The American Indian courting flute and its music were once
an integral part of plains, plateau, woodland, eastern, and
southwestern tribal cultures and served important sociological
functions that were connected with courtship, love magic, and
entertainment. Around the turn of the century, its traditional
role began to wane with the advent of social and cultural changes that
were occurring within tribal structures. These changes were due
to the introduction of Euro-American culture and the propagation of the
assimilation process. Although flute music went into a decline, a
few flute players and makers did continue this art into the twentieth
century. However, flute music was rarely heard, except within the
family unit or at pow-wows on rare occasions, and flutes were not
readily available for purchase. It has only been recently, within
the past fifteen years , that the instrument and its music have been
experiencing a renaissance.
The recent revival has been promoted by both Indian and non-Indian
players, makers, and scholars who have approached their interests with
such an enthusiasm that it has created a rapidly growing
interest. Through their efforts, many old flute melodies have
been revived, and the way has been paved for the development of a new
musical repertoire, playing technique, and construction of the
instrument. Although this renaissance has not restored the
flute’s traditional role, it has been instrumental in creating new
functions for the flute. Once played by a young man as a means of
courtship and at the same time heard informally by other tribal
members, it is now played by a new generation of flute players who can
be heard at tribal fairs, pow-wows, concerts of traditional music, and
on commercial recordings, playing old traditional love songs, newly
composed courting songs, and melodies adapted from various American
Indian vocal genres.
In order to discover the extent of the recent revitalization and the
changes that have been occurring, it is necessary to examine and
analyze the work and contributions of those who have been directly or
indirectly involved and responsible for this renaissance. Since
it has been generated from four main sources: The flute player,
flute maker, scholar, and audience, the major contributors in each
category will be identified and their work and contributions will be
discussed and compared to the same categories of the past.
The past generation of flute players used a very simple playing
technique to play a repertoire that was transcribed from vocal love
songs. These transcriptions either closely followed the melody of
the vocal song or hinted at it, depending on the available pitches
produced by the player’s instrument. Ornamentation that was
characteristic of the vocal song and tribal singing style was included
in the transcription as well as simple ornamentation that was added to
embellish a melodic line. When a melody was repeated, the
repetition was melodically or rhythmically varied. A
characteristic of singing the love song was to begin by intoning the
ending pitch of the song. This allowed the singer to clear his
throat, warm-up, and to test and adjust this closing pitch to the
song’s melodic range. This characteristic was incorporated by the
older generation of flute players as a means of checking the intonation
of the flute. If necessary, the movable block was adjusted until
the right intonation was found. Some of these musical concepts
have remained with the new generation.
The most known flute players of the newer generation whom I consider
the most innovative in regard to the preservation and development of
courting flute music are Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) , Tom Mauchahty
Ware (Kiowa/Comanche), and Kevin Locke (Sioux). Each has made
different and valuable contributions.
Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) has become one of the most widely known
of the new generation. His work and contributions toward the
development of a more skillful playing technique and the expansion of
the repertoire are numerous and have inspired and influenced many of
the younger aspiring players. Doc’s playing style is
characterized by a large amount of decorative melodic ornamentation,
breath vibrato, and a highly developed playing technique.
Examples of his playing can be heard on his two commercial recordings,
Indian Flute Songs from Comanche Land (1976), which was the first
commercial recording devoted entirely to flute music, and Comanche
Flute Music (1979). His use of cross-fingering in his playing
technique has expanded the modal and ornamental possibilities of
American Indian flute music. This expansion is apparent in the
ornamental treatment he gives the melodic line of older flute melodies,
melodies adapted from other American Indian vocal genres, and his own
Doc has been a leader in the development of a broader repertoire for
the flute. He has experimented with adapting other American
Indian vocal genres such as social dance songs, wind songs, and
Comanche Christian hymns. He has created two new genres for the
flute that are purely instrumental forms and are patterned after the
musical structure of older love song transcriptions for flute.
Doc refers to one genre as a “modern courting flute song” and the other
genre is more of a descriptive composition that is inspired by and
reflects closeness to nature and one’s innermost feelings.
