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Plains Style and Woodlands Style Native American Flutes

You will sometimes hear reference to two styles of Native American flutes: Plains Style and Woodlands Style. However, there's no general consensus about what these styles mean, and if you try to nail down the specifics of what these terms mean, you'll probably find it's a rabbit-hole topic.

By various accounts, the distinction is made by:

  • Whether or not the flute uses a spacer plate (with the Plains Style using a spacer plate).
  • The type of fingering, in particular the fingering for the octave note (with the Plains style using Finger diagram open closed closed open open open or Finger diagram open closed open open open open or Finger diagram open open closed closed open open, and the Woodlands style typically using Finger diagram open open closed open open open for the octave note).
  • The timbre of the flute's sound (with Plains being more “reedy” and Woodlands being more “mellow”).
  • A Woodlands Style flute has the flue in the body of the flute; a Plains Style flute has the flue in the Block or uses a spacer for the block (Tom Cramer, personal communication).

So, given this lack of agreement within the community, I hesitate to use these terms. In any case, the distinction between the two styles has been introduced only in the last two decades, according to Robert Gatliff (personal communication).

Regardless of the confusion, it is valuable to look at the various attributes (spacer plates, fingering, and timbre) and also various descriptions of the difference by others. But first, here's a look at what the term Woodlands means in another context:

The Woodlands Period

The term “Woodland Period” is a term used by archaeologists to to describe a time period of very roughly 1000 BCE to 1600 CE in the cultures that thrived in the Eastern part of North America. This general period is further broken down into the “Early Woodland Period” (1000 BCE – 200 CE), the “Middle Woodland Period” (200–800 CE), and the “Late Woodland Period” (800–1600 CE) ([Ward 1999], pages 3–5).

Although the use of the term “Woodland” in this context refers to a time before the appearance of the Native American flute, the term is still applied loosely to Native American cultures East of the Mississippi River.

Doc Payne

Dr. Richard W. Payne provides this definition in his book The Native American Plains Flute ([Payne 1999], page v):

Native American flutes of the ducted-baffle-barrrier configuration are described as ‘Native American Plains Flutes’ or ‘Plains Type Flutes’ or simply ‘Plains Flutes’. ‘Plains’ is a generic term not intended as particular respect or disrespect for those who consider this or other origins of this delightful instrument.

However, it's not clear (to me) whether Doc Payne was describing a particular sub-style of what this web site calls the “Native American flute”, or whether he was simply using the term “Plains Flutes” as a synonym for “Native American flute”.

Doc's flutes use spacer plates, and he always called his flutes “Plains Flutes”:

Dr. Richard W. Payne (Toubat)

Plains Style flute with a spacer plate Larger image

Ronnie Payne

According to Ronnie Payne's Heart of the Wood CD-ROM ([Payne-R 2002] Heart of the Wood — The Story of Contemporary Native American Flutemaking, now available at Ronnie Payne's web site):

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion and controversy surrounding what exactly distinguishes a “Woodlands” flute from a “Plains” flute. According to Mac Lopez (Whirlwind Studio), it's actually a combinaton of both construction techniques and design elements. One misconception is in regards to the “flue” or channel between the two sound chambers. On a Woodlands flute, this flue is almost always carved into the flute, but on a Plains flute, it can be carved either in the flute or in the block.

Likewise, most Plains flutes have tapered mouthpieces that fit between the lips, while most Woodlands flutes have large blunted mouthpieces that fit against the lips, but there are exceptions in both cases. In construction, on Plains flutes, holes are most often bored or drilled while on Woodlands flutes, holes are most often burned with rods, but again, there are exceptions. Perhaps the most distinctive difference is the fipple or spliting edge on the far edge of second sound hole (closest to the finger holes). On a Plains flute, this edge is sharp while on a Woodlands flute, this edge is blunted.

Here's the nest area of a flute by Hawk Littlejohn (1941–2000) of Woodsong Flutes, a classic woodlands flute maker (photo courtesy of Scott August):

Hawk Littlejohn - Woodsong Flutes

Woodlands Style flute by Hawk Littlejohn Larger image

Colyn Petersen

According to the Woodland Voices web site by Colyn Petersen, retrieved September 20, 2010:

The Woodlands Flute differs from the Plains flute, in that the Woodlands style places the focusing channel (wind way) in the barrel of the flute rather than in the block, this, accompanied with a blunted fipple edge, gives a more round and warm, less buzzy or reedy sound. Woodlands Flutes generally have larger bore diameters which allow for more friendly hole spacings. A person with smaller hands would be more likely to play a lower key in a Woodlands flute than would be possible with other styles.

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