Flute and Whistle Traditions

I was told that the Drum and the Songs of the drum were the Music of the Earth, and that the Flutes and Whistles were the Music of the Sky and the Winged Beings. There are many teachings about these instruments and prior to the New Age movement (when it seemed like everybody who owned a wooden lathe could make a "traditional Native American flute"), they were mostly kept through their use in ceremonies. Among many of the Plains, Woodlands and Great Lakes Nations there was a long history of use of the flute by men in courtship rituals. I was playing mine for some school educational classes and an exchange teacher from Japan heard me play. He said it sounded much like the flute music from his homeland. I told him of some of the courtship tradition and he smiled and said that his people also told of how the flutes had power with women and courtship.

Among other tribes after they planted their crops, flutes would be played in the fields to help the crops grow fast and tall. Many hold that only the men use the flutes and/or whistles as they are a male instrument, with a direct connection to the male life forces. As was mentioned above the flute is many times connected to the Sky, Air, and Wind, after all it is the wind that gives it voice... And it is this connection to Father Sky, that establishes the male identity of these instruments. Much of Native American philosophy honors these male and female life forces, and is retained in these and other teachings today. It was the advent of Christianity with it's teachings that sex and ideas regarding these sacred life forces of the male and female being sinful, that these types of teachings went 'underground'. They were considered dirty and "uncivilized", but what we see as a comprehensive world view of sacred and enliving spiritual powers remains and is passed down for future generations.

We still use these instruments today for cultural and spiritual purposes. I was just at home for a Native American Church Meeting where the roadman conducting the ceremony used his eagle bone whistle during an important period of the night. These whistles are considered very sacred and to blow them for any other purpose would not be considered.

This sacred use of whistles exists today in many other Native ceremonies. I attended one in Montana in the late eighties, where the medicine man went outside at the proper time and blew his eagle bone whistle. He cautioned that no one was to go outside the house from that time till the ceremony was complete as the spirit powers would be coming in response to the whistle. As young Native children we are told not to whistle at night for we would call the spirits... It has been amazing to me over the years how many other persons from other tribes were told this very thing also. Another sacred use is during the Sundances held in the summer months where they are blown by the dancers in time to the drum. If you get the honor to attend one someday, you will notice that although both men and women pledge and dance that only the men use the whistles. It is one of the most beautiful sounds of the Earth, these whistles played in time to the drum and songs. When I was a young man a Lakota medicine man came to our house in Colorado and showed me and my brother the way to make these sacred whistles, the prayers and offerings to be made and the state of mind to adhere to when making them. Since that time I have been asked to make several for ceremonial purposes and somewhere in the land this summer those whistles will be singing out to the spirits again. It is very important to follow these teachings we have been given as they have real roots in knowledge about the spiritual world.

Today there is a resurgence in traditional flute music. Many artists have become very well known with their music and much more is being heard on the different media as well as in public performance. Some are sticking to the classic styles while others have expanded their performance to the worlds of Jazz, New Age, World Beat, and Rock. I haven't heard a Blues flute yet, but I'm sure someone is experimenting with that genre now as I write. I have always loved the sound of flute music and am glad to see it growing again in the Native communities. When I was young there were very few players, it seemed to almost die out till the early eighties when many young men began to play. Today there are even women who are carrying on the traditions and composing songs.

One of the sad things I have seen is many New Agers have attached themselves to the music of persons who have copied our traditional flute playing styles and put out albums directed at this market. Many of the persons who buy this music do not know that the persons playing are not of North American Indigenous ancestry and are being fooled by these tapes and CD's. As a musician myself, I believe that persons can learn other people's music, but I draw the line if musicians make money by posing as a Native artist with the ability to capitalize on it through sales of their product as well as performance fees. There are too many great flute artists from our Native communities for this to be happening! Most of whom are not being utilized and are not profiting from the flute rennaisance of today. It bothers me to go into stores today and hear what sounds like Native flute music and upon checking, find they are produced by some "meditation music" company. It also irritates me because this music was almost lost...and those persons who had the knowledge and commitment to keep it alive are not profiting from these sales. So my recommendation is, buy Native. Look and find dealers who know their product and buy Native. You can be assured that any tapes or CD's sold at this site will be performed by and benefit the royalties of Native artists.

Along this line I talked recently to a Hopi singer and asked him about his feelings regarding the wide use of the Kokopelli (an ancient picture depicting a hump-backed flute player) symbol in graphics, logos, advertisements and etc. He told me that he felt it wasn't right since people don't understand that the symbol has sacred meaning to his people. He said that long ago when women could not bear children they would seek out Kokopelli and he had the ability to restore their childbearing powers. He also said that people don't know the origin of the hump, as it is full of the seeds of all plants of the Earth, and denotes his power to cause birth and growth. These teachings are still held by his people and to use these depictions of Kokopelli for profit or casual use he felt was disrespectful to Kokopelli and to the people who still honor him. I recommend for persons to be thoughtful in their use of these symbols, respect their power and the people who have kept them through all the adversity of past and present times.

Among the Pow-wow world of North America today there are persons that have been given the right to carry whistles during the dances. They may blow them at the proper time to ask the singers to continue their song. When they see the people lively and dancing to the music of a powerful song they dance up to the drum and just before the song ends blow their whistles. They repeat this four times and afterwards shake hands and give gifts to the singers. Many of them hold up in their thoughts, dance, and whistle-voice persons who may be sick, grieving, or facing hard times. When they speak of the moment they say I blew my whistle for this person that they may regain their vitality. It is a beautiful ceremony and may be seen at many pow-wows today. I once heard a story of the origin of this:

Long ago Spirit gave to Humans the dances and songs that one may see at a pow-wow. There were very beautiful and fun!!! Eagle came by and saw how the Humans were enjoying themselves, Eagle listened to the songs and thought they were beautiful, too. Eagle flew down to where the people were and said, "I want to dance, too. I can be a good dancer." But Eagle so graceful and light in the air was clumsy and awkward on the ground. Try as Eagle would it was impossible to dance like the humans. Eagle's legs were too short and somehow those wings always seemed to get in the way. So Eagle finally gave up with frustration and said to the Humans, "I really love these ways of song and dance, I wish I could do them, too. Since I can't dance with you I will give you my feathers to use and also my bones to make a whistle...which will be my Voice. In this way I will be dancing with you and when I look down from above I will be with you, enjoying the drum and the songs also. And when there is a song that I like, one that really makes everyone dance and feel lively, YOU WILL HEAR MY VOICE. I will call out through that whistle and when you hear me, sing it again and I will be happy... And I will give my blessing to Humankind for this favor..."

Around the mid to late eighties many young pow-wow men took to carrying whistles, some by proper means and rites and others without proper instruction and initiation. They began to blow them at the pow-wows and the pow-wow world went "whistle-crazy"!! Sometimes whistle man after whistle man would come up to a drum that was singing and blow for continuation of the song. I witnessed once 12 different men use their whistles in succession. This went on for about 3 years and then the elders got together and began to bring everyone back to the proper and respectful use of the whistle. It was not to be overused we were told, and only persons who had the proper initiations had the right to blow them at these public festivals. Also it was not for the purpose of self promotion but as a blessing for the people and needed to used sparingly for that purpose. So even among our own communities we are told again that we need to respect the proper use of these important articles when we get out of line. Today the advice has been well taken and whistles are used sparingly and thoughtfully, and the traditions carry on.

As a final note I want to ask you to be thoughtful with these things. Many of you have made or purchased flutes yourselves in recent times. You can go to some stores these days and even get a flute assembly kit complete with an instructional video on how to play!! Something is lost when this begins to happen. There is no Root...no connection to a Source. Keep in mind that these instruments are still held in high regard by our People, we are a living culture, and these teachings are still followed in our Native communities. Make a connection if you can with a Native community or person, learn what else you can from them about the flute traditions. These things are very important and you will then begin to have your Root. If you have the opportunity to learn from a Native flute player, give them an offering of honor for what you will learn. Tobacco is a common gift of honor and is widely recognized. You not only honor them but the long line of Musicians of this Great Land who came before them. If you can't, then take care of your flutes and your songs...for they are very special to our hearts, too. Mitakuye Oyasin, All My Relations...

Arlie Neskahi Copyright 1995 All Rights Reserved

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