These two forms follow the characteristics of plains music with a
melodic contour that is undulating and moves from a high to a low
pitch. They also exhibit the characteristic beginning and ending
ornamented sustained tone that was common to older flute
melodies. “When the moon is full, I’ll be thinking of you,”
as the title implies, is a modern courting flute song. It is
metrically free flowing and is composed of two long descending melodic
phrases that end with very elaborately ornamented sustained
tones. One of his descriptive compositions, “I saw an eagle fly,”
was inspired by seeing an eagle in flight. Its melodic contour is
undulating and contains some tones with long durational values.
In combination, they depict an eagle as it ascends, descends, and soars
through the sky. Through his use of melodic line and
ornamentation, he imitates the screech of an eagle. Another
descriptive composition, “Comanche moon,” was inspired by the effects
the moon can have on one’s moods and is expressive of the composer’s
Tom Mauchahty Ware (Kiowa/Comanche) is a descendent of Belo Cozad, a
well-known Kiowa flute player of the older generation. Tom has
made two commercial recordings, Flute Songs of the Kiowa and
Comanche (1979) and The Traditional and Contemporary Indian Flute of
Tom Mauchahty Ware (1983). His style of playing is delicate with
subtle and refined ornamentation and breath vibrato. By his use
of breath control, he is able to sharpen or flatten pitches. This
aspect of his flute playing enhances the tone coloring of a melodic
line as well as expands the modal possibilities of flute
melodies. His concept regarding flute repertoire is that melodies
can pertain to various aspects of love, rather than the love song
itself. His repertoire consists of adaptations of various
southern plains social dance songs, hymns, and his own
compositions. Many of his compositions have been derived from
dreams or have been inspired by the movements and sounds of
birds. “Hummingbird song,” one of his compositions, is
descriptive of a hummingbird’s rapid wing movements and its fast and
slow movements as it flies. Ast and slow moving melodic motifs
express the bird’s flying movements, and sustained tones with a fair
amount of subtle vibrato depict the bird’s wing motion.
Historically, the musical repertoire of the Sioux contained many
beautiful vocal love songs that were composed during the latter half o
the nineteenth century and adapted by Sioux flute players. These
songs were slowly being lost from the repertoire until Kevin Locke
began to record and learn them. He went to the Sioux tribal
elders who knew them and found that they were willing to pass this
tradition on to him so the longs would not be lost. Kevin’s
playing style and repertoire is the most traditional of the new
generation. He uses old Sioux love songs as source melodies for
his flute transcriptions. He also includes melodies that were
once played by older generation Sioux flute players, like Richard Fool
Bull and John Coloff, to supplement his repertoire. Kevin remains
true to the vocal love song by first learning to sing the song, then
converting it to a flute melody. His use of ornamentation is
sparing and is mainly reflective of the ornamentation found in the
Sioux vocal love long. He has recorded one commercial recording,
“Lakota Wiikojo Olowan: Lakota Flute Music by Kevin Locke” (1982)
. On the recording and in his performances, he uses flutes that
were made by Richard Fool Bull and Dan Red Buffalo, two well-known
Sioux flute makers of the older generation.
The art of courting flute making has experienced some development and
change, but not as the music played on it. Construction of the
instrument may develop and change in the future as the demand for
quality playing instruments grows, and flute makers begin to
communicate with each other. Presently, flute makers are
following two directions. Some have been working to improve the
acoustical qualities of the instrument, while others have been using it
as a means of artistic expression. The courting flute is a round
and hollowed-out piece of wood that contains a fipple or plug that
divides it into two chambers. Two square or rectangular openings
are placed on both sides of the fipple. A carved ornament or
block, either plain or in the shape of an animal effigy, is attached to
the flute by a leather thong over the opening close to the mouth hole
and fipple. When the player blows, the air stream is directed
through a narrow duct or flue, which is formed by the fipple and the
block. The carved ornament is movable and functions as a means of
tuning the instrument. Flutes of this type usually have six
finger holes; however, most Sioux flutes have only five. The
instrument is held and played in a vertical position by the player and
could be defined as a vertical whistle flute with an attached external
Older courting flutes were made of various types of wood, such as
cedar, sumac, and cottonwood; however, red cedar was the most preferred
wood because of the many legends that exist concerning the flute’s
origin. They state that the first flute was made from red
cedar. After white contact, materials that were cylindrical and
hollow were sometimes used. Specimens exist that were constructed
from gun barrels and brass tubing.
There were three main characteristics of the flute that were preferred
by both makers and players and are yet important to players. The
two most important were a pleasing tone and a usable arrangement of
scale tones; otherwise, the flute was discarded and never played.
The third characteristic, which is not found on many flutes, was a
warbling sound on the lower pitch of the scale. The warble, in
actuality, is a rapid alternation between two different pitches
(acoustical beats) and was probably incorporated into the instrument’s
design to imitate vocal pulsation that is a characteristic of Indian
singing. This sound was and is yet preferred by flute players and
achieved by only a few makers.
A standardized system of measurement did not exist among flute
makers. Individual makers had their own personal system of
measurement. Research that has been conducted on this aspect of
flute making reveals that the length of flutes and the placement of
finger holes vary. The positions of finger holes have been found
to be equidistant on some flutes and non-equidistant on others.
While scales vary in structure, the quality of each tone that makes up
the scale varies as well.
The most known flute maker today and whose work I have been able to
examine are Dr. Richard Payne (non-Indian), Doc Tate Nevaquaya and his
son Edmond (Comanche), Lester Goslin (Kickapoo), Woodrow Haney (Creek),
and Phillip Haozous (Apache). Dr. Richard Payne , an
Oklahoma City surgeon, has been researching, collecting, and making
American Indian flutes and whistles for a number of years. He has
played a vital role in the renaissance of the courting flute through
his work in duplicating older specimens, supplying courting flute
players with instruments, and experimenting with the instrument’s
over-all design, including materials used, and its acoustical
properties (pitch, timbre, scale). His ultimate goal has been to
develop and perfect a courting flute that is versatile enough to play
native melodies as well as to be used by contemporary composers who
would want to exploit the instrument’s unique tonal qualities.
Dr. Payne has experimented with a variety of domestic and exotic woods,
but has preferred cedar for the best tone quality. His
experiments with measurement and pitch have led to the development of a
finely-tuned instrument with an F# major scale. He feels that his
instruments are prototypes of a perfect courting flute. His
flutes allow the player to obtain additional pitches by using
cross-fingering and by half covering a hole. His flutes are
played by Doc Tate Nevaquaya and Tom Mauchahty Ware in their
Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) and his son Edmond (Comanche) have also
been working on the acoustical aspects of the flute. They have
been working toward perfecting the warble and a scale that will allow a
flute player to play most flute melodies. Doc hopes that the
scale and tone quality of flutes made by other makers will improve in
Lester Goslin (Kickapoo), in his efforts to improve the tone quality of
his instruments, has added a movable wedge-shaped piece of wood over
the exposed hole on the flute where the air stream impinges to create
sound. This added part can be adjusted for a desired tone
quality, depending on the player’s taste.
Woodrow Haney’s (Creek) flutes are works of art and are sought after by
collectors. They are carved in various designs. An example
of his work that I have seen, was carved in the shape of an alligator’s
head and body.
Phillip Haozous (Apache) began making flutes in the early 1970’s.
He uses the traditional wood, cedar, and has also experimented with
other woods, such as walnut and ebony. He has moved away from the
traditional way of decorating a flute with leathers, beads, and
feathers, to a more creative style. His flutes are decorated with
silver, brass, ivory, and inlaid with turquoise. In 1975 and
1976, his flutes won first place in the musical instrument category at
the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Prior to 1977, no formal studies on the courting flute and its music
existed. The extent documentation consisted of general
descriptions of construction, a few musical transcriptions, scant
information on context, some field recordings in private collections or
deposited in archives of traditional music and museums, and commercial
recordings devoted to the music of one tribe, area, or included in
anthologies of American Indian music. Since 1977, three Master’s
Theses have been written in an attempt to document and analyze
the lore, context, music, construction, and decoration of the
instrument. Each deals, to some extent with these aspects, but
they also contain specific contributions to the study of the flute.
The musical analysis of Judy Epstein Buss’ Thesis, The Flue and Flute
Music of the North American Indian, was based on recorