federally recognized tribe, or their approved artisans, are considered to be authentic "Native American flutes". It is illegal for any other manufacturer to connote Native origins, or to claim their Native American style flutes as "Native American made", per the 1990 Indian Arts And Crafts Act. This act makes such misrepresentation a Federal felony. Non-native makers must at least include such terms as "style" in descriptions of their wares.


Modern Native American flutes are generally tuned to a variation of the minor pentatonic scale, which gives the instrument its distinctive plaintive sound. Recently some makers have begun experimenting with different scales, giving players new melodic options. Also, modern flutes are generally tuned in concert keys (such as A or D) so that they can be easily played with other instruments. The root keys of modern Native American flutes span a range of about three and a half octaves, from C2 to A5[9].

Early recordings of Native American flutes are available from several sources.[10].


Native American flutes most commonly have either five or six holes, but instruments can have anything from no holes to seven, including a thumb hole. Various makers employ different scales and fingerings for their flutes.[11]


  • Songkeepers (1999, 48 min.). Directed by Bob Hercules. Produced by Dan King. Lake Forest, Illinois: America's Flute Productions. Five distinguished traditional flute artists - Tom Mauchahty-Ware, Sonny Nevaquaya, R. Carlos Nakai, Hawk Littlejohn, Kevin Locke – talk about their instrument and their songs and the role of the flute and its music in their tribes.[12]
  • Journey to Zion (2008, 44 min.). A documentary by Tim Romero. Santa Maria, California: Solutions Plus. An inspirational documentary about Native flute enthusiasts attending the Zion Canyon Art & Flute Festival located in Springdale, Utah, the gateway to Zion National Park.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Backing tracks for Native American Flutes
  2. ^ a b c d Anatomy of the Plains Flute,
  3. ^ a b c d Native Flutes Contemporary Construction, Zadjik Productions
  4. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Legends and Myths of the Native American Flute". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  5. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "A Brief History of the Native American Flute". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  6. ^ History of Native American Flute, Zadjik Productions
  7. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "The Beltrami Flute". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  8. ^ "Philip Glass: Music: Piano Concerto No. 2". New York: Dunvagen Music Publishers. Archived from the original on 2010-08-24. Retrieved 2010-08-24. 
  9. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Keys of Native American Flutes". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  10. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Early Native American flute Recording Discography". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  11. ^ Clint Goss (2010). "Native American Flute Fingering Charts". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  12. ^ Joyce-Grendahl, Kathleen. "Songkeepers: A Video Review". Suffolk: International Native American Flute Association. Archived from the original on 2010-08-12. Retrieved 2010-08-13.  And: National Museum of the American Indian.[dead link]
  13. ^ "Journey to Zion documentary website". [dead link]

External links

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