Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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The Development of Flutes in North America

While approaches to studying the development of flutes in Europe and Asia and in Central and South America have been largely focused on the archaeological record, there is considerable debate as to whether that approach is appropriate (or even useful) for North American flutes. In particular, the apparently sudden appearance of the Native American flutes in the historical record in the early 19th century raises questions of the influences that brought about this wonderful instrument.

  • Where was the Native American flute originally developed?
  • What were the roles of European and Asian influences on the design of the Native American flute?
  • How can we best incorporate the oral traditions that surround the Native American flute into our understanding of the history of this instrument?

In researching these instruments for my own understanding and for this we site, I have come to believe that most of the research needed to answer these questions has yet to be done. And many of the challenges that come with searching out primary sources are daunting. Uncovering personal journals, trading company manifests, military records, oral traditions from people whose lineage of training has been uninterrupted (see [Laylander 2001]), archaeological artifacts for wooden instruments that degrade quickly … all of these are especially challenging after the effects of cultural suppression. So, these fall into the domain of rabbit-hole questions.

So the best I can do is offer a look at some of the archaeological artifacts that we have uncovered, and hope that they give a glimpse at the rich history and stunning development of the Native American flute. And in the end, the most important aspect of the development of the Native American flute, regardless of how the design was influenced, was that the Native peoples who developed this instrument seemed to understand that an instrument that was straightforward to play and had a more limited scale had the effect of increasing the expressive power and enjoyment of the player.


Here are some general background references for flutes of North America:

  • [Brown 1967] The Distribution of Sound Instruments in the Prehistoric Southwestern United States: as a general reference for a survey of instruments of the Southwest – present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Utah, and Southern Colorado.
  • [Payne 1999] The Native American Plains Flute: as a general reference for the archaeological record and types of traditional instruments.

The L'Anse Amour Flute

The oldest North American flute with a definitive dating that I have found cited in the literature is a bone flute found in a burial mound in L'Anse Amour on the Strait of Belle Isle coast in Southern Labrador. The burial was radiocarbon dated to 5580±140 BCE ([Jelsma 2000], page 15). Katherine Lee Hall Martin had previously reported a date of 5525 BCE in a 1974 personal communication with Paul Parmalee ([Martin-KLH 1976] Bone Flutes and Whistles from Archaeological Sites in Eastern North America, page 25).

In July 2016, I obtained a copy of the original report on the L'Anse Amour flute by Robert J. McGhee and James A. Tuck. Excerpts from this report are provided in PDF format ([McGhee 1975] An Archaic Sequence from the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador). That report has images that were reported in actual size, so I was able to develop these measurements derived from the physical report:

The L'Anse Amour flute with measurements

The L'Anse Amour Flute with measurements Larger image

For additional information on this artifact, see The L'Anse Amour Flute page.

The East-Texas Flute

The oldest flute from the present-day United States is a bone flute dating before 4000 BCE. The description in the display case at Heritage Village proposes that it was side-blown, like a transverse flute, and that the player changed pitch by cupping the end of the flute with one hand.

I have little other information on this flute, and have named it (for reference on this site), the “East-Texas Flute”. More research is needed!

The East-Texas Flute, on display at Heritage Village, Woodville TX

The East-Texas Flute, on display at Heritage Village, Woodville TX. Photo by Robert Gatliff More information

The case card above the flute says:

FLUTE Found in an excavation in East Texas. The Flute would be blown from the side. With the hands cupped at the end the tone could be changed. It was made from the wing bone of a large bird. Diagnostic points found in the strata above the flute would date it from 4000 BC to 7000 BC.

The Mammoth Cave Reed Flute

The earliest North American cane flute comes the Upper Mammoth Cave site in present-day Kentucky ([Carstens 2004]). Calibrated dates based on radiocarbon dating of artifacts in the Upper Mammoth Cave range from 756 BCE to 203 BCE ([Applegate 2008], page 390, citing [Watson-PJ 1969]; also [Kennedy 1997]).

The flute was discovered in 1978 by Philip J. DiBlasi, who took this photo in situ (photo provided by Barbara Graham):

The Mammoth Cave Flute

The Mammoth Cave Flute Larger image

According to Graham, the overall length of the flute is 40.3 cm (15.87″) with an average holes diameter of 0.725 cm (0.29″). This description of the flute is provided in [Applegate 2008], pages 413 and 414:

Because it exhibited signs of burning, the broken four-hole flute probably was reused by the prehistoric cavers as torch material. The likely Early Woodland item is only the second documented cane flute in the Eastern Woodlands, the other deriving from a rockshelter in the Ozarks (Carstens and DiBlasi 2004). Pictographs were documented nearby on a breakdown boulder in the Devil's Looking Glass area of Upper Mammoth Cave. The cross-hatching, rectilinear, and spiral geometric designs were rendered with cane torch charcoal (Carstens and DiBlasi 2004; Crothers et al. 2002; DiBlasi 1996).

In November 2010, Mike Jones made a replica of this flute based on measurements of the picture, and provided this image of his creation:

The Mammoth Cave Flute

Replica of the Mammoth Cave Flute by Mike Jones Larger image

Mike also provided pitches he measured playing this replica flute:

Primary Scale for Mammoth Flute Replica by Mike Jones
Fingering Frequency Note
Yuma four hole finger diagram open open open open 587 Hz D5 - 1 cent
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed open open open 532 Hz C#5 + 29 cents
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed closed open open 494 Hz B4
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open 457 Hz Bb4 - 34 cents
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed 444 Hz A4 +16 cents

The Kin-Boko Reed Flutes

In 1915, an archaeological team from the Peabody Museum led by Samuel J. Guernsey excavated four reed flutes, each with a single finger hole. They were located in Cave 1 on the South side of Kin-Boko Canyon (also called “Kinboko” and “Kin Boo Koo”), on the Western side of Marsh Pass, SouthWest of Kayenta in NorthEastern Arizona. The flutes were designated items 31 to 34 and described in [Kidder 1919], page 186:

These range in length from 4 inches to 4¾ inches. They are made from sections of reed, and each is provided with a single “stop,” burned, not cut, into one side. In the two longer examples (33 and 34) the “stop” is placed at a joint in the reed; that of 34 is bound about and partly covered by a wrapping of sinew and fine fiber. The shaft of 34 is decorated with burned-in bands and with longitudinal and scroll-like patterns of burned dots.

Items 31 to 34 are shown on plate 84 of [Kidder 1919], and became part of the Peabody Museum collection with accession numbers 15-11-10/A2107, 15-11-10/A2104, 15-11-10/A2106, and 15-11-10/A2105, respectively.

Kin-Boko Reed Flute #34

Kin-Boko Reed Flute #34 More information

In 1919, Kidder and Guernsey could only begin to guess at the relative ages of the Cliff-dwelling and Basket Maker cultures that left the artifacts they excavated ([Kidder 1919], pages 209–211). Donald Nelson Brown speculated in 1967 that these flutes pre-dated 750 CE ([Brown 1967], pages 80–81).

Ten artifacts from the cave where these flutes were found were radiocarbon dated and reported in [Coltrain 2007] The Stable- and Radio-Isotope Chemistry of Western Basketmaker Burials: Implications for Early Puebloan Diets and Origins. The range of dates for these artifacts is 396 BCE – 53 CE, using the earliest likely date of the oldest artifact to the latest likely date of the most recent artifact.

The Tularosa Cave Flutes

A long-term archaeological study led by Paul S. Martin for the Chicago Natural History Museum was conducted in West-Central New Mexico starting in 1939. This was an extended effort to identify the characteristics of the Mogollon Culture, which had only recently been identified as a distinct culture from the Hohokam and Ancient Pueblo (Anasazi) Cultures.

In 1950, the Martin expedition excavated 2,130 artifacts from Tularosa Cave, a Mogollon site about one mile East of Aragon, New Mexico that was in continuous use from 350±200 BCE until about 1000–1200 CE. They carefully recorded the stratigraphic placement of each artifact from the floor of the cave. They recorded up to 14 levels and 3 meters (10′), and were able to radiocarbon date the strata and then accurately date many of the artifacts.

The findings from the Tularosa Cave excavations are generally reported in [Martin 1952]. They identified several distinct phases, based on the stratification of the cave:

  • The Pre-Pottery Phase, dated to the range 300±200 BCE to about 150 BCE ([Johnson-F 1951], pages 17–18).
  • The Pine Lawn Phase, dated to the range 150±160 BCE to about 500 CE ([Johnson-F 1951], page 17).
  • The Georgetown Phase, about 500–700 CE.
  • The San Francisco Phase: 700–900 CE (dated by tree-ring dating, [Smiley 1951]).
  • The Three-Circle Phase: about 900–1000 CE.
  • The Reserve Phase: from 1000 CE with an unknown end date.

Four reed flutes are cataloged in [Martin 1952], page 357. The dating for the flutes is shown in Figure 131 of page 364 as:

  • two flutes from the Pre-Pottery Phase,
  • one from the Pine Lawn Phase, and
  • one from he Georgetown Phase.

The flutes are further described in [Martin 1952], page 429 and shown on Figure 161 as being made of reed (Phragmites communis). Dimensions are given as “10.9, 22.7, 6.9, 5.9 cm (fragments)”, but it is not clear which flute is which, which of the flutes are fragments. Two of the flutes are listed as having two finger holes and two flutes with three finger holes.

These flutes now appear to be housed at The Field Museum in Chicago as catalog numbers 260972 through 260975 in the Paul S. Martin Collection. Further research is needed!

Hopewell Tradition Panpipes

Distribution of Hopewell Panpipes

Distribution of Hopewell Panpipes More information

A group of cultures flourished from about 200 BCE to 500 CE in a wide area extending roughly from the Great Lakes to present-day Alabama and Florida. They were connected by a common network of trade routes that made materials and products available from within the network as well as from all over the United States.

The common traditions that these cultures shared is called the Hopewell Tradition (aka the “Hopewell Culture”) and the common trade routes are called the Hopewell Exchange System ([Price-DT 2008] pages 274–277).

Panpipes crafted by the Hopewell Tradition were included in burial mounds from about the middle of the Hopewell Tradition timeframe (i.e. about 150 CE) through the end of Hopewell interaction (about 500 CE) ([Seeman 1995], page 136).

Early archaeologists did not recognize the “sheet metal objects” ([Atwater 1820]) and “conjoined copper tubes” ([McKern 1931], page 261) as musical instruments.

Here is a woodcut from [Atwater 1820], page 173, showing “Figure 1. back view of the silver ornament for the sword scabbard - 2. Front view of the same”:

Woodcut in 1820 depicting a Hopewell Panpipe

Woodcut in 1820 depicting a Hopewell Panpipe More information

Charles C. Willoughby was the first to propose that “Perhaps the tubes may have been whistles of different notes joined together in a single instrument” ([Willoughby 1922] page 51, ¶1), but his interpretation was not accepted by other anthropologists of the time. However, more evidence appeared, and in 1957 Melvin Fowler first recognized the “corrugated artifacts” to have been functionally panpipes ([Fowler-MK 1957]).

As of 1997, a total of 105 panpipes had been excavated from 55 sites, mostly burial mounds. Many came from present-day Ohio (28 panpipes from 14 sites), but panpipes have been found at sites from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Appalachians and from Northern Wisconsin and Southern Ontario to the Gulf Coast. ([Young 1970], [Turff 2006] page 650, [Turff 1997]).

Hopewellian panpipes typically have three or occasionally four cane, reed, or bone tubes tubes that were held together with a jacket of copper, or occasionally silver or iron. The tubes varied in length from 2.3 cm up to 20.7 cm (0.9″ to 8.15″). The tubes were wild cane (Arundinaria), elder (Sambucus), sumac (Rhus), and perhaps willow (Salix). ([Turff 2006]).

The design of panpipes during this period was very consistent across the entire region - “panpipes in Ohio, Illinois, and Georgia are virtually duplicated in Florida” ([Caldwell-JR 1964] page 137). This has led to a theory of shared social organization, artistic style, and an exchange system that spanned the region.

James A. Ford provided a detailed description and drawing of a particular panpipe in [Ford-JA 1963], page 16-17:

It is 20.7 cm. long and 5.5 cm. wide and was made to hold three cane tubes approximately 1.3 cm. in diameter, side by side. On the side that may be referred to as the front of the instrument, the copper was bent into flutings to conform to the curves of three cane tubes. The jacket is flat on the reverse where the edges of the copper sheet were brought together and held by two cord ties that passed through holes in the sheet.
At the mouthpiece end only, on the front side of the instrument, the copper has been coated with a thin sheet of silver for a distance of 3.2 cm. from the end … The cane tubes have been preserved by copper oxide. They run the full length of the copper jacket and apparently did not extend beyond . . . The left-hand cane tube was wrapped for part of its length near the center with twisted bast-fiber string. Two layers of vegetable material, possibly the inner bark of some tree, had been wound over this in strips 3 mm. wide. This wrapping perhaps helped to secure the cane tube in the copper covering.
Usually in the making of panpipes of cane or bamboo the septum that closes the tube at each joint is utilized to control the length of the tube, but such is not the case with this instrument. The three cane tubes run the full length of the copper jacket, and no joints are visible. The righthand tube has been plugged with a small stick for 11.5 cm. of its length, leaving an open tube 9.2 cm. long. The plug is a small twig of a variety of wood that has a pith center. It is about 3 mm. in diameter, wrapped with a two-ply yarn which, strips about 3 mm. wide, probably the inner bark of some tree . . . The string is made of a bast fiber that cannot be identified with certainty.
No plug is visible in the central tube. A wooden plug in the left-hand tube extends to within 4.5 cm. of the end of the tube. Evidently this was the high note side of the panpipe.

Gloria Young reconstructed a panpipe from this description and reported that “the two artificially stopped tubes immediately produced tones when blown. The tube with the longer air column produced the lower note, an A flat one and one half octaves above middle C; the tube with the shorter air column produced an A flat one octave higher than the low note.” ([Young 1970]).

These two drawings are from [Ford-JA 1963] and [Young 1970], showing the original artifact and Gloria Young's reconstructed panpipe:

Drawing of the Helena Crossing Hopewell panpipe Drawing of a reconstruction of the Helena Crossing Hopewell panpipe

Drawings of the Helena Crossing Hopewell panpipe and its reconstruction More information More information

You can also compare these drawings with the rendition by Gina Turff from [Turff 2006], which has additional details.

Since panpipes seemed to appear in the Hopewell Tradition suddenly in about 150 CE, a big question is “Where did they come from?” Were there outside influences, either from the Caribbean through Florida and the Southeast, or from Central America via the Mississippi River? Poverty Point, Louisiana, was as an early instance of a Hopewell Tradition culture, which would support the Central America-Mississippi River influence.

However, based on other aspects of Hopewell Tradition that shows direct lineage from the earlier Adena culture and a lack of outside influences, the most widely accepted theory today is that there was no intrusion by foreign peoples. And from [Young 1970], page 31:

It is unthinkable that a people who lived along the banks of rivers where cane grows wild would not have known the principle of the panpipe without having to rely on recent diffusion for the idea.

An even more interesting question deals with the role of panpipes in Hopewellian society. Thanks to the detailed study of many artifacts in widespread burial mounds, anthropologists believe that we have a good picture of the Hopewell beliefs and lifestyles and the role that panpipes played in these cultures. Gina Turff summarized this beautifully in [Turff 2006], page 693:

It is unlikely that panpipes communicated shared specific religious ideas among Hopewellian peoples … The aspect of interregional Hopewell represented by panpipes does not indicate it to have been a single religion or system of meaning or an interwoven social structural-symbolic-ideological system.
The most essential conclusion reached here is that interregional Hopewell, or at least the aspect of if that involved panpipes, was not a single kind of social, religious, artistic, or semantic phenomenon but, instead, a fluid material-projective process that allowed the different meanings significant to individuals of different traditions each to be mirrored back to them through roughly similar artifact forms. This process allowed long-distance journeying and other forms of interregional interactions to occur, and from the looks of it, effectively and probably fairly peacefully.


The Talus Village Bone Flute

[Morris 1954], page 63 describes “A bone flute with one stop in addition to the sound orifice was found at the Talus Village, southern Colorado, dating to the 4th century” according to [Brown 1967], page 80–81.

The Obelisk Cave Reed Flutes

One complete and one partial reed flute were excavated by Charles Bernheimer in Obelisk Cave in the Prayer Rock District of northeastern Arizona. The provenience of these artifacts are described in [Brown-EJ 2005], pages 209–210:

No field notes from this endeavor have been found to date; the most that is known about its provenience is presented by [Morris 1936], page 35 and [Morris-EA 1980] Basketmaker Caves in the Prayer Rock District, Northeastern Arizona, page 20. If the tree ring dates from the site of 470 CE to 489 CE reflect cutting dates from the period of construction and not reuse of timbers from an earlier occupation, the reed flute associated with them is early Basketmaker in origin.

Bernheimer, a self-described “tenderfoot and cliff dweller from Manhattan” ([Bernheimer 1924], page xi), collected these artifacts as part of the expedition in 1930 (he was, presumably, less of a “tenderfoot” by 1930).

These artifacts are housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History:

The Gypsum Cave and Other Yuma Flutes

Two flutes that were excavated at Gypsum Cave, Nevada ([Harrington 1933]) are both rim-blown designs that, according to Dr. Richard W. Payne, “might be considered a prototype of the traditional Yuma flute” ([Payne 1989], page 15). The longer flute has four finger holes and the shorter one has six.

The dates on the Gypsum Cave flutes are uncertain, but they are likely from the late Basketmaker era — approximately 500–750 CE ([Payne 1989], page 14).

These flutes are shown in [Harrington 1933], plate XI, shown here (the scale of the two flutes are not the same):

Gypsum Cave flute 6F396, from [Harrington 1933], plate XIa

Gypsum Cave flute 6F396, from [Harrington 1933], plate XIa Larger image


Gypsum Cave flute 6F84, from [Harrington 1933], plate XIb

Gypsum Cave flute 6F84, from [Harrington 1933], plate XIb Larger image

The measurements for the flutes were also provided in [Harrington 1933], pages 149–150. I am taking the end of the flute that has the smaller diameter to be the head end, based on Harrington's observation about the smaller flute that “The small end, which I take to be the proximal, is nicely rounded and smoothed”. Measurements were taken in inches, and I have calculated the hole locations from the foot end of the flute. The %PBL measurement is the percentage of the physical bore length (also called the station). In this case, the physical bore length is a straightforward measurement from the head end to the foot end:

Measurement Details 6F396 6F84
inches %PBL inches %PBL
Overall Length   23 3/4   10 1/4  
Outside Diameter head end 7/16   1/2  
  foot end 9/16   9/16  
Wall Thickness   1/16+      
Hole Diameters   1/8±   3/16±  
Hole 1 Location from head end 6 3/4 28.4% 3 1/2 34.1%
from foot end 17      
Hole 2 Location from head end 8 3/4 36.8% 4 3/8 42.7%
from foot end 15      
Hole 3 Location from head end 10 7/8 45.8% 5 1/4 51.2%
from foot end 12 7/8      
Hole 4 Location from head end 12 3/4 53.7% 6 5/8 64.6%
from foot end 11      
Hole 5 Location from head end     7 3/8 72.0%
from foot end        
Hole 6 Location from head end     8 3/8 81.7%
from foot end        

However, the assignment for the head end and foot end by Harrington for 6F396 may have been in error. If you swap end, the %PBL measurements for the four finger holes are 46.3%, 54,2%, 63.2%, and 71.6%. This closely approximates the %PBL measurements for the Broken Flute Cave flutes as well as the Mummy Cave flutes.

The images below are digital scans of an albumen photographic print that was part of the Library of Congress American Treasures Exhibit in 2005 and is available at the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs web site. It was taken by Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912) in a studio in San Francisco in 1885 ([Payne 1989], page 18, ¶2), although the current Library of Congress record lists the creation date as “between 1870 and 1912”. The title listed by the Library of Congress is simply “Yuma musician, Arizona”.

The color has been corrected and the contrast enhanced on the detailed image on the right to make it easier to see the embouchure and finger position.

Yuma flute player Detail of Yuma flute player

Yuma musician, Arizona More information More information

Wilma Kaemlein, a director of the Arizona State Museum (and also a warden of the Yuma Territorial Prison, now a state park), wrote in [Kaemlein 1955], pages 2–3:

The flute was never used for group singing, but only by an individual. Usually this was a young man courting his sweetheart. …

The Yuma made both flutes and flageolets. These instruments were made from varying lengths of the cane axta. In each length of cane there would occur a number of joints or partitions. The two ends were also cut off at a place where the joints occurred. When a flute was made, these partitions were bored through from inside and removed. The outside of the joints was smoothed. Four stops were cut in the middle section. Densmore states that when the flute was played, it was “held horizontally toward the right, and the sound directed across the edge of the tube”. The player's lips formed the mouthpiece.

When a flageolet was made, one of the partitions was pierced only — near the wall of the tube. Below this an opening was made through the wall. This opening was partly covered with a thin piece of cane or bark (more recently with brown paper), making a “whistle head”. There were three stops in addition, at the lower end. The player simply blew into the tube at the end, holding it vertically in front of him. Both of these instruments were almost completely covered on the outer surface by decorations of incised and painted designs. In order to form these designs, square or triangular sections of the outer layer of the cane were removed and paint applied to these areas.

Kaemlein goes on to report on the collection of the Arizona State Museum, consisting of 34 flutes, 3 flageolets, and one “potential flageolet”. However, Dr. Richard W. Payne believed that these flutes were not reliable as models of traditional flutes since the “show little evidence of heavy use, and were apparently made for sale to tourists” ([Payne 1989], page 15, ¶3).

Frances Densmore studied Yuman music and flutes ([Densmore 1932]), and provided a photo in plate 25 (the upper image is a scan from Densmore's publication, the lower one is a recent transfer from the original glass negative):

Yuma Transverse and Vertical Flutes from [Densmore 1932] Plate 25
Yuma Transverse and Vertical Flutes from [Densmore 1932] Plate 25

Yuma Transverse and Vertical Flutes More information

Dr. Richard W. Payne also provides a photo of the Yuma rim-blown flute made of Phragmytes communis ([Payne 1989], figure 10, page 17) in his collection, as well as measurements for that flute.

This table compares the finger hole locations of the Densmore 1932 and Payne 1989 flutes, as a percentage of the physical bore length (%PBL — also called the station). The Densmore 1932 flute was measured from the right end of the top flute in the above image. The Payne 1989 flute measurements are provided in [Payne 1989], pages 17–18 for the flute shown in his figure 10 on page 17.

Measurement Densmore
%PBL cm %PBL
Overall Length   48.5  
Hole Diameters   0.7  
Hole 1 Location 36.8% 18.2 37.5%
Hole 2 Location 45.5% 21.9 45.2%
Hole 3 Location 56.0% 25.5 52.6%
Hole 4 Location 64.5% 30.5 62.9%

The correspondence of the %PBL measurements for the finger hole locations between the Densmore and Payne flutes is rather close, indicating that they produce very similar relative scales. Also, looking back at the %PBL measurements for the Gypsum Cave 6F396 flute above (28.4%, 36.8%, 45.8%, and 53.7%), it appears that the Densmore and Payne flutes have the same finger layout as the Harrington 6F396 flute from the Basketmaker era, except that they have dropped the top hole from the Gypsum Cave 6F396 flute and added an additional hole at the bottom.

What scale did these flute produce? Payne provided an approximate scale for his flute:

Payne 1989
fingering note interval
Yuma four hole finger diagram open open open open E6 octave
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed open open open D6 minor seventh
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed closed open open C6 minor sixth
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open A5 perfect fourth
Yuma four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed E5 root

The equivalent notes on a contemporary Native American flute can be played with the fingerings Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed open closed open open Finger diagram closed open closed open open open Finger diagram open open closed open open open (An E minor Native American flute will produce the same pitches, but any Native American flute will get the same relative notes).

If you work with this scale on a Native American flute for a while, you'll find some interesting properties. Using Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed as a root note of melodies seems to be rather impractical, in particular because there is no perfect fifth in the scale (what would be the Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open note). And you will probably find your melodies centering on the root note of Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open.

So, based of this analysis, I am calling the scale made by these notes on the Native American flute Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed open closed open open Finger diagram closed open closed open open open Finger diagram open open closed open open open - Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open the Yuma Scale.

Interestingly, he Yuma scale lines up exactly with the Mode 4 Pentatonic Minor scale, except that it has one missing note - the Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open note on a Native American flute.

For present-day flutes that were inspired by these artifacts, see The Yuma Flute.

The Bear Ruin Bone Whistles

[Haury 1940], page 115 describes “the appearance of bone whistles at Bear Ruin in central Arizona, dating 600-800 CE” according to [Brown 1967], page 80.

The Broken Flute Cave Anasazi Flutes

In the summer and fall of 1931, Earl H. Morris led an expedition from The Carnegie Institution of Washington to the Prayer Rock district of NorthEastern Arizona. His team unearthed thousands of artifacts. Among them were wooden flutes that were constructed between 620–670 CE.

For detailed information on the Broken Flute Cave flutes, see Anasazi Flutes from the Broken Flute Cave.

For present-day flutes that were inspired by these artifacts, see The Anasazi Flute.

Mesa Verde Flutes

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde. Photo by Gustaf Nordenskiöld in 1891.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde.
Photo by Gustaf Nordenskiöld in 1891. Larger image

Several flutes are cited from the Mesa Verde area in Southwestern Colorado:

The Rohn Flute

One flute is listed in [Brown 1967], page 82 as:

A flute with eight stops [finger holes], the largest number of stops in any Southwestern flute, from a site near Mesa Verde (Arthur H. Rohn, personal communication)

No other information is known about this instrument.

The Nordenskiöld Spring House Flute

Gustaf Nordenskiöld was a young Swedish scholar from a family of scientists and explorers. As part of a world tour, he arrived at Mesa Verde days after his 23rd birthday. He was apparently so captivated by the site that he decided to terminate his world tour and apply his scientific training to conducting the first archaeological excavations of the cliff dwellings ([Wilcox 2002]).

Nordenskiöld describes the fragments of a flute he excavated at Spring House in his comprehensive 1893 report, The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde ([Nordenskiold 1893], page 101):

The Nordenskiöld Spring House Flute

The Nordenskiöld Spring House Flute Larger image

Among the wooden objects some fragments of a flute, found in Spring House, should also be mentioned. They are represented in fig. 64. The flute was made of a bough, its diameter was 2.5 cm., the longest fragment measured 45 cm. and was pierced with three holes. In a smaller fragment, which could not be fitted together with the rest, was a trace of a fourth hole.

Spring House is a sheltered site at an approximate elevation of 7,000 feet. It consists of more than 10 predominantly surface structures. Tree-ring dating of 20 components at the site have provided dates in the range of 1266–1277 CE ([Robinson-WJ 1991], page 18).

The collections of Nordenskiöld, and presumably the flute fragment, are held by the National Museum of Finland. They are on display at the Museum of Cultures in Helsinki as part of the collection Kaukaa Haettua ("Fetched from Afar").

The Betatakin Flute

The Betatakin  Flute, drawing and image

The Betatakin Flute,
drawing and image Larger image

Jesse Walter Fewkes briefly mentions a flute excavated at Betatakin during the 1909 expedition to the pueblo ruins around Kayenta, Arizona ([Fewkes 1911], page 15 (footnote) and page 30):

This fact and the discovery of a flute In one of the rooms make it appear that Betatakin was inhabited by Flute clans, which, according to Hopi legends, lived in this region. … A flute identical with those used at the present day by Flute priests at Walpi was found at Betatakin, thus tending to support the legend that the Flute clan once lived at the latter pueblo.

A flute from Betatakin is also reported, pictured, and sketched in [Judd 1930] The Excavation and Repair of Betatakin (figure 14 and plate 35, sketch and image combined in the image at the right):

Flute (?) – Large wooden flutes were employed by prehistoric as by historic Pueblos. But all modern flutes examined by the writer have been made in two parts, each gouged out in perfect agreement with the other and the two fitted together with exactness. The fragmentary specimen in hand (pl. 35, 3; fig. 14) must have been produced by like means, for its inner surface is finished with such nicety; is polished and blackened so uniformly as to preclude use of any method of drilling known from the Southwest. Both edges are split. There remains no evidence of drilled holes; no trace of wrappings. Yet the fragment is almost certainly part of a large flute. The 14 external grooves were incised with flint flakes or knives.

It seems like that these are two separate artifacts, since Fewkes states that the flute is “identical with those used at the present day”.

Betatakin is a sheltered site at an elevation of 6,700 feet. It consists of more than 10 predominantly surface structures. Tree-ring dating of 147 components at the site have provided dates in the range of 1246–1286 CE ([Robinson-WJ 1991], page 3).

The Pueblo Bonito Flutes

George H. Pepper, under the direction of F. W. Putnam, led the first archaeological expedition to excavate the ruins of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon (now in Chaco Culture National Historical Park), present-day New Mexico ([Pepper 1905]).

Pueblo Bonito Large Flute

Pueblo Bonito Large Flute More information

A room in the Northwestern part of Pueblo Bonito was found to contain eight wood flutes and other ceremonial objects, and was given the designation “Room 33” by Pepper ([Pepper 1909] The Exploration of a Burial-Room in Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico). Recent radiocarbon dating on two of the burials in Room 33 (AMNH H3671 and AMNH H3672) determined the dates of both of these burials to be 690–944 CE ([Coltrain 2007] The Stable- and Radio-Isotope Chemistry of Western Basketmaker Burials: Implications for Early Puebloan Diets and Origins, page 306).

For detailed information on these artifacts, see The Flutes of Pueblo Bonito.

Mojave Flute, Museum of Man, 10635

Another flute of the Mojave [moh-hah-vee] (also spelled “Mohave”, known as “Aha macave”, literally “People alongside water”) culture is shown in [Payne 1989], page 20, figure 13. It is from the collection of the Museum of Man in San Diego, CA, catalog #10635. The %PBL measurement is the percentage of the physical bore length. In this case, the physical bore length is a straightforward measurement from the head end to the foot end. Here are the measurements:

Measurement from
Head End
Mojave 10635
cm %PBL
Overall Length 64.8  
Hole 1 39.4 60.8%
Hole 2 42.3 65.3%
Hole 3 49.5 76.4%
Hole 4 52.6 81.2%

… and these were the notes produced …

Mojave 10635
Primary Scale
fingering note interval
Mojave four hole finger diagram open open open open F5 diminished fifth
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open open open E5 perfect fourth
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed open open D5 minor third
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open C5 minor second
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed B4 root

… which, if taken on face value, produce a rather unusual sounding scale to ears that grew up on Western music. The equivalent notes on a contemporary Native American flute can be played with the fingerings Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open closed Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open Finger diagram closed open closed closed open open Finger diagram closed open closed open open open (A Native American flute in G minor will produce the same pitches as shown for the Mojave 10635 flute, but most contemporary Native American flutes in any key will give a scale with the same relative notes).

The present-day Mojave Flutes made by Coyote Oldman are tuned with a somewhat different primary scale:

Coyote Oldman Mojave Flute
Primary Scale
fingering note interval
Mojave four hole finger diagram open open open open F#5 perfect fifth
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open open open E5 perfect fourth
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed open open D5 minor third
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open C#5 major second
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed B4 root

The equivalent notes on a contemporary Native American flute can be played with the fingerings Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open Finger diagram closed closed open closed open open Finger diagram closed open closed open open open Finger diagram open open closed open open open. A Native American flute in F# minor will produce the same pitches as shown for the Coyote Oldman Mojave Flute, but most contemporary Native American flutes in any key will give a scale with the same relative notes.

For present-day flutes that were inspired by these artifacts, see The Mojave Flute.

The Grand Gulch Flute

The Grand Gulch Flute More information

The Grand Gulch Flute

An interesting artifact appears in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI): item 05/1422 shown at the right.

The NMAI dates this flute to 750–900 CE and attributes it to “probably Pueblo (Anasazi) (archaeological)”. It was found in Grand Gulch Cave, present-day San Juan County, Utah and its measurements are listed as 33 × 2 cm (13″ × 0.8″). For purposes of this web site, I am calling this flute “The Grand Gulch Flute”.

It is interesting that the NMAI lists the material of this artifact as “reed”, when it appears to be made of wood.

The NMAI information also provides this history of the flute:

Collected or excavated, probably in 1892, by Charles McLoyd and Howard Graham; sold to John R. Koontz circa 1894; sold to Benjamin and Frederick Hyde in 1897; housed with Hyde Exploring expedition materials at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City until 1909 when it and other materials were removed by George Pepper, apparently at the behest of Benjamin Hyde; purchased by MAI from Benjamin Hyde in 1916 using funds donated by Thea (Mrs. George) Heye.

Grand Gulch Flute Replica crafted by Justin Garnett

Grand Gulch Flute Replica
crafted by Justin Garnett Larger image

The Justin Garrett Replica

In February 2011, Justin Garnett crafted a replica of this flute, based on measurements taken from the NMAI photo. The photo on the right shows his replica, along with some replicas of the period tools used to produce it

He measured the pitches of the notes produced by this replica …

Garnett replica of
The Grand Gulch Flute
fingering note interval
Mojave four hole finger diagram open open open open A#5 octave
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open open open F#5 minor sixth
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed open open D5 major third
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open C5 major second
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed A#4 root

… which is a rather discordant scale to the ears of people who grew up with Western music, because of the pitch of the Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open open open note. This note is a half step above the perfect fifth, which the ear would “expect” after the first two notes.

However Justin's email to me with the tunings noted that the pitch produced by Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open closed closed on his replica is an F5, which would provide exactly the perfect fifth. So, if we modify the sequence slightly, we can get:

Alternate scale on
Garnett replica of
The Grand Gulch Flute
fingering note interval
Mojave four hole finger diagram open open open open A#5 octave
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open closed closed F5 perfect fifth
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed open open D5 major third
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open C5 major second
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed A#4 root

The equivalent notes on a contemporary Native American flute can be played with the fingerings Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open Finger diagram closed open closed open open open Finger diagram half-closed closed closed closed closed open (A Native American flute in F# minor will produce the same pitches as shown for the Grand Gulch flute with these fingerings, but most contemporary Native American flutes in any key will give a scale with the same relative notes).

And finally, check out this YouTube video of Justin playing his replica of the Grand Gulch flute.

Grand Gulch Flute Replica crafted by Jonathan Walpole

Grand Gulch flute working replica crafted by Jonathan Walpole Larger image

The Jonathan Walpole Replica

On January 19, 2012, Jonathan Walpole sent me information on a number of replicas he crafted. By scaling the NMAI photograph of the artifact shown above to life-size using the scale information in the photograph, he crafted a working replica that he believes is faithful to the original.

The scale from the Walpole working replica is (Jonathan Walpole, personal communication, January 19, 2012):

Walpole Replica of
The Grand Gulch Flute
(see caveat regarding tunings)
fingering note interval
Mojave four hole finger diagram open open open open G#5 major seventh
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed open open open E5 perfect fifth
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed open open C#5 major third
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed open B4 major second
Mojave four hole finger diagram closed closed closed closed A4 root

Jonathan notes that “it is essentially the Anasazi Scale missing the minor third and the major sixth”. He provided this recording, with some canyon echo and the note that “this replica is made of ¾ inch CTS CPVC pipe. CTS stands for ‘copper tube size’, so it is actually smaller than regular ¾ inch PVC pipe. In this recording, the replica is blown vertically, rather than obliquely. The replica plays the same notes whichever way its blown, but I'm much more proficient at the former technique”:


Jonathan Walpole. Recorded 2012. ©2012 Jonathan Walpole. All Rights Reserved.

. Grand Gulch replica by Jonathan Walpole.


The Range Creek Flute

A prehistoric flute was discovered in December 2006 by Alan Green, a officer of the Division of Wildlife Resources. It was located on a footpath along a ledge in the Range Creek Canyon area of Emery County, Utah. The flute was collected and transferred to the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum for preservation and study ([Trease 2006]).

The Range Creek Flute
The Range Creek Flute

The Range Creek Flute More information

Based on its location, it had initially been tentatively attributed to the Fremont culture. Relative little is know of the Fremont culture in comparison with the Anasazi culture. Most anthropologists believe that the culture grew from semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer groups in what is present-day Utah, NorthEastern Nevada, Southern Idaho and Western Colorado, sometime between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The time between about 750 CE and 1250 CE was the height of the Fremont culture, which had a distinctive style of pictographs and petroglyphs, clay figures, timber and earth pithouses, and above-group granaries ([Madsen 1989]).

However, subsequent efforts to identify the culture that crafted the instrument, largely undertaken to determine how the artifact should be repatriated, have identified four possible cultures: Fremont, Ute, Anasazi, and Hopi ([Bjorkman 2016]).

Information on the Range Creek flute is limited. See the initial December 19, 2006 press release, [Trease 2006], [Robinson-S 2007], [Trease 2007], [Miller-Layne 2008], [Trease 2010], and [Bjorkman 2016]. If anyone has additional information on this flute, please contact me.

The Breckenridge Flute

The earliest evidence of the two-chambered design of the Native American flute is from an excavation in Northwestern Arkansas, known as the Breckenridge flute, shown below. It was excavated in 1931 but only recently identified as a flute by James A. Rees.

Dorsal side of the Breckenridge flute

The Breckenridge flute. Photo by Leslie Walker, Arkansas Archeological Survey,
courtesy of The University of Arkansas Museum Collections. Larger image

In 2013, a sample from the artifact yielded a date range of 1020–1160 CE (95% probability calibrated date range, [Rees 2013]). See the detail page on the Breckenridge Native American flute for more information.

The Mummy Cave Flutes

Earl H. Morris led a team to Cañon del Muerto (the “Canyon of Death”) in 1923, an area that is now part of Canyon de Chelly [kan-yahn duh-shey] National Monument near present-day Chinle, Northeastern Arizona. He excavated five flutes from Mummy Cave, a cliff dwelling consisting of 80 rooms built as high as three stories.

His report of the expedition in National Geographic Magazine ([Morris 1925]) is rather poetic, but short on the details of these flutes. From page 264 and 269:

On the breast lay a wooden flageolet incrusted in white beads set in pitch, a sack made from the entire skin of a small animal, containing a pipe and smoking materials, and a number of bone implements.

… and from page 293:

The body was that of an old man, surely once a priest or chief. Beside the usual offerings of beads, baskets, and sandals, there lay above his buckskin wrapping a flute, one end beneath the chin, the other between the thighs. …
Along the left side was a mass of wooden objects, all readily perishable, hence extremely rare in perfect condition. Conspicuous among them were bone-tipped flint flakers with whch knives and projectile points were made, several spears, four handsomely wrought spear throwers, and three more flutes.
I picked up one of the flutes, shook the dust and mouse dung out of it, and placed it to my lips. The rich, quavering tones which rewarded even my unskilled touch seemed to electrify the atmosphere. In the distance Navajo workmen paused with shovels poised, seeking the source of the sound. A horse raised its head and neighed from an adjacent hillside and two crows flapped out from a crevice overhead.
Our little group was motionless for a dozen heartbeats, which seemed as many minutes. In the weird silence it was as if time had been halted in its flight — nay turned back — for in swift array there crowded through my consciousness the scenes of grief and mourning, of savage pomp and ceremonial, amid which the tones of that instrument had last echoed from the selfsame cliff that now glistened under the rays of the setting sun, which for a brief moment had broken through the dark clouds masking the November sky.

Another reference to these flutes is provided by Charles Bernheimer, an assistant on the excavation, in [Bernheimer 1924], page 169:

Three stone pipes, corncobs of large size with all the kernels on them, human hair, and a flute made out of a reed an inch in diameter, completed our find. A primitive pictograph of three men playing flutes found not far from here may have some connection with our finding a flute on this spot. Wetherill thought the bones might have been those of men belonging to a “Flute-playing Clan.”

Thirty six artifacts from the Mummy Cave (“Mummy Cave Tower”) were later dated by A. E. Douglass using dendrochronology techniques ([Douglass 1935], page 51), which produced a narrow range of 1253–1284 CE. This places the cave in the middle of the Pueblo III era.

Four of the flutes are reported to be in the collection a the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, Boulder, CO. The location of a fifth flute is unknown (Robert Gatliff, personal communication, March 14, 2007).

More detail on the four flutes at the University of Colorado is provided in [Renaud 1926] Flûtes indiennes préhistoriques du Sud-Ouest Américain «Indian Flutes of the Prehistoric American Southwest» (translated into English in [Renaud 2012] Indian Flutes of the Prehistoric American Southwest). Renaud noted that flute No. 1 shows signs of burns and repair. Flute No. 2 is complete and well-preserved. However, flutes 3 and 4 are damaged on the “long end” (i.e. the end with the longest distance from the tip of the flute to the first finger hole). Here are the measurements provided by Renaud. The original Renaud measurements were taken from the “tip of the flute to the front edge of the [finger] hole”, so I have adjusted the measurements of the finger hole locations by half the stated hole size to relocate the measurement to the middle of the finger hole:

Measurement Mummy Cave Flutes
Renaud numbering No. 1 No. 2 No. 3 No. 4
Morris numbering 280 288 299e 299d
University of Colorado
2424 2433 2449 2448
Total Length 77cm 77cm 97cm 95cm
Finger Hole Size 0.7cm 0.8cm 1.3cm 0.9cm
Hole 1 location 14.85cm 14.60cm 21.15cm 19.65cm
Hole 2 location 19.35cm   30.85cm 29.25cm
Hole 3 location 23.35cm 22.90cm 43.15cm 39.45cm
Hole 4 location 31.85cm 32.90cm 52.65cm 48.45cm
Hole 5 location 36.35cm 36.90cm    
Hole 6 location 40.55cm 40.60cm    

I have taken the liberty of skipping hole 2 on flute No. 2, to emphasize how the hole locations line up with flute No. 1.

For flutes 1 and 2, because they are well preserved and their full length is known, we can look at the finger hole locations as a percentage of the physical bore length (%PBL). From similar %PBL measurements of the flutes excavated at the Broken Flute Cave, it is likely that Renaud was measuring distances from the foot end of the flute.

The chart below shows the finger hole locations for the two complete flute, with the order of the hole numbers inverted. For comparison, I have added columns for:

  • the %PBL for the four-holed Gypsum Cave flute 6F396, assuming that the head end and foot end of that flute are the reverse of that suggested by Harrington.
  • the average %PBL for the four flutes from the Broken Flute Cave.
Measurement Mummy Cave
No. 1
Mummy Cave
No. 2
Gypsum Cave
Flute 6F396
Average of the four
Broken Flute Cave flutes
cm %PBL cm %PBL %PBL %PBL
Construction 1253–1284 CE est. 500–750 CE 620–670 CE
Overall Length 77   77      
Hole 1 location 36.45 47.3% 36.40 47.3% 46.3% 48.05%
Hole 2 location 40.65 52.8% 40.10 52.1% 54.2% 54.05%
Hole 3 location 45.15 58.6% 44.10 57.3% 63.2% 59.27%
Hole 4 location 53.65 69.7% 54.10 70.3% 71.6% 72.40%
Hole 5 location 57.65 74.9%       78.05%
Hole 6 location 62.15 80.7% 62.4 81.0%   83.85%

The correspondence of the %PBL measurements for the finger hole locations between the Mummy Cave flutes and the Broken Flute Cave flutes is rather close, indicating that they may have been crafted based on the same design and may have produced very similar relative scales. This is remarkable, given the span of six centuries between the creation of these two sets of flutes.

Poshuouinge Bone Flutes

In 1919, J. A. Jeancon led a team that excavated portions of the ruins of the Poshuouinge [poh-shoo-win-gey] Pueblo, a settlement located about 2.5 miles South of present-day Abiquiu, New Mexico. The location has also been known as “Turquoise Ruin” ([Jeancon 1923]).

The estimated occupation dates of the pueblo are 1375–1475 CE ([Maxwell 1992], table 3-3, page 56).

The turkey calls and bone flutes are shown on plate 29 of [Jeancon 1923], along with the accompanying description from pages 27 and 28 of the same publication:

Poshuouinge Bone Flutes

Poshuouinge Bone Flutes,
[Jeancon 1923] plate 29 Larger image

Turkey Calls

These bones were used to call the wild turkeys. (Pl. 29, A, B.) By covering the hole in the side a different pitch can be obtained. The manner in which they were used is as follows: The opening at the top of the bone is placed tightly against the lower lip, a little below the opening of the mouth; then drawing the upper lip down with a slight puckering of the whole mouth, and sucking in with a short, chirping breath, the tone produced will resemble that of a mother turkey calling its young. By careful practice in covering and uncovering, more or less, the hole in the side, and a slight difference in the forming of the lips, it is an easy matter to imitate all of the calls of the wild turkey. These turkey calls are still in use in some of the pueblos and are especially used by the older men, who imitate the different calls in a remarkable manner. The one marked B, Plate 29, is only partly made.

Bone Flutes

Po-shu yielded a most interesting collection of bone flutes. What scale the flute would produce the author does not know. Many attempts have been made to have some one produce all of the tones, but so far they have not been successful. One of the Indian laborers managed to produce a few tones, but not enough to give any idea of the scale of the instrument. His manner of playing a cornstalk flute, which I heard and saw him use, was to place the flute perpendicularly pressed to the lips and blow across the opening in the top of the stalk, fingering the holes without any attempt at a definite melody. He attempted to play one of the bone flutes in a similar manner and only succeeded in getting a few disconnected intervals. It does not seem likely that there ever was a plug or stopper in the interior of the flutes found, such as occurs in the modern tin fife. In some of the modern Indian flutes a stopper is used on the outside, but even this is missing on the bone flutes, and the use of the outside plug or stopper was probably learned from the white man. No melodies could be produced on the bone flutes, as no scientific principle was used in their construction. Doubtless the Indian who made them simply desired to produce tones that would be pleasing to him.

The following are the dimensions of the flute shown in Plate 29: C, leg bone of a large bird, possibly a heron, 18 mm. long. It must have been longer originally, as one end is broken off. It has three holes together and one higher up. The first hole is 50 mm. from the bottom of the bone, the second 25 mm. from the first, and the third is 35 mm. above the second. From the third hole to the top is a distance of 63 mm. D has three holes set closely together. The fourth hole is 50 mm, above the third. Total length, 155 mm.; diameter, 80 mm, E has four holes almost equidistant. Total length, 158 mm.; average diameter, 128 mm. F is somewhat similar to D. Total length, 145 mm.; average diameter, 10 mm, G has five equidistant holes. Total length, 137 mm.; average diameter, 9 mm. H has three equidistant holes at one end and a single hole almost at the other end. Total length, 170 mm.; average diameter, 12 mm.

Ohio Valley Flutes

A series of early flutes and whistles that have been excavated at sites in the Ohio Valley. Some of the earliest of these match the early European phalangeal whistles. From [McCord 2003] The Morell-Sheets Site: Refining the Definition of the Albee Phase, page 39:

Curiously, flutes or whistles were only found at the Hesher and Secrest-Reasoner sites in eastern Indiana (Cochran et al. 1988:56; Black 1935). They may further support the notion of a geographic subdivision within the Albee Phase. However, fragmentary flutes may simply not be recognized in early excavations. Flutes were documented in Late Archaic, Mississippian, and Fort Ancient sites (Schweinsberger 1950:28–33; Winters 1969:70–74).

Details on some of these flute:

  • Two “flutes” were reported in [Webb 1946], one from the Indian Knoll Site, present-day Ohio County, Kentucky and the other from “Shell mound” in present-day Butler County, Kentucky. Both have 2 finger holes, “one rectangular, one round”, with lengths of 9.9″ (25.1 cm) and 8.35″ (21.2 cm), respectively. They are described as the “Ulnae of the Whooping Crane” (see the Ulm Whooper Swan flute). These flutes are listed from the Archaic Pattern (before the Mississippi Phase, before 500 CE). However, later analysis and discussion (see [Schweinsberger 1950]) makes it difficult to definitively describe these as musical instruments (much like the Phalangeal Whistles and the Divje Babe Cave Bear Artifact).
  • Two flutes from the Angel Mounds site, present-day Vanderburgh County, Indiana, excavated by “Mr. Black” ([Schweinsberger 1950]) attributed to the Middle Mississippi Phase - dating to 1100–1350 CE ([King 2002] Mississippian Period: Overview and [OBrien 2001], page 21). They are both of the “radius bone of a large wading bird”. One has seven round holes and is 4 18″ (10.5 cm) and the other has 8 round holes and is 4 116″ (10.3 cm). [Schweinsberger 1950], page 32 ¶1 says that “their curvatures are almost identical. Both produced the same note when blown hard with all the holes open, a C four octaves above middle C”, which would be a C8 in IPN notation. No photographs are available.
  • From the Upper Mississippi Phase — dating to 1350–1600 CE ([King 2002] Mississippian Period: Overview):
    • Two “bird bone” flutes from Fox Farm, 14 miles South-southwest of present-day Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky. They are approximately 4.44″ (11.3 cm) and 5.0″ (12.7 cm) with four and eight holes, respectively ([Smith-HI 1910], items 13 and 14 on plate 51).
    • Two flutes “made from the long bones of birds” from an Indian village site near present-day Madisonville, Ohio. They are approximately 4.12″ (10.46 cm) and 3.19″ (8.10 cm) with seven and six holes, respectively ([Hooton 1920], page 62-63 and plate 15).
    • Eleven flutes “made from the radius of various large birds” from the Feurt Mounds and Village site in present-day Scioto County, Ohio ([Mills 1917], page 433 and figure 83 - shown below). The flute lengths (approximate) and number of finger holes are:
        • four-hole: 4.31″ (10.95 cm) and 2.78″ (7.06 cm);
        • three-hole: 4.0″ (10.2 cm), 3.56″ (9.04 cm), 3.5″ (8.9 cm), 3.0″ (7.6 cm), 3.19″ (8.10 cm), and 3.56″ (9.04 cm);
        • two-hole: 2.63″ (6.68 cm), 2.5″ (6.35 cm), and 3.19″ (8.10 cm).
    • Two “bird bone” flutes from the Reeve village site in present-day Lake County, Ohio. They are 5.5″ (14 cm) and 3.4″ (8.6 cm) with three and four holes, respectively ([Greenman 1935]).
    • Two flutes from the Tuttle Hill site and the South Park site, both in present-day Cuyahoga County, Ohio. They are approximately 4.5″ (11.4 cm) and 2.0″ (5.1 cm) with five and four holes, respectively ([Greenman 1937]).
Upper Mississippi Phase flutes Upper Mississippi Phase flutes

Upper Mississippi Phase flutes from [Mills 1917], page 433 and figure 83 Larger image Larger image

Early Written References

From [Stevenson 1894] A Chapter of Zuñi Mythology, page 313:

The earliest history we have of the pueblo Indians dates back to the year 1530. Spanish adventurers penetrated the country and returned with extravagant accounts of these people and their wealth; and a series of general and systematic invasions followed for their conquest, and these continued from time to time until the Hidalgo treaty of 1848. According to the accounts of the invaders there were between eighty and one hundred of these pueblos; at present there are some thirty-two. The villages are all of the same general type. The people, although possessing common characteristics and following similar pursuits, and although strikingly alike in physical structure, belong to four distinct stocks: Shoshonean, Keresan, Tanoan and Zunian.

Zuñi — 1540

An early written description we have of flutes being used in Indian society is from the early Spanish explorers. Castañeda visited a Tigua village in 1540 and wrote a description of music played during corn-grinding, here translated by George Parker Winship ([Winship 1896], page 522):

They keep the separate houses where they prepare the food for eating and where they grind the meal, very clean. This is a separate room or closet, where they have a trough with three stones fixed in stiff clay. Three women go in here, each one having a stone, with which one of them breaks the corn, the next grinds it, and the third grinds it again. They take off their shoes, do up their hair, shake their clothes, and cover their heads before they enter the door. A man sits at the door playing on a fife while they grind, moving the stones to the music and singing together. They grind a large quantity at one time, because they make all their bread of meal soaked in warm water, like wafers.

Virginia — 1606

Here is an excerpt from the writings of George Percy on his experiences in Virginia in the Summer of 1606:

When wee landed, the Werowance of Rapahanna came downe to the water side with all his traine, as goodly men as any I have seene of Savages or Christians: the Werowance comming before them playing on a Flute made of a Reed, with a Crown of Deares haire colloured red, in fashion of a Rose fastened about his knot of haire, and a great Plate of Copper on the other side of his head, with two long Feathers in fashion of a paire of Hornes placed in the midst of his Crowne.

See the original reference ([Percy 1607] Observations by Master George Percy, 1607, page 13) for the full context.

Membertou's Songs — 1607

Marc Lescarbot provided us with the oldest existing transcription of a song from the Americas.

Lescarbot was a French lawyer with a passion for exploration and adventure. He readily accepted an assignment for a client in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and arrived in May of 1606 ([Reid 2010]). He was based in Port Royal, present-day Nova Scotia until the summer of 1607 and took an interest in the lives of the region's native peoples. He became keenly aware of the tension between colonization and the desire for quick profits versus the realities of harvesting a colony's natural resources in a responsible manner — sentiments he published in 1609 in his Histoire de la Nouvelle-France.

Sometime during Lescarbot's stay in North America, he transcribed three songs of the Micmac (Souriquois) healer and chief Membertou. He later published an account of those songs in Chapter 5 of the third edition of his book ([Lescarbot 1617]) using solfege notation for the melody.

Here's the words and solfege melody of the three songs, from the Project Gutenberg 2007 edition ([Lescarbot 2007]):

Holoet ho ho hé hé ha ha haloet ho ho hé
Re fa sol sol re sol sol fa fa re re sol sol fa fa
Egrigna hau egrigna hé he hu hu ho ho ho egrigna hau hau hau
Fa fa fa sol sol fa fa re re sol sol fa fa fa re fa fa sol sol sol
Tamema alleluya tameja douveni hau hau hé hé
Sol sol sol fa fa re re re fa fa sol fa sol fa fa re re

Solfege notation can be adequate for conveying a melody, but it says nothing about the rhythm of a song. Rhythm had traditionally been conveyed using a number of standard rhythmic modes, but European composers were responding to music that called for increasingly more complex rhythms by developing a notation system that conveyed the rhythm as part of the written music. The system of mensural notation was developed that incorporated the rhythm in to the shape of the note heads on a written five-line staff. Mensural notation is the predecessor to the present-day modern music notation.

Shortly after Lescarbot's return to France, a religious movement began to educate, catechize, and baptize Canadian indigenous cultures. The secretary of Louis XIII asked the Récollet Franciscan order to send missionaries to Canada, with support from Anne of Austria, the consort of Louis XIII. In 1623, Gabriel Sagard-Théodat, a French missionary, arrived in Quebec and proceeded on to live with the Huron Indians ([Herbermann 1913]).

Things did not go well. After struggling to learn the difficult Huron language, Sagard-Théodat shared their incredible hardships. However, he won the affection and respect of the Hurons.

Sagard-Théodat was ordered back to France in 1625 after another missionary, Nicholas Veil, was drowned in Riviere des Prairies (then renamed Saut du Récollet). He began writing about his travels and, in 1636, Sagard-Théodat published a four-volumes work ([Theodat 1636], in French). Volume two, pages 291 and 292 contains Lescarbot's transcriptions in solfege notation. In addition, Sagard-Théodat included his own arrangement of these songs, scored in mensural notation for four-part vocal harmony. These arrangements appear on four un-numbered pages of some editions of volume two. Catalog number 102 of the antiquarian bookseller Quaritch, dated October 1866 describes this book as containing “four pages at the end which give the native words and the music of a Huron song and a Souriquois hymn” ([Pilling 1888]).

Here are images of the four un-numbered pages, from the 1866 edition of Sagard-Théodat's narrative ([Theodat 1866]):

First and Second Membertou songs First and Second Membertou songs

First and Second Membertou songs from [Theodat 1866] Larger image Larger image


Third Membertou song Third Membertou song

Third Membertou song from [Theodat 1866] Larger image Larger image

For a arrangements of these songs for the Native American flute, see Membertou's Three Songs.

The Huron Carol

The Huron Carol (also called Jesous Ahatonhia, Jesus is Born, and Noël Huron), is often considered to be the first Canadian Christmas carol.

For a history of this melody as well as arrangements for the Native American flute and the backing track for E Minor Native American flute by Gary Cope, see The Huron Carol.

Tlingit — 1786

The earliest known transcription of an Indian song from the West coast of the Americas was done in July 1786 by Jean François de Galaup LaPérouse. This song is from the Yakutat Tlingit culture recorded by LaPérouse in Lituya Bay, here shown from a recent edition of his book ([Laguna 1972]):

Transcription of a Yakutat Tlingit song from 1786

Transcription of a Yakutat Tlingit song from 1786 More information

The caption from the two-volume 1799 English-language edition of the LaPérouse journey ([LaPerouse 1799], volume 1, page 403), translated from the original four-volume 1798 narrative in French ([LaPerouse 1798]), reads:

They who have the strongest voices take the air a third lower, and the women a third higher, than the natural pitch. Some sing an octave to it, and often make a rest of two bars, at the place where the air is highest.

Cherokee — 1794

The following song appears in [Ritson 1794] Scottish Songs, Volume 2 (reprinted also in [Ritson 2009] Scottish Songs, Volume 2). The description provided:

“The simple melody” of this song, as we are informed by its fair author, “was brought to England ten years ago by a gentleman named Turner, who had (owing to some singular events in his life) spent nine years amongst the natives of America; he assured the author,” she continues, “that it was peculiar to that tribe or nation called the Cherokees, and that they chanted it to a barbarous jargon, implying contempt for their enemies in, the moments of torture and death.” She adds that, “The words have been thought something characteristic of the spirit and sentiments of those brave savages;” that “we look upon the fierce and stubborn courage of the dying Indian with a mixture of respect, pity and horror; and” that “it is to those sentiments in the breast of the hearer that the death song must owe its effect.”
Death Song of the Cherokee Indians (1794)Death Song of the Cherokee Indians (1794)

Death Song of the Cherokee Indians (1794) More information


Winter count - painting

Winter count - painting More information

American Horse Winter Count

An early flute reference comes from the tradition of the Oglala Lakota. In the Lakota culture, each year was named for an event that happened in that year. The event was not necessarily the most important thing that happened that year, but was memorable and generally known in the community. (The main references for this section on winter counts are [Smithsonian 2004] and [Smithsonian 2005].)

A “winter count” (Lakota: “waniyetu wowapi”) is a year-by-year calendar where each year is represented by one picture showing the event for that year. Winter counts served to keep a record of the order of the years. They were often drawn on animal hides or cloth and kept for many generations.

Winter counts are one of the few physical records that were created to augment the more extensive oral histories of these cultures.

American Horse, about 1900

American Horse, about 1900 More information

One such winter count was maintained by American Horse (Lakota: Wašíčuŋ Tȟašúŋke), a prominent leader of the Oglala Lakota, a tribe that now lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in present-day South Dakota. It was drawn on cloth and had been passed down from ths grandfather to his father, Sitting Bear (“Satank”), and on to him.

In 1879, William H. Corbusier, and surgeon in the U. S. Army and an avid ethnographer, asked American Horse to make a copy of the winter count in a sketchbook. Corbusier sent the sketchbook to the Smithsonian, together with an explanation of the years provided by American Horse, and it became known as the “American Horse winter count”.

Converting Lakota year names into the numeric years of the Gregorian calendar proved to be straightforward, thanks to the Leonid meteor shower of November 1833. This cosmic event was recognized by Garrick Mallery of the Smithsonian Institute as "The Year the Stars Fell". Based on this alignment, the American Horse winter count spans the Gregorian calendar years 1775 to 1878.



The-Man-Who-Owns-the-Flute More information

One of the years recorded on the American Horse winter count was “The-Man-Who-Owns-the-Flute was killed by the Cheyennes”. A description of this element on the winter count comes from [Corbusier 1886], page 133:

His flute is represented in front of him with sounds coming from it. A bullet mark is on his neck.

Based on the Leonid meteor shower date-alignment, The-Man-Who-Owns-the-Flute was killed by the Cheyennes corresponds to the Gregorian calendar year 1795-1796.

The Beltrami Flute

The oldest existing Native American flute made of wood is the Beltrami Native American flute, shown below. It was collected by the Italian explorer Giacomo Costantino Beltrami on a journey through present-day Minnesota in 1823.

The Beltrami Native American flute

The Beltrami Native American flute More information

See the detail page on the Beltrami Native American flute for more information.

The Hutter Winnebago Flute

The next oldest existing Native American flute was collected by Lt. George Christian Hutter, a member of the Atkinson-O'Fallon expedition of 1825–1826 that visited the principal Indian nations along the Upper Missouri River. The expedition signed twelve treaties with sixteen tribes and, as part of ceremony surrounding the signing of those treaties, exchanged many gifts. Many other items were also bartered privately during the expedition. ([McLaughlin 2003], page 131). Hutter was apparently a signature witness on at least five of the treaties signed during the expedition ([Crawford 2006b]).

The Hutter Flute

The Hutter Winnebago flute More information

In 1828, many of the objects that Hutter had collected were donated to the Peale Museum by Hutter's father. Charles Willson Peale logged several musical items in his ledger of this donation as:

  • “Flute — Winnebago”
  • “Bone whistle — Mandan”
  • “Rattle a musical instrument used in dances — Menomene”

McLaughlin notes that it is possible that some of the items that Peale received were from earlier expeditions by Lewis and Clark, since Hutter was soon to be married in 1830 to the niece of William Clark. However, these items were most likely from the 1925 Atkinson-O'Fallon expedition ([McLaughlin 2003], page 134).

According to [Watson 2003]:

During 1849-1850, the descendants of Charles Willson Peale sold a portion of their ethnographic collection to P. T. Barnum and Moses Kimball. Barnum and Kimball divided the collection and each installed their purchase in their own museums. Fires in Philadelphia and New York destroyed Barnum's museums, and in 1899 a fire damaged Kimball's Boston Museum. Members of the Kimball family gave Charles Willoughby, then Assistant Director of Harvard's Peabody Museum, first pick of the Boston Museum's ethnographic collection. Willoughby chose 1,400 objects that were transferred directly to the Peabody.

The item labeled by Peale as “Flute — Winnebago” became item number 99-12-10/53006 of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. The current record of the Peabody Museum lists the flute as donated by David P. Kimball in 1899, with dimensions of 41 cm × 3 cm × 4.5 cm (16.1″ × 1.2″ × 1.8″). [McLaughlin 2003], page 140 provides further description:

This multinote flageolet is unusual and fragile. It is made from two pieces of hollowed wood, probably cedar, that were glued and lashed together with sinew. Seven holes are bored into the wood at intervals. … The flute was painted red, and the entire body of the instrument was covered with a thin, transparent membrane, probably taken from the intestinal sac of a large mammal. This delicate membrane, which was also pigmented, has now become brittle.

The Hutter Mandan Eagle Bone Whistle

The Hutter Mandan Eagle Bone Whistle

The Hutter Mandan
Eagle Bone Whistle More information

Together with the Hutter Winnebago Flute described above, the Peabody Museum inherited a “Bone whistle — Mandan”, which became item number 99-12-10/53010. The photograph at the right, from [McLaughlin 2003], page 139, shows both the whistle and the corresponding label written by Charles Willson Peale. The label identifies the artifact as “Mandan War Whistle; made of Bone. June 1828. by C. Hutter, Esq.”

This whistle was tentatively identified by Carla Dove of the Smithsonian Instituion as being from the ulna bone of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) ([McLaughlin 2003]). The Peabody lists the length as 27 cm (10.6″).

The George Catlin Pawnee Flute

Kee-món-saw, Little Chief, 1830

Kee-món-saw, Little Chief, 1830 More information

George Catlin was an American painter whose taste for adventure took him West in the early 1830s. He painted and documented Native American cultures, and subsequently published many of his portraits and accounts.

One of his early subjects was a Kaskaskia tribal descendant living South of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The portrait of Kee-món-saw (“Little Chief” in English) shown on the left was done during Catlin's first Western tour in 1830.

Map of the Routes of George Catlin

Catlin's Routes More information

It's not clear whether the flute held by Kee-món-saw is a transverse flute or a Native American flute (possibly missing the block).

Catlin second trip, in 1832, took him from St. Louis up the Missouri River to Fort Union, now a U. S. National Historic Site near present-day Williston, North Dakota. He spent several weeks among eighteen tribes including the Pawnee, many of whom were still relatively untouched by Western civilization.

In his Letter No. 30, written in 1832 and titled Mouth of Teton River, Upper Missouri and later published in [Catlin 1857], he wrote:

There is yet another wind instrument which I have added to my Collection and from its appearance would seem to have been borrowed, in part, from the civilized world (letter g). This is what is often on the frontier called a “deer-skin flute”, a “Winnebago courting flute,” “tsal-eet-quash-to,” &c.; it is perforated with holes for the fingers, sometimes for six, at others for four, and in some instances for three only, having only so many notes with their octaves. These notes are very irregularly graduated, showing clearly that they have very little taste or ear for melody. These instruments are blown in the end, and the sound produced much on the principle of a whistle.
In the vicinity of the Upper Mississippi, I often and familiarly heard this instrument, called the Winnebago courting flute; and was credibly informed by traders and others in those regions, that the young men of that tribe meet with signal success, oftentimes, in wooing their sweethearts with its simple notes, which they blow for hours together, and from day to day, from the bank of some stream — some favourite rock or log on which they are seated, near to the wigwam which contains the object of their tender passion; until her soul is touched, and she responds by some welcome signal, that she is ready to repay the young Orpheus for his pains, with the gift of her hand and her heart. How true these representations may have been made, I cannot say, but there certainly must have been some ground for the present cognomen by which it is known in that country.

Here's an engraving by Catlin, titled “Dakota arts & customs”, from the ninth edition of Catlin's book:

'Dakota arts and customs' showing the George Catlin Pawnee flute

'Dakota arts and customs' showing the George Catlin Pawnee flute More information

This flute was donated in 1881 by George Catlin and Joseph Harrison, Jr. to the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institute. It now carries catalog number E73325-0, and the card catalog lists it as 54.3 cm × 3.0 cm (21 38″ × 1 316″).

George Catlin Pawnee flute - Right side
George Catlin Pawnee flute - Right side
George Catlin Pawnee flute - Right side
George Catlin Pawnee flute - Right side

George Catlin Pawnee flute, courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History  Larger Image  Larger Image  Larger Image  Larger Image

Amazingly, while this George Catlin was travelling around Indian Territories collecting flutes, another George Catlin was making flutes in Philadelphia. According to [Langwill 1993], the two George Catlins were third cousins, once removed.

The Màndeh-Pàhchu Flute (aka The Bodmer Flute)

In 1832, Prince Maximilian zu Wied [mahks-mil-yahn zoo veed] came to explore North America. He brought a 23 year old Swiss artist, Karl Bodmer [kahrl bohd-mair], who was given the task of making scientific drawings.

Map of the Maximilian route 1832-1834

Map of the Maximilian route 1832-1834 More information

The travelers headed up the Missouri river from St. Louis and made contact with most of the cultures along the route. They eventually proceeded as far as Fort McKenzie in present-day Montana, which was considered the furthest reach of civilization at the time, and witnessed an attack on a camp of Blackfoot Indians by Assiniboin and Cree. What an adventure!

Portrait of Màndeh-Pàhchu with a Native American Flute

Portrait of Màndeh-Pàhchu
with a Native American Flute More information

They spent an extended period during the winter of 1833–1834 near villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa cultures, and Bodmer made many portraits of tribe members, including one of Màndeh-Pàhchu [mahn-de pah-choo] (also spelled “Mandeh-Pachu”) holding a cedar Native American flute ([McLaughlin 2003], page 137).

They also traded for or were gifted artifacts that became part of Prince Maximilian's North American collection. Màndeh-Pàhchu traded the flute that appears in Bodmer's portrait to Maximilian in exchange for a European whistle.1

The Portrait

Maximilian's travel diaries were published in two volumes in 1839–1841 in German, then in three volumes plus an atlas in French in 1840–1843, and then in English in four volumes in 1843-1844, as well as several later reprints. ([Wied 1839], [Wied 1840], [Wied 1843], [Thwaites 1904], and [Wied 2007]).

The portrait of Màndeh-Pàhchu at the left is from a hand-colored plate in the atlas of the 1840 French version, now at the U.S. Library of Congress. The majority of Bodmer's original watercolors are now at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, including his Màndeh-Pàhchu watercolor portrait.

The English 1843 edition contains dictionaries by Bodmer for the various languages that they encountered. He lists the Mandan word for a “flute with finger holes” as “lh-wochka (och gutteral)” and a “flute without finger holes” as as “lh-koschka”. He lists the Minnitarris word for “whistle (or flute)” as “bidda-kóhotse (o full; ot short; e ½)”. ([Wied 1843], pages 239 and 273) (NOTE: above the “l” in “lh” and the “i” in “bi” are a straight double-dotted slightly raised “i”.)

The Flute

There has been considerable discussion among Native American flute researchers as to whether the artifact in the Màndeh-Pàhchu portrait is a Native American flute. It isn't really possible to tell from looking at the portrait, since the artifact is partially hidden.

Part of Prince Maximilian's North American collection of artifacts, including the Màndeh-Pàhchu flute, was sold to the Royal Prussian Art Chamber in 1844.1 The flute became part of the North American Collection of the National Museums of Berlin, and was on display when I visited the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in March 2010.

Display case with the Màndeh-Pàhchu flute. Clint Goss photo.

Display case with the Màndeh-Pàhchu flute. Clint Goss photo.

The flute sits in a display case below engravings of two Bodmer paintings. It is just to the right of the moccasins. As much as I would have liked to ever-so-gently pry open the glass case and start jamming on the flute, I avoided the temptation (and German prison) and took some photos through the glass:

The Màndeh-Pàhchu flute, March 2010
The Màndeh-Pàhchu flute, March 2010
The Màndeh-Pàhchu flute, March 2010

The Màndeh-Pàhchu flute, photo March 2010 More information

So this definitely appears to be a Native American flute, although the statement by [McLaughlin 2003], page 137, that it is made of cedar wood is questionable. The most interesting aspects are:

  • The thickness of the walls (see the detail page for the images above for an additional image showing the foot of the flute)
  • The block. Probably leather, and in an interesting shape! Was this an early experimental design?
  • The splitting edge. What was the material?

If anyone has additional information on this flute, please contact me.


1Some of the information in this section is from museum panels in the North American Indians exhibit at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

The Von Roenne Flute

In another display case at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin is a flute that I am calling, based on scant evidence, the “Von Roenne Flute”. The only information I have comes from the museum card in the display case, which says “Flute with horse-shaped effigy. Lakota (?). ca. 1830. Von Roenne Coll. 1839”.

Here are some photographs, through the display case:

The Von Roenne flute, March 2010 The Von Roenne flute, March 2010
The Von Roenne flute, March 2010

The Von Roenne flute, March 2010 More information

If anyone has more information on this flute, please contact me.

The Life of Black Hawk

Black Hawk (1767–1838), or Black Sparrow Hawk (“Mahkate:wi-meši-ke:hke:hkwa” in Sauk, literally “be a large black hawk” in English ([Bright 2004], page 66)) was a legendary leader of the Sauk culture and leader of British-aligned troops in the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War of 1832.

In his memoirs written in 1833 and published many time ([BlackHawk 1834] Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak or Black Hawk — Dictated by Himself, [BlackHawk 1975] Life of Black Hawk — Dictated by Himself), he mentions the flute. In describing the spring-time “medicine feast” from pages 73-74 of [BlackHawk 1834] Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak or Black Hawk — Dictated by Himself:

At this feast our young braves select the young woman they wish to have for a wife. He then informs his mother, who calls on the mother of the girl, when the arrangement is made, and the time appointed for him to come. He goes to the lodge when all are asleep, (or pretend to be,) lights his matches, which have been provided for the purpose, and soon finds where his intended sleeps. He then awakens her, and holds the light to his face that she may know him — after which he places the light close to her. If she blows it ut, the ceremony is ended, and he appears in the lodge next morning, as one of the family. If she does not blow out the light, but leaves it to burn out, he retires from the lodge.

The next day be places himself in full view of it, and plays his flute. The young women go out, one by one, to see who he is playing for. The tune changes, to let them know that he is not playing for them. When his intended makes her appearance at the door, he continues his courting tune, until she returns to the lodge. He then gives over playing, and makes another trial at night, which generally turns out favorable. During the first year they ascertain whether they can agree with each other, and can be happy — if not, they part, and each looks out again. If we were to live together and disagree, we should be as foolish as the whites! No indiscretion can banish a woman from her parental lodge — no difference how many children she may bring home, she is always welcome — the kettle is over the fire to feed them.


Nancy Lewis Holding a Flute, attributed to Lady Amelia Falkland, about 1845

Nancy Lewis Holding a Flute,
attributed to Lady Amelia Falkland,
about 1845 More information

Nancy Lewis (Mi’kmaw) Holding a Flute

Nineteenth century travelers to British colonies often kept journals to preserve their impressions and drawings colonized peoples and landscapes. Some of these journals have been incorporated into official documents that chronicled the relationships between white colonizers and First Nations peoples. Many amateur women artists assembled travel albums or scrapbooks including drawings, watercolors and paintings of their travels. One such album was constructed by Lady Amelia Falkland (1807–1858). Among the Nova Scotia images painted by Lady Falkland herself and two local amateur women artists are a number of representations of Mi'kmaq individuals ([Reinhart 2005] Lady Falkland's Travel Album: Negotiating Colonial and Feminine Discourses).

This painting of Mi'kmaq elder Nancy Lewis was originally mounted in the Lady Falkland album, but is now loose. It is oil on canvas, 21.6 cm × 20.3 cm (8.5″ × 8.0″), painted in about 1845. It is attributed to Lady Falkland herself, painted during a sojourn to Nova Scotia from 1840 to 1846 as the wife of a highly placed British colonial administrator, Lucius Cary, 10th Viscount Falkland. Lady Amelia FitzClarence Cary, Viscountess Falkland was the youngest of ten children of William IV, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1830-1837) and his mistress Dorothea Jordan.

The Lady Falkland album was purchased at auction in London by the National Archives of Canada on May 18, 1922 from book dealer Thomas Thorpe for £12.10 ([Reinhart 2005] Lady Falkland's Travel Album: Negotiating Colonial and Feminine Discourses). It is now part of the Library and Archives Canada collection, accession number 1990-207-76 and is available at the Mi’kmaq Portraits Collection of the Nova Scotia Museum as image MP0160.

This is the only image in the Mi’kmaq Portraits Collection that depicts a musical instrument of any kind, according to the liner notes of [Tulk 2009], page 9. That reference further describes the history of Mi’qmaw flute playing:

Curiously, there are no archival recordings of Mi’kmaw flute-playing, nor are there Mi’kmaw flutes in museums. Bird bone whistles and small flute-like instruments have been found at a Maritime Archaic burial site in Port au Choix, Newfoundland, but a connection between these artifacts and Mi’kmaw culture has not been established. Explanations for the seeming lack of flutes can only be speculative; it may be that the flute was believed to hold so much power that it was not widely used, especially in public or in front of explorers or missionaries (preventing collection of examples for museums). It is also possible that, given their fragile construction and a seasonally migratory culture, flutes simply did not survive the natural elements.

The thesis of Metilda Reinhart, [Reinhart 2005] Lady Falkland's Travel Album: Negotiating Colonial and Feminine Discourses, has extensive information and analysis of this painting in the context of other Lady Falkland paintings of Nancy Lewis.


The Romance of Indian Life

Indian Courtship - about 1853

Indian Courtship - about 1853 More information

The Native American flute had become so well-known by 1853 that it appears in plate of “The Romance of Indian Life”, a gift book of poetry and art plates issued that year ([Eastman-MH 1853]). The author of the book is Mary Henderson Eastman, wife of Captain Seth Eastman of the U.S. Topographical Corps. A plate showing a painting titled “Indian Courtship” appears just before a poem by Mary Eastman, also titled “Indian Courtship”. The artist of the Indian Courtship painting is listed as “C. Schuessele/P.S. Duval” by [Thompson-R 1936] and [Kirkham 1975].

The 1853 edition of the book was previously issued in 1851 and 1852 under the title “The Iris, an Illuminated Souvenir for 1852” with John S. Hart as editor. The 1852 edition consists largely of Mary Eastman's stories of Indian life in and about Fort Snelling, Minnesota, according to [Kirkham 1975]. The earlier editions also lack the Indian Courtship plate, so the painting may have been done shortly before 1853. Also, a note in [Kirkham 1975] says that the plates in the 1853 edition were “commonplace”.

A copy of the 1853 edition is on display in the North American Indians exhibit at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. I took the image at the right in March 2010. It shows only a small portion of the painting - click on the image to see the full painting.

Belo Cozad

Notes of Lt. Sylvester Mowry, 1856 Larger image

The Mowry Account

The U. S. National Archives maintains a document written by George Gibbs in 1856. It contains observations by Gibbs of the Indians of the Colorado River, California and has “Accompanying vocabularies of the Yuma and Mohave Tribes” ([Gibbs-G 1856]).

Included in this document are notes by Lieutenant Sylvester Mowry, with remarks which “more especially concern the Mohave or Hammukhave and other tribes living above the Yumas, of who heretofore little or nothing has been known”.

The seventh page of Mowry remarks are shown at the right. In particular:

They have a flute made of reeds, which is of great service in love making. A young buck will play all day long to his sweet-heart, no words passing, save those conveyed by his flute.

Thomas Sinclair: Mojave Fife and Flute

This lithograph is by Thomas Sinclair (1807 — September 17, 1881), a noted Philadelphia lithographers of the 19th-century, particularly in the field of chromolithography.

Mojave Fife and Flute by Thomas Sinclair

Mojave Fife and Flute by Thomas Sinclair More information

About the Music of the North American Wild

Theodore Baker (1851–1934) published the first major work on the music of the American Indians, his German-language doctoral dissertation, Über die Musik der Nordamerikanischen WildenAbout the Music of the North American Wild», [Baker 1882] Über die Musik der Nordamerikanischen Wilden «About the Music of the North American Wild», translated and republished in [Baker 1976] On the Music of the North American Indians, [Baker 1977] On the Music of the North American Indians, and [Baker 1978] On the Music of the North American Indians). It was based largely on contacts Baker made at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania ([Fields 1993] American Indian Music Traditions and Contributions, Version: 1995-07-14, page MU35). It was not widely reviewed when it was published, but it soon came to be widely accepted on both sides of the Atlantic as a definitive survey of the prior literature as well as a record of close personal research ([Stevenson-R 1973]).

Baker collected melodies primarily from the Seneca tribe singers in the Western New York area, but also some from the Iroquois, Cheyenne, Comanche, Dakota, Iowa, Kiowa, and Ponca tribes. His transcriptions were scholarly and systematic and were the first available for use outside of Native American cultures by composers. His collections then became the source for compositions in what grew into the Indianist movement and included composers such as Dvořák, and MacDowell ([Thomas-LC 2010]).

On pages 55–57 of the first 1882 edition, Baker describes a flute "made ​​of cedar, sumac, or elder wood" using split/glue construction and a metal plate on the nest. This diagram of the flute construction is provided:

Figure 1 from About the Music of the North American Wild

Figure 1 from [Baker 1882] Über die Musik der Nordamerikanischen Wilden «About the Music of the North American Wild» Larger image

Figure 2 from About the Music of the North American Wild

Figure 2 from [Baker 1882] Über die Musik der Nordamerikanischen Wilden «About the Music of the North American Wild» Larger image


Fletcher's diary, September 16, 1881

Fletcher's diary, September 16, 1881 Larger image

Early Ethnomusicology

A decade after Baker's pioneering work, Alice Cunningham Fletcher began a lifetime of study of Native American culture and music. What motivated a woman from Boston to take up ethnomusicology by living with indigenous cultures may be explained in her early essay, Feminine Idleness ([Fletcher 1873]).

Her early work with the Omaha, [Fletcher 1888] Glimpses of Child-Life among the Omaha Tribe of Indians and [Fletcher 1889] Leaves from my Omaha Note-Book, is based on her trips beginning in 1881, living with and studying indigenous cultures as a representative of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. From [Smithsonian 2011] Camping with the Sioux — Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher:

An unmarried woman of forty-three, Fletcher had no salary to speak of, no knowledge of Native American languages, and only informal anthropological training. Few people believed she could succeed. On September 16, [1881], in a cold and blustery rain, Fletcher set out for the Great Sioux Reservation …

Here are some core publications by Alice C. Fletcher relating to Native American music that have direct PDFs available from this web site:

Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief

Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief Larger image

Frances Densmore

The photo at the right shows Frances Densmore recording a Blackfoot chief named Mountain Chief, on a wax cylinder recording. The image is from a 5×7 glass negative that is part of the National Photo Company Collection of the Library of Congress (npc2008000561), taken February 9, 1916.

Cipriano Garcia playing a Papago flute, 1919

Cipriano Garcia, Papago flute, 1919 More information

The Papago Flute

Here is an excerpt from [Payne 1989], page 21 on historic artifacts of the Papago tradition. (Please see Tribal Identification for issues relating to the name “Papago”).

Fragments of a prehistoric flute made of Phragmytes communis were found in Ventana Cave, located on the present Papago Indian reservation in south central Arizona ([Haury 1950]). This tubular specimen is pierced by three small tone holes 3 mm in diameter, spaced 19 cm apart [Editors note: this should read “19 mm apart”]. The proximity of the present Papago reservation, the character of the tone holes, and the material used suggest that this scanty artifact is a fore-runner of the Papago flute. The traditional Papago flute, generally made of cane or indigenous reed, is ducted by perforating the cane wall on either side of a cane node, then forming a channel over the nodal obstruction. Using the index finger to close the hole above the cane node, air is directed from the upper air chamber over the obstructing block and across the hole below to its sound-generating far edge (lip). Some degree of regulation of the air stream issuing from the long air chamber is provided by adjusting the finger. Small tone holes are bored distally as far as the arms can comfortably reach. Usually there is a distal septum, perforated only partially to increase the response of the closely-spaced tone holes. Despite the limitations of a narrow scale and a mute upper register, these elegant flutes, though slow to respond because of their long air column, produce beautiful tone colors particularly suited to the ambiance of the quiet desert evening.
A Papago flute of circa 1880 fashioned from Arundinaria cane is 75 cm long, the tone holes measuring 4 mm in diameter, the bore 1.9 cm at the proximal end and 1.8 cm at the distal end.The lip or edge is 37.4 cm, the tone holes 60, 62.7, and 65.7 cm from the mouthpiece, producing approximately f', g#', a#', b' — the range of an augmented fourth.

Here is an image of the circa 1880 Papago flute described above, which sold at auction in 2005:

Papago flute circa 1880 from the collection of Richard W. Payne
Papago flute circa 1880 from the collection of Richard W. Payne

Papago flute circa 1880 from the collection of Richard W. Payne Larger image Larger image

See Indigenous North American Flutes for present-day flutes made in the style of the Papago artifacts.

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