The Magic Of The Flute

The flute an icon in Native American folklore

By Jay W. Sharp

For centuries and perhaps millennia, the flute, with its hauntingly wistful melodies, has laid at the core of the folklore, romance, rituals, artisanship and musical expression of Native Americans of the desert Southwest. 

The Flute and Kokopelli

The instrument became the signature of Kokopelli—the ancient and fabled flutist whose likeness appears (sometimes with an apparent humped back, sometimes with a normal back) on stone and ceramic surfaces and in murals across the Southwest.  He was “portrayed as a priest, an embodiment of the contact point between the spiritual and material worlds,” Stephen W. Hill said in Kokopelli Ceremonies. 

It has been suggested that the Kokopelli figure may have recalled a revered agent who introduced corn to the Southwest, carrying the grain in a backpack, heralding his presence with his flute: 

A man traveled through this country with a bag of corn seed over one shoulder.  His shadow against the desert looked like a deformity.  He would stop at every village and teach people how to plant corn.  And then when the sun slipped behind the mesa and the village was asleep, he would walk through the corn fields playing his flute.  The seeds would flower, pushing themselves up through the red, sandy soil and follow the high-pitched notes upward.  The sun would rise and the man would be gone, with corn stalks the height of a young girl shimmering in the morning light.

From Terry Tempest Williams’ Kokopelli’s Return

Dennis Slifer and James Duffield suggested in their book Kokopelli: Flute Player Images in Rock Art, that the figure, often shown with a phallus, may have embodied a people’s hope for the fertility of its women, its fields and the game.  Or it could have represented a lustful wandering minstrel who stored his melodies, figuratively, in a backpack and entertained his audience with his flute.  It might have suggested a lustful itinerant trader who bore his goods on his back and signaled his coming with his flute.  It may have symbolized a rain priest, a traveling medicine man, a magician, the universal “trickster,” or a Don Juan.  The Kokopelli image “cannot be pinned down to a single identity,” said Hill. 

Judging by the abundance, distribution and context of the images, Kokopelli apparently became widely regarded as a deity by Native Americans.  Playing his flute, he seems to have impregnated women of the villages, danced in celebrations, participated in rituals and led processions on migrations.  Often found lying on his back, he must have played serenades to the stars. 

The Flute and Romance

If the flute became an icon in Southwestern Native American folklore, it also served as an instrument of romance for the young.  In Indian Music in the Southwest, David P. McAllester said, “Flutes and flute-playing are associated with love and love magic,” among the Apaches.  In The American Indians and Their Music, Frances Densmore said, “Young boys [played the flute] at the bashful age, and young men did it when really in love.”  The flute, played by a lovesick Pima warrior at the edge of a village at sunset, issued an imploring call to a young woman:

I play my flute and shake her heart.
I play my flute and shake her heart.
Oh, when the sun goes down,
I make my flowers bloom,
I shake her heart.
Flute Song, from John Bierhorst’s A Cry From the Earth:

Music of the North American Indians

The Flute and Ritual

The flute, with its supernatural powers, naturally became a central instrument in ritual, especially in pleas to the spirits for rain and abundant harvests.  In the Zia Pueblo, for instance, the flute-playing “Rainbow Priest represents a high-ranking individual in a pueblo performing a specific ceremony to summon rain,” according to Hill.  At the Santo Domingo Pueblo, “Those who play the ceremonial flutes are united in a society…with a leader, and their presence is required when corn is planted, it being believed that flute-playing makes everything grow better.  They also play when corn is ground for use in ceremonies, and on certain other occasions.  The number of flute-players is about six, and they stand in line, with the leader in the middle, carrying a short staff painted turquoise color.  He moves this up and down as the flutes are played,” Densmore said in her “Music of Santo Domingo Pueblo, New Mexico,” Southwest Museum Papers, No. 12.  At the Hopi Pueblo villages, flute societies gathered every August to issue a mystical call for rain and spring water:

Hither thunder, rain-thunder here,
Hither the rain-thunder will come;
Hither rain, moving-rain—
Onward now, over all the fields,

Hopi Flute-Song, from The Indians’ Book: Authentic Native American Legends, Lore & Music, Recorded and Edited by Natalie Curtis

Delicately crafted Kokopelli silver pendant displays this ancient icon of good luck, prosperity and fertility. Earrings

The Artisanship

With its high ceremonial value, the flute – the most complex of Native American instruments – became a product of craftsmanship and creativity.  Cylindrically shaped, it was, according to the Wild Horse Mountain Flutes Internet site, “one of the few, if not the only, end-blown and two-chambered flute known.”  They were made from wood, river cane, ceramics or, among the Plains Indians, from gun barrels, said Densmore in The American Indians and Their Music.

Often, flute makers fashioned the instruments from “various kinds of soft, straight-grained wood, like cedar and sumac,” according to Densmore.  “A straight, round stick of the wood is split lengthwise into two equal parts.  Each half-cylinder is then hollowed out, except near one end, where a bridge is left, so that when the two pieces are put together there is formed a cylindrical tube open at both ends and throughout its length except at one point where the bridges form a solid stopper, dividing the tube into a short upper portion (the wind chamber) and a long lower portion (the flute tube).”  The artisans glued the split halves together with a natural resin and bound them with rawhide thongs.  They drilled four to six finger holes in the flute tube chamber.  They often secured a block, sometimes in the shape of an animal or bird effigy, over the bridge.  The owner, in an expression of his personal spirituality, might decorate his flute with leather fringe, feathers and engravings.  The best flutes produced a kind of “warbling” sound in a minor key.

When the first Europeans appeared in the desert Southwest, in the 16th century, flute making was already an ancient craft.  An old Indian man told Densmore, “There has always been a flute, just as there have always been young people.  The flute is as old as the world.”

The Music of the Flute

The charm of the flute arises, at least in part, from the individual sound of each instrument.  “It is unlikely, said the Wild Horse Mountain Flutes Internet site, that you will “find two instruments that sound exactly alike.  Even the best craftsmen have difficulty in making two, much less several, identical instruments.”  The sounds vary because the “Tonal quality, scale and pitch are influenced by a number of variables,” including, for instance, the total length of the flute, the relative lengths of its chambers, the internal diameter of the chambers, and the placement of the finger holes.  Each flute has its own personality.  “Its main appeal…” said the Cedar Mesa Music Internet site, is “as a solo instrument, with its very personal, soulful and emotional sound.”

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