Honoring the Tradition
To experience the Native American flute (NAF) is to know that the instrument is very different from other instruments that we have grown up with in the Western world.
The Native American flute is deeply rooted in traditional cultures, yet blends beautifully with contemporary music. Makers do not strive to create instruments to a common standard, but each craft their personal style and sound into their creations. The music is rooted in an uncommon scale for Western music, but one that is home to much of World music, and one that encourages free expression. And it channels the energy of the player away from technique and toward creating expressive, beautiful music regardless of their level of experience as musicians.
Players and makers of the Native American flute are always bridging a wide span of cultures, music, and roles for the instrument. The traditions surrounding the instrument are honored at the same time as the boundaries are pushed forward.
Working with an instrument that carries a deep cultural history can raise issues of ethics, methodology in handling artifacts and publication of information, and a general responsibility to strive for a level of cultural sensitivity (see [Hodgson 2002] for an overview of indigenous rights movements in Africa and the Americas).
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
A contemporary movement to address and strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples has resulted in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ([UN 2008]). Article 31 of this document states that:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect
and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional
cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their
sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic
resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna
and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional
games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to
maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property
over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional
On behalf of the United States, President Obama declared on December 16, 2010 that the U. S. would sign the declaration.
Indian Arts and Crafts Act
One responsibility that all who make and play the Native American flute have is to specifically honor and distinguish the makers of these instruments. In my experience, it is valuable to be aware of who had crafted an instrument and, where possible, know and acknowledge the maker who crafted the instrument and at least some basic information about the history of the instrument.
One aspect of this responsibility does carry the force of law in the United States, as specified in The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (the “IACA-1990” - see
[IACB 1935] ,
[IACB 1990] , and
[IACB 1996] ). A recent amendment, the Indian Arts and Crafts Amendments Act of 2010 ([Congress 2010] ), was signed into law by President Obama on July 29, 2010.
This public law distinguishes a maker who is “a member of any federally or State recognized Indian Tribe, or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian Tribe” from other makers (this text is quoted from this Web-based description of IACA-1990 by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, the author of IACA-1990). The IACA-1990 restricts how musical instruments can be named, reserving certain terms only to instruments made by such distinguished makers.
Two classes of Indian tribes are covered by IACA-1990: federally-recognized Indian tribes and state-recognized Indian tribes. (I have been told that the IACA-1990 actually was the first introduction of the term “state recognized tribe” into federal law). Here are some references for these two classes of tribes:
To honor that responsibility and tradition, it is widely held that a flute can only be offered for sale as a “Native American Flute” (or “American Indian Flute”) only if it was crafted by such a distinguished maker. The IACA-1990 does not directly address use of the term “Native American”, but it does address “any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced …”. Flutes crafted by makers who are not distinguished by IACA-1990 often call their instruments “Native American Style Flutes”. The terms “Native Flute” and “North American Flute” are also used.
However, while this responsibility applies as a matter of truth-in-advertising when talking about a specific flute by a specific maker, it does not extend to our discussion of the instrument as a whole. On this web site, I use the term “Native American flute” freely when discussing the design, playing, and body of music for the instrument.
Likewise, Flutopedia freely uses terms such as “Anasazi flute”, “Mojave flute”, and other flutes that name a particular tribe, culture, or tradition when describing a style of instrument.