Legends and Myths of the Native American Flute
Native American legends and myths add insight to the story of the Native American flute and provide a rich texture for those connected with the instrument. They augment and add dimension to the archaeological record, the early anthropological work with indigenous cultures, and the ongoing ethnomusicological studies.
John Wesley Powell and Tau-gu
As with all oral traditions they suffer (or benefit, depending on your viewpoint) from modification across generations.
Even the attempt to capture a legend is problematic: subject to issues of language translation. cultural understanding, and censorship. This quote from [Fowler-DD 1971] , pages 16–19,
describes the preservation work of John Wesley Powell, a U. S. geologist, explorer of the American West, and director of the Bureau of Ethnology
at the Smithsonian Institution:
His collection of myths and tales, especially those from the Southern Paiute,
add to the known distribution of motifs among Numic
tribes. Unfortunately, the collection is less useful than
it might be because Powell separated the stylized
“songs and chants” in the Southern Paiute tales from
the tales themselves, with no indication of their placement (see the editorial comments to MS 831-b, c;
p. 121). He also omitted nearly all scatological and sexual references in the tales, thus rendering some of the story-plots unintelligible.
There are also the well-intentioned goals of the of the transcriber, as described in the abstract of [Clements 1990]:
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's primary interest in Native American oral literature focused on its ability to provide an insider's view of Indian cultures. Consequently, he recognized the importance of fidelity to the originals when presenting texts of the Ojibwa stories and songs he collected. In practice, though, he made major changes in the material. Part of the rationale for his changes involved a desire to ensure that the texts would be perceived as true literature.
Origin of the Native American flute
This section offers some of the stories I've come across about the origins of the Native American flute.
Three of these legends
(The Sound of Flutes, The Origin of the Courting Flute, and Flute Origin Story from “The Whirlwind and the Elk in the Mythology of the Dakota”)
are central to Edward Wapp's thesis, The Sioux Courting Flute: Its Traditions, Construction, and Music ([Wapp 1984]).
Here is an excerpt from Wapp's description of these legends:
Although the legends relate to the origin of the courting flute, how it should be made, and its purpose, they also act as reinforcing agents for Sioux belief and culture, which help meet the immediate needs of the people. These reinforcements were so necessary because of the many changes in life style the Sioux have had to endure.
One of the beliefs they reinforce is that, in order to attain or achieve something, a person must seek the help of the Great Spirit and in order to receive His help, one must go through the sweat lodge purification ceremony and go on a vision quest. It was believed that only through these two activities could tribal members find help and guidance for their needs and goals.
The legends also reinforce important aspects of Sioux culture. A man's status and wealth were determined by his abilities as a hunter and warrior and not his accumulation of material wealth. For the Sioux marriage, having many children, and being able to provide for them were aspects of their conception of status and wealth. In order to achieve them, a man first had to prove himself as a good hunter and warrior.
The plots of the three legends are different, but their underlying themes are the same. They serve as a means of explaining the existence of the courting flute in Sioux culture as well as a means of perpetuating Sioux belief and culture. They also relate a code of ethics which governs aspects of social conduct.
Comanche Flute Origin
This legend is from the script of the DVD Toubat: A Journey of the Native American Flute ([Bee 2006]). Thanks to the Oregon Flute Store for permission to reprint it here.
Toubat: A Journey of the
Native American Flute DVD
The flute came to the Comanche people by way of a man who had suffered greatly.
One by one, his four children and wife had died.
In his sorrow he wept bitterly for many months.
When the tribe moved camp, he would set his tipi away from the others,
so as not to disturb them with his constant weepings.
One night, he had a dream. He was told that his spirit was in danger of
breaking from his constant mourning.
He was told that he could release his sorrow through music.
For many weeks, he thought about the meaning of the dream.
One day, as he was walking in the woods, he heard new sounds.
He followed the sounds until he came upon a cedar grove.
Some of the old cedars had dead branches in which the woodpeckers
had drilled holes.
Each time, as the wind blew, it created a sweet and soothing sound.
Remembering his dream about his sorrow and music, he took inspiration
from the cedar branch with the holes and set forth to form an instrument.
Some time later, he had made a flute.
The energy he had put into his tears and sorrow now went into his music,
thus creating music of great beauty and love.
In doing so, he let go of his grief and sorrow
and preserved the wholeness of his spirit.
The Sound of Flutes
This legend is from [Erdoes 1976], pages 4–8, transcribed here from Edward Wapp's thesis ([Wapp 1984]), Appendix B.
Once, untold generations ago, the people did not know how to make flutes. Drums, rattles, bull-roarers, yes - but not flutes. In these long-past days, before the white man came with his horse and firesticks, a young hunter went out after game. Meat was scarce, and the people in his village were hungry. He found the tracks of an elk and followed them for a long time. The elk was wise and swift. It is the animal that possesses the love-charm. If a man has elk medicine, he will win the one he loves for his wife. He will also be a lucky hunter.
Our poor young man had no elk medicine. After many hours, he finally sighted his game. The young hunter had a fine new bow and a quiver made of otter skin full of good, straight arrows tipped with points of obsidian - sharp, black, and shiny like glass. The young man knew how to use his weapon - he was the best shot in the village - but the elk always managed to stay just out of range, leading the hunter on and on. The young man was so intent on following his prey that he hardly took notice of where he went.
At dusk the hunter found himself deep inside a dense forest of tall trees. The tracks had disappeared, and so had the elk. The young man had to face the fact that he was lost and that it was now too dark to find his way out of the forest. There was not even a moon to show him the way. Luckily, he found a stream with clear, cold water to quench his thirst. Still more luckily, his sister had given him a rawhide bag to take along, filled with wasna - pemmican-dried meat pounded together with berries and kidney fat. Sweet, strong wasna - a handful of it will keep a man going for a day or more.
After the young man had drunk and eaten, he rolled himself into his fur robe, propped his back against a tree, and tried to get some rest. But he could not sleep. The forest was full of strange noises - the eerie cries of night animals, the hooting of owls, the groaning of trees in the wind. He had heard all these sounds before, but now it seemed as if he were hearing them for the first time. Suddenly there was an entirely new sound, the kind neither he nor any other man had ever experienced before.
It was very mournful, sad, and ghostlike. In a way it made him afraid, so he drew his robe tightly about him and reached for his bow, to make sure that it was properly strung. On the other hand, this new sound was like a song, beautiful beyond imagination, full of love, hope, yearning. And then, before he knew it, and with the night more than half gone, he was suddenly asleep. He dreamed that a bird called wagnuka, the redheaded woodpecker, appeared to him, singing the strangely beautiful new song, saying, “Follow me and I will teach you.”
When the young hunter awoke, the sun was already high, and on a branch of the tree against which he was leaning was a redheaded woodpecker. The bird flew away to another tree and then to another, but never very far, looking all the time over its shoulder at the young man as if to say “Come on!” Then, once more the hunter heard that wonderful song, and his heart yearned to find the singer. The bird flew toward the sound, leading the young man, its flaming red top flitting through the leaves, making it easy to follow. At last the bird alighted on a cedar tree and began tapping and hammering on a dead branch, making a noise like the fast beating of a small drum. Suddenly there was a gust of wind, and again the hunter heard that beautiful sound right close by and above him.
Then he discovered that the song came from the dead branch which the woodpecker was belaboring with its beak. He found, moreover, that it was the wind which made the sound as it whistled through the holes the bird had drilled into the branch. “Kola, friend,” said the hunter, “let me take this branch home. You can make yourself another one.” He took the branch, a hollow piece of wood about the length of his forearm, and full of holes. The young man walked back to his village. He had no meat to bring to his tribe, but he was happy all the same.
Back in his tipi, he tried to make the dead branch sing for him. He blew on it, he waved it around - but no sound came. It made the young man sad. He wanted so much to hear that wonderful sound. He purified himself in the sweatlodge and climbed to the top of a lonely hill. There, naked, resting with his back against a large rock, he fasted for four days and four nights, crying for a dream, a vision to teach him how to make the branch sing. In the middle of the fourth night, wagnuka, the bird with the flaming red spot on his head, appeared to him, saying, “Watch me.” And in his vision the young man watched - very carefully.
When he awoke he found a cedar tree. He broke off a branch, and working many hours hollowed it out delicately with a bow-string drill. Just as he had seen wagnuka do it in his vision. He whittled the branch into a shape of a bird with a long neck and an open beak. He painted the top of the bird's head red with washasha, the sacred vermilion color. He prayed. He smoked the branch with incense of burning sage and sweet grass. He fingered the holes ad he had watched it done in his dream, all the while blowing softly into the end of his flute. Because this is what he had made - the first flute, the very first siyotanka. And all at once there was the song, ghostlike and beautiful beyond words, and all the people were astounded and joyful.
In the village lived an itancan, a big and powerful chief. This itancan had a daughter who was beautiful, but also very haughty. Many young men had tried to win her love, but she had turned them all away. Thinking of her, the young man made up a special song, a song that would make this proud wincincala fall in love with him. Standing near a tall tree a little way from the village, he blew his flute.
All at once the wincincala heard it. She was sitting in her father's, the chief's, tipi, feasting on much good meat. She wanted to remain sitting there, but her feet wanted to go outside; and the feet won. Her head said, “Go slow, slow,” but her feet said, “Faster, faster.” In no time at all she stood next to the young man. Her mind ordered her lips to stay closed, but her heart commanded them to oopen. Her heart told her tongue to speak.
“Koshkalaka, washtelake,” she said. “Young man, I like you.” Then she said, “Let your patents send a gift to my father. No matter how small, it will be accepted. Let your father speak for you to my father. Do it sooN, right now!”
And so the old folks agreed according to the wishes of their children, and the chief's daughter became the young hunter's wife. All the other young men had heard and seen how it came about. Soon they, too, began to whittle cedar branches into the shapes of birds' heads with long necks and open beaks, and the beautiful haunting sound of flutes traveled from tribe to tribe until it filled the whole prairie. And that is how siyotanka the flute came to be -- thanks to the cedar, the woodpecker, the wind and one young hunter who shot no elk but who knew how to listen.
The Origin of the Courting Flute
This legend is from [Deloria 1961], pages 1–6, transcribed here from Edward Wapp's thesis ([Wapp 1984]), Appendix B, pages 147–149.
The origin of the courting-flute is thus, they say. Among the people there was a youth who wished to court girls, but alas, he loved only one maiden, they say.
It came to pass that he met her at the watering-place, but the maiden only laughed at him and said: “Who do you think you are? That I should marry one such as you, a dweller among the tents without a home, is absurd!” And with wicked words she reviled him and caused him to feel much shame. For, indeed, this maiden was a chief's daughter; and looked with abhorance upon the poor boy.
It came to pass that the youth thought: “She has brought me great shame; it would be just as well if I died immediately.”
So at dawn he shot an arrow northward and walked following it. In the evening as he was about to stop to rest, he found a fat deer impalled by the arrow which he shot. He took a piece of the flesh, roasted it and ate. After he had eaten, the ache in his heart was somewhat eased; and being very tired he soon slept.
So it was for four days: at dawn he would shoot an arrow and at dusk he would find a deer killed by the arrow. He would butcher the animal, roast the meat and eat, until finally he felt a little more cheerful.
As he sat alone on the fourth evening he thought, “I guess I might as well go home,” but suddenly he heard human voices coming from a grove of trees. Expecting the worst he thought, “Even if they kill me, what of it! It is death that I seek.” But as they drew near and their voices grew clear he heard that they were speaking Dakota.
One of the two said, “Friend, you give it to him,” but the other replied, “No, friend, you give it to him.” Again the first spoke: “Friend, you properly tell him.” Again the other refused, “But, no, friend, you tell him.”
At last they stopped just within the circle of fire light, and wonder of wonders, the boy saw that they were unsurpassably handsome young men, and as they stood there, their bodies seemed to emit glimmering light.
Finally one spoke saying: “Boy, to be sure we know that you have much pain in your heart, but a second time this will never be so - listen well!”
They had with them a long flute and one began to play. From the mouth of this flute, which was made like that of the gar, came a sweet, piercing sound.
Then they said to him, “Take this along with you, boy, and go home. At midnight when the people are sleeping, walk through the camp playing this flute, and it will surely happen that all the women will get up and follow you.” Then the two handsome young men turned around and, lo and behold, the boy saw two elks disappear among the trees.
The boy returned home, and as the people slept, he walked among the tents playing on the flute. As the music filled the air, the women all arose from the beds and, dragging their blankets, began to follow him. They corwded around hime, but he ignored them all, so entranced by the wonderful music was he. One girl accosted him repeatedly aying, “Say, don't you remember me? I am the chief's daughter.” But he heard only the sound of the wonderful music which came from the mouth of the flute.
One girl, however, didn't join the throng. She only sat alone quietly in her lodge. And it was she that the youth sought out and married.
It is said that this boy was the original elk.
Among the Dakotas the elk is symbolic of masculine beauty, virility, virtue, and charm. It is sometimes said of a man that he is an elk. This is a great compliment.
The Origin of the Flageolet
This legend is from Frances Densmore's Mandan and Hidatsa Music ([Densmore 1923]), pages 80–84. The original footnotes have been preserved, as well as the transcribed music.
For some arrangements of this melody, see the Origin of the Flageolet page on this site.
At a place called the “Round Missouri” Granny had her home.
A creek called “True Earth Creek” flowed into the Short Missouri,
and around the Short Missouri was a flat on which Granny's garden
patch was located.75 Old Granny often went to look at her field.
Once, just before reaching the mouth of the creek, she saw the print
of a little child's foot in the soft ground, and when she reached the field she found her squashes crushed and corn broken down. “That
is strange,” said Granny. The next time she came to her field she
saw the same things. She thought this was very strange and resolved
to find out who did it. So she went home and made a “kickball”, such as is used in a certain woman's game,76 and
also a bow and arrows. All these she took to her garden and left
them there. The next time she went to her garden the bow and
arrows were gone and the ball and squashes were shot full of arrows.
Evidently it was a boy and not a girl who was spoiling her garden.
Granny decided to watch for the boy and soon she saw him coming,
shooting his little arrows into the squashes.
“Why do you do that?” asked Granny.
“My mother is dead,” said the child. “She is near here.”
“Let us go and see,” said Granny.
The child was so small that he could not tell how it all happened,
but Granny saw the dead mother and realized that there
was nothing for her to do but to take the child to her house and
make a home for him. This she did, and as the child grew older
he was sometimes allowed to go hunting alone. Granny said, “Be
careful, something may happen to you.”
Now the boy observed something which he could not at all understand.
He noticed that Granny always put a kettle
of “stir-about”77 in her bed, and that the kettle was empty when she took
it out. He investigated and found a big snake. “So this is what
eats Granny's stir-about,” said the little boy. He thought about
it a great deal, saying to himself, “That big snake has been eating
Granny's stir-about.” At last he took his bow and arrows and shot
the snake. When Granny came home he told her what he had done.
The snake was her husband; but she did not like to tell this to the
little boy, so she said, “Good, I will go and bury him.” So she
took the big snake outdoors and talked to him, saying, “Husband,
the boy is foolish. Sometimes I am almost afraid of him myself.
He killed you, but I will put you in a good place.” She took him to
the Missouri River, but he didn't like that, so she took him back
to the round lake. He liked that place and said if she would put
him there the lake would never be dry. She put him there, and to
this day the lake has never been dry.
Granny again warned the boy that he must be very careful when
he was traveling about the country alone. One day the boy started
out by himself and came to a place where two men were butchering
a buffalo cow with an unborn calf. One of the men was a rough
fellow and he followed the boy, carrying the calf and calling out:
“Take this to Granny and tell her to cook it for you.” The little
boy was afraid of the man, and in trying to escape he backed against
a leaning tree, then he backed up the tree and along its branches
to the farthest end. The men put the calf in the crotch of the tree
and they went on butchering the buffalo cow. After this they went
away, leaving the boy in the tree. He stayed there a long time. At
last the two men came back, and the more sensible of the two said to
his companion, “I told you not to scare that little boy. He is still
in the tree.” He went near and called to him, saying, “Why do
you stay in the tree?” The little boy replied, “I'm afraid of the calf.”
The man said, “If you will take a message to Granny, we will
take down the calf and go home.” The little boy consented to do
this, and the man said, “Tell Granny that we want her for our
When the little boy came home. Granny pretended to be much
pleased, though she had been hoping that he would never come back.
She said, “I thought surely you were lost.” The little boy told his
strange experience and said, “The only way I could get back was
by promising to tell you that these men want you for their daughter-in-
law.” Of course this meant that they wanted the gifts, such
as robes and meat, which would accompany a daughter-in-law.
Granny said, “You did exactly right. Go back to the men and tell
them we have decided to do as they say. We will feed and clothe
them well, but in return we ask for one of their bows and arrows.”
The boy went back to the men and gave Granny's message, saying
that they were good hunters and he also hunted a good deal, so he
would like one of their bows. They gave him one, but as soon as
Granny saw it, she said: “That bow is not good. Their medicine
bow is patched with string and hangs opposite the door. Go back
again and say you have wounded a deer and that the string on your
bow is broken. Say that you want a bow to kill the deer, then
snatch the medicine bow and run as fast as you can. They will not
stop you, for you have already given part payment for it.”
The boy did as Granny told him, and brought back the bow. She
said, “They made you suffer, now we will make them suffer a little.”
Granny went into the field and got a large sunflower stalk. She
took a long section of this, bored a hole lengthwise through it, and
cut seven holes in one side of it. She said the seven holes represented
the seven months of winter, and told the boy that when he blew in it something would come out of it which would resemble snow. It
was her intention to bring the snow to punish the two men for
frightening the little boy. So she told the boy to blow in the end
of the sunflower stalk and taught him to play the following melody
on it. A number of Mandan and Hidatsa said this melody “sounded
right,” though they did not recall hearing the exact succession of
tones played on the flageolet. The rhythmic form of the melody is
clear and the structure is harmonic (fig. 4).
For some arrangements of this melody, see the Origin of the Flageolet page on this site.
Granny clothed the boy from head to foot in smoked buffalo hide
and told him exactly what to do. She told him to travel in four
circles, each smaller than the other, and to play his flute all the
time. The first circle was to be at the foot of the clouds (horizon), the next a little smaller, until the fourth would bring him near the
hunters. Granny said, “When you come near to your fathers, they
will know it.” The boy started out and traveled in a circle at the
foot of the clouds, playing on the cornstalk flute which Granny had
made for him. The two men were hunting as usual, and when the
boy began to play, the snow began to fall. The two men said,
“Something is wrong.” They made a lodge to stay in until the
snow should stop falling, but the snow came faster and faster, covering
the lodge until only the peak was above the snow. Their medicine
bow was gone, and they could kill no game. Then the more
sensible of the two men said, “Someone is causing this.” And the
other said, “It must be so.”
The boy kept circling closer and closer, playing on his flute, and
the snow kept falling. The hunters had no food, and they had only melted snow to drink. When the boy came in sight, they said, “Son,
we are having a very bad time.” The boy replied: “That is what
you gave me when I was up in the tree. Now it is my turn to make
you do something for me.” They said that they would, and, after
talking it over, they decided to transpose their relationship, so that
he would be their father instead of their son. The boy said, “All
right.” He stopped playing on his flute and the snow stopped falling.
The boy made all the snow disappear. The men were too
weak to hunt, so the boy got plenty of game for them and made them
comfortable. Then he went home.
When he reached home the old Granny said, “What have you
done?” The boy told her all about it, and she said: “That is good.
You gave them some of their own treatment.” After that the two
men had to get food and gifts of clothing for the boy, because they
had agreed that he should be their father. When the two men had
secured these gifts they came to the lodge and told Granny and her
grandchild that they had everything to satisfy all requirements, and
that they would return with the articles in four days.
The Old Woman Who Never Dies was sometimes called Grandmother, and her connection
with tbe corn has already been noted (p. 41). Will and Hyde, summarizing an
account by Maximilian, state that “Her residence was for a long time on the west side
of the Missouri, some 10 miles below the Little Missouri River, on the banks of a little
slough known as the Short Missouri. A single large house-ring here is pointed out as
the site of her home, and the high bottom there is said to have been the Grandmother's
field. According to the traditions, she became impatient at the too frequent visits of
the Hidatsas and moved into the west.” (Corn among the Indians of the Upper Missouri,
p. 223.) The location is evidently the same as that given in connection with
this legend, identifying “Granny” as the Old Woman Who Never Dies.
A somewhat different version of this tale is recorded by Kroeber, with the title
“Moon-child.” The boy is the child of the Moon and an earth woman. His mother
escapes to the earth and is killed, but he lingers near her body and steals his food from
the garden of an old woman. He is discovered by the old woman, who addresses him as
“My grandchild Moon-child.” This version contains no mention of a flageolet. Kroeber,
Gros Ventre Myths and Tales, pp. 90-94.
“The women are expert at playing with a large leathern ball, which they let fall
alternately on their foot and knee, again throwing it up and catching it, and thus
keeping it in motion for a length of time without letting it fall to the ground. Prizes
are given, and they often play high. The ball is often very neat and curiously covered
with dyed porcupine quills.” Maximilian, op. cit., p. 209. The specimen illustrated was
made for the writer, and is of buffalo hide, filled with buffalo hair.
A kind of pudding or mush made of ground corn and water, which is a favorite
article of food amorg these Indians.
Flute Origin Story from “The Whirlwind and the Elk in the Mythology of the Dakota”
This legend was collected by Clark Wissler and published in [Wissler 1905], pages 262–266, from which the text below was copied.
Edward Wapp's thesis ([Wapp 1984]) notes that the legend may be from from one of the Sioux tribes, or from the Teton.
In the Minnesota Lake country a long time ago, near the falls of
the Mississippi, was a Sioux camp. In this camp there was a young
man who, as an orphan, had been reared by his grandmother. The
family was poor. The young man fell in love with the daughter of a
wealthy man. She refused him. One day she ridiculed him and
said, “You are too poor to have a sweetheart; go lie with your
The young man returned to his grandmother's tipi, put his robe
over his head, and grieved. When his grandmother came in with
wood she saw that he was in trouble.
“Why so sorry? Come, eat some meat,” she said.
The young man explained his misfortune to her.
“Well,” she said, “I told you not to approach that girl. Why did
you not listen to me? You are poor. You have no good clothes.
You do not make a fine appearance.”
As the young man continued to grieve, the old woman said to him, “Now you must fast. Send out for some one to make a sweat
The sticks were brought and a sweat house fixed up. The young
man was requested to gather some sage grass and spread it all around
inside of the sweat house. Then the stones were heated, the young
man entered, and took the sweat.
When he came out his grandmother told him to cut four sticks,
forked at the end and as long as he was tall. When the sticks were
brought the grandmother opened a square raw hide bag, took from it
some buffalo hide, some deerskin, some red cloth and tobacco. She
tied up some tobacco in little pieces of the red cloth, and fastened
them on each of the sticks. Then she took two pieces of thong of
raw hide and cut them in halves, making four cords in all.
To her grandson she said, “Wait, have you a friend?”
When the young man's friend came, the grandmother requested
him to accompany her grandson to a high hill far out from the camp.
She directed him to set up the four sticks in the form of a square,
place her grandson in the centre, make two cuts in the skin of his
breast and two in the skin of his back, to thrust small sharp sticks
through the cuts and tie the ends of the cords to them. The grandson
was to face the east, and the ends of the cord were to be tied to
the four sticks set up in the ground.
The friend did this. The young man was directed to stand there
during the day. At night he was to untie the pins in front and lie
down upon his breast. His grandmother had given him a filled pipe
which he was to place in front toward the east. Before lying down
he was to look once to each of the four directions and pray for a long
time. The substance of this prayer was to be that he might seduce
many women, receive many horses, and kill many enemies.
This trial was to be endured for four days and nights.
During the second day of this ordeal, while looking toward the
east, the young man heard something above him say, “Young man,
what do you wish that you torture yourself in this way?”
The young man looked up. He saw a man, scarcely visible. The
man looked old, and his hair was white.
Again the young man heard the words, “Do you want something?”
“Yes,” said the young man. “I want many women, many horses,
and to kill one enemy. I have suffered much because of my poverty,
now I want something.”
“Very well,” said the man, as he gave him a thick red stick
wrapped in sage grass. “Now, go home. When there, take this bundle and tie it up high among the poles of the tipi where it will not be
seen. Go into the sweat house every morning for four days. You
must always sleep with your head directly beneath the bundle that
hangs above. When you have done this you will learn what the thing
is which the bundle contains.”
The young man did as directed. After the fourth day when he
awoke, he saw the same old man, who said, pointing at the bundle,
“To-morrow night the whole tribe must hear this. In the night
you are to go out and circle around the camp blowing upon this
flageolet. You are to pass around the camp four times. Then go to
the lodge of the girl you desire, strike upon the pole to which the
cover of the lodge is fastened, and the girl will come out to you.”
The flageolet was inside of the grass bundle. This is the way they
got the flageolet.
After a few days the young man called in his friend and invited
him to share in the fruits of the new medicine. The young man told
his grandmother that he would try that same girl again. The grandmother
laughed at him for being so foolish about this one girl. The
young man retorted, “I will bring all the women into this tipi, all
the women I want.” He requested her to go outside of the tipi,
close the door, and allow no one to approach the place.
When they were alone the two boys began to lay plans for seducing
girls. They were both poor. The young man showed his
friend the secret bundle. He took it down and began to open it,
saying, “Now, we shall steal many girls.” He laid the bundle on
some sage grass and burned some sweet grass. The bundle was held
over the smoke four times and then unwrapped. The young man
took out the flageolet and played softly.
“Now, my friend, we can get any woman in the camp,” he said.
Then the flageolet was put back into the bundle and the grandmother
called into the tipi. Her grandson told her that he intended
to steal a girl that she did not like, bring her to their tipi, and keep
her four days. During that time she was not to speak to the girl.
When night came the two boys took the flageolet, went out upon
the hills, and circled the camp in the direction of the sun, praying
for power over the women of the camp. They played the flageolet
as they circled the camp. The people in the tipis heard the noise
and wondered at it. The dogs barked and followed the sound around
the edge of the camp. The women went out to listen and to beat off
The boys returned to their tipis and hung up the flageolet in the
top of the tipi as before. Then they went out among the tipis and
each led a girl away. These were the finest girls in the whole camp.
The next day their relatives were looking for them in the camp but could not find them. They never thought of looking in the tipis of
the poor boys, for, of course, they were so poor and insignificant that
no girl would go away with them. Finally the people concluded that
the girls had gone to another camp.
Some of the women went to visit at the grandmother's tipi. They
talked to her about the missing girls. When they expressed the
opinion that they had gone off to another tribe the old woman
laughed. She said, “My children brought them home.”
“Oh, no! that is not possible,” they all said in a chorus.
“Well,” said the grandmother, “look and see for yourselves.”
When they raised the door flap and looked they saw the two boys
and the two girls together.
“Have you stolen the girls?” the women called to the boys.
“Yes,” was the reply.
The visiting women hastened to the mothers of the girls and
spread the news. The families talked it over, and the fathers of the
girls gave their consent to the double marriage. They sent an old
woman over to invite the girls and their lovers to live with them.
When the boys received the message they said, “No, we will live
After four days they sent the girls home.
Then they took the flageolet again, determined upon two other
girls, circled the camp four times as before, and led them away to the
After the boys had repeated this feat four times the people of the
camp discovered how they worked their medicine. The first to find
it out were two young men. These called upon the young man, whose
name by the way was Shoots-at-the-mark, and asked him for help in
securing girls for themselves. Each of them gave Shoots-at-the-mark
a horse. Now four boys went out with the flageolet, circled the camp,
and all got girls. This state of affairs went on until nearly all of the
girls in camp had spent four nights in the tipis with various young
One girl in the camp boasted that no one could steal her away. An
old woman reported what she said to Shoots-at-the-mark. He worked
his charm again and took her that very night. Then he drove her
away in disgrace. He made a song which he sang about the camp
in derision. The words were: —
“Shoots-at-the-mark is no good.
Then why do you come?”
In course of time Shoots-at-the-mark had received many horses
from the young men. He was rich now. He had four wives and a
very large tipi. The dream man who had given him the flageolet warned him that after being four nights with a girl he must cleanse
himself in the sweat house and take the flageolet with him. If he
failed to do this, he would be punished. At last he forgot. The next
time he started out to work his charm and circled the camp for the
fourth time, something went wrong. Shoots-at-the-mark rose in the
air, circled around, playing as he went. The people watched him go
up. At last he went out of sight. All the women in the camp were
crying, the dogs were howling, and the grandmother cried too. There
was some great power at work.
The young friend of Shoots-at-the-mark explained to the people
that there was a penalty for neglecting the injunctions pertaining to
this power, and that Shoots-at-the-mark must have made a mistake.
A long time after this happened a young man fasted in the same
place where Shoots-at-the-mark had received his power. He dreamed
about the man and the flageolet. In the dream he was told to make
his own flageolet and to take an owl for a charm. He did so, but did
not have the power of the first man to use the flageolet.
This was the beginning of the flageolet.
In the same article, Clark Wissler notes immediately after this legend:
Another version of this tale is that the young man first seduced
all the girls of the camp. Then he exercised his power on the married
women until he had led all of them astray. At last he ran away
with his grandmother. This seemed to have been the limit, for the
men came together in council and agreed that something must be done
about it. So they formed a plot, and when the young man returned
he was set upon and killed. His spirit went away, circling through
the air playing on the flageolet. For four nights they heard him
circle the camp in the air. At such times the women were very much
excited. Then he was heard no more.
… and also:
The flageolet of the Dakota, referred to in the above, is usually
one with five holes. The end is often carved to represent the head
of a bird or an elk. The figure of a nude woman is often placed near
the vent. Among the Blackfoot these instruments usually have four
holes. The Ojibway seem to prefer six holes.
The Legend of the Flute — Brule Sioux
This legend was told by Henry Crow Dog to Richard Erdoes in 1967. It appeared in [Erdoes 1984], pages 275–278.
Well, you know our flutes, you've heard their sounds and seen how beautifully they are made. That flute of ours, the Siyotanka, is for only one kind of music, love music. In the old days the men would sit by themselves, maybe lean hidden, unseen, against a tree in the dark of night. They would make up their own special tunes, their courting songs.
We Indians are shy. Even if he was a warrior who had already counted coup on a enemy, a young man might hardly screw up courage enough to talk to a nice-looking winchinchala - a girl he was in love with. Also, there was no place where a young man and a girl could be alone inside the village. The family tipi was always crowded with people. And naturally, you couldn't just walk out of the village hand in hand with your girl, even if hand holding had been one of our customs, which it wasn't. Out there in the tall grass and sagebrush you could be gored by a buffalo, clawed by a grizzly, or tomahawked by a Pawnee, or you could run into the Mila Hanska, the Long Knives, namely the US cavalry.
The only chance you had to meet your winchinchala was to wait for her at daybreak when the women went to the river or brook with their skin bags to get water. When that girl you had your eye on finally came down to the water trail, you popped up from behind some bush and stood so she could see you. And that was about all you could do to show her that you were interested, standing there grinning, looking at your moccasins, scratching your ear, maybe.
The winchinchala didn't do much either, except get red in the face, giggle, maybe throw a wild turnip at you. If she liked you, the only way she would let you know was to take her time filling her water bag and peek at you a few times over her shoulder.
So the flutes did all the talking. At night, lying on her buffalo robe in her parents tipi, the girl would hear that moaning, crying sound of the siyotanka. By the way it was played, she would know that it was her lover who was out there someplace. And if the Elk Medicine was very strong in him and her, maybe she would sneak out to follow that sound and meet him without anybody noticing it.
The flute is always made of cedarwood. In shape it describes the long neck and head of a bird with an open beak. The sound comes out of the beak, and that's where the legend comes in, the legend of how the Lakota people aquired the flute.
Once many generations ago, the people had drums, gourd rattles, and bull-roarers, but no flutes. At that long-ago time a young man went out to hunt. Meat was scarce, and the people in his camp were hungry. He found the tracks of an Elk and followed them for a long time. The Elk, wise and swift, is the one who owns the love charm. If a man possesses Elk Medicine, the girl he likes can't help sleeping with him. He will also be a lucky hunter.
This young man I'm talking about had no Elk Medicine. After many hours he finally sighted his game. He was skilled with bow and arrows, and had a fine new bow and a quiver full of straight, well-feathered, flint-tipped arrows. Yet the Elk always managed to stay just out of range, leading him on and on. The young man was so intent on following his prey that he hardly noticed where he went. When night came, he found himself deep inside a thick forest. The tracks had disappeared and so had the Elk, and there was no moon. He realized that he was lost and that it was too dark to find his way out. Luckily he came upon a stream with cool, clear water. And he had been careful enough to bring a hide bag of wasna, dried meat pounded with berries and kidney fat, strong food that will keep a man going for a few days.
After he had drunk and eaten, he rolled himself into his fur robe, propped his back against a tree, and tried to rest. But he couldn't sleep, the forest was full of strange noises, and the cries of night animals, the hooting owls, the groaning of trees in the wind. It was as if he heard these sounds for the first time.
Suddenly there was an entirely new sound, of a kind neither he nor anyone else had ever heard before. It was mournful and ghost like. It made him afraid, so that he drew his robe tightly about himself and reached for his bow to make sure that it was properly strung. On the other hand, the sound was like a song, sad but beautiful, full of love, hope, and yearning.
Then before he knew it, he was asleep. He dreamed that the bird called wagnuka, the redheaded woodpecker, appeared singing the strangely beautiful song and telling him: "Follow me and I will teach you."
When the hunter awoke, the sun was already high. On a branch of the tree against which he was leaning, he saw a redheaded woodpecker. The bird flew away to another tree, and to another, but never very far, looking back all the time at the young man as if to say, "Come on!"
Then once more he heard that wonderful song, and his heart yearned to find the singer. Flying toward the sound, leading the hunter, the bird flitted through the leaves, while it's bright red top made easy to follow. At last it lighted on a cedar tree and began hammering on a branch, making a noise like the fast beating of a small drum.
Suddenly there was a gust of wind, and again the hunter heard that beautiful sound right above him. Then he discovered that the song came from the dead branch that the woodpecker was tapping his beak on. He also realized that it was the wind which made the sound as it whistled through the hole the bird had drilled.
"Kola, friend," said the hunter, "let me take this branch home. You can make yourself another." He took the branch, a hollow piece of wood full of woodpecker holes that was about the length of his forearm, and made his way back to his village. In his tipi the young man tried to make the branch sing for him. He blew on it, he waved it around, no sound came. It made him sad, he wanted so much to hear that wonderful new sound. He purified himself in the sweat lodge and climbed to the top of a lonely hill.
There, resting with his back against a large rock, he fasted, going without food or water for four days and nights, crying for a vision which would tell him how to make the branch sing. In the middle of the fourth night, wagnuka, the bird with the bright red top, appeared, saying, "Watch me," turning himself into a man, showing the hunter how to make the branch sing, saying again and again, "Watch this, now." And in his dream the young man watched and observed very carefully.
When he awoke, he found a cedar tree. He broke off a branch and, working many hours, hollowed it out with a bowstring drill, just as he had seen the woodpecker do in his dream. He whittled the branch into the shape of the birds with a long neck and an open beak. He painted the top of the birds head with washasha, the sacred red color. He prayed. He smoked the branch up with incense of burning sage, cedar, and sweetgrass. He fingered the holes as he had seen the man-bird do in his vision, meanwhile blowing softly into the mouthpiece.
All at once there was the song, ghost like and beautiful beyond words drifting all the way to the village, where the people were astounded and joyful to hear it. With the help of the wind and the woodpecker, the young man had brought them the first flute.
In the village lived an itanchan - a big chief. This itanchan had a daughter who was beautiful but also very proud, and convinced that there was no young man good enough for her. Many had come courting, but she had sent them all away. Now, the hunter who had made the flute decided that she was just the woman for him. Thinking of her he composed a special song, and one night, standing behind a small tree, he played it on his siyotanka in hopes that it might have a charm to make her love him.
All at once the winchinchala heard it. She was sitting in her fathers tipi, eating buffalo hump meat and tongue, feeling good. She wanted to stay there, in the tipi by the fire, but her feet wanted to go outside. She pulled back, but her feet pulled forward, and the feet won. Her head said, "Go slow, go slow!" but the feet said, "Faster, faster!" She saw the young man standing in the moonlight, she heard the flute. Her head said, "Don't go to him, he's poor." Her feet said, "Go, run!" and again the feet prevailed. So they stood face to face. The girls head told her to be silent, but the feet told her to speak, and speak she did, saying, "Koshkalaka, young man, I am yours altogether."
So they lay down together, the young man and the winchinchala, under one blanket. Later she told him: "Koshkalaka, warrior, I like you. Let your parents send a gift to my father, the chief. No matter how small, it will be accepted. Let your father speak for you to my father. Do it soon! Do it now!"
And so the two fathers quickly agreed to the wishes of their children. The proud winchinchala became the hunter's wife, and he himself became a great chief. All the other young men had heard and seen. Soon they too began to whittle cedar branches into the shapes of birds heads with long necks and open beaks. The beautiful love music travelled from tribe to tribe, and made young girls feet go where they shouldn't. And that's how the flute was brought to the people, thanks to the cedar, the woodpecker, and this young man, who shot no Elk, but knew how to listen.
Other Flute-related Myths
Thunder and his Daughter
This legend is from Maidu Myths, by Roland B. Dixon ([Dixon 1902]), pages 101-102. The footnote says “Told at Chico.”
Thunder and his daughter lived together. He had fingernails that were like long claws. The daughter wanted to marry Flute-Player (Ya'lulupe), who was good-looking. Her father, however, did not want her to do so.
The girl said, “I will marry him.”
Then her father replied, “If you do, I will tear up the ground and roar so that it will make you deaf.”
The girl replied, “I can do that also.”
She went away then, and her father could not find her. He went everywhere, looking for her, went as a big thunder-cloud. At last he found her far away in the mountains.
He asked her where she had been, and she replied, “Nowhere.”
He said, “I know better, you have been to see Flute-Player.”
Finally the girl confessed. Then her father began to roar and tear up the ground, but failed to disturb his daughter.
When he found he could not scare her, she said, “Let me try.”
She began to roar and tear up the ground, as he had done, and soon killed him. If she had not done so, he would have gone on killing people till to-day. After she had killed the old man, she went away and married Flute-Player.
Legends Related to Kokopelli
Ekkehart Malotki re-tells six Hopi legends relating to Kokopelli in Part 2 of his survey of the subject
- The Man-Crazed Woman
- The Long Kwasi of Kookoopölö
- The Orphan Boy and His Wife
- The Crying Cicada
- The Cicadas and the Serpants
- The Boy Who Went in Search of the Cicadas
Origin Legend of the Navajo Eagle Chant
Franc J. Newcomb documented this origin narrative in
([Newcomb 1940]). It involves many references to flute, starting with this paragraph:
The girls did exactly as they were told and, after having made the ritualistic motions from the five directions, east, south, west, north and above, to the center, left the bundle in the middle of the room. The young man brought out four flutes, one white, one blue, one yellow (made of abalone) and one black. "As I play the white flute," he directed, "both of you step over the bundle from east to west.
Folklore in Teaching
Here are some ideas for using the rich folklore from Native American cultures in a teaching or music facilitation setting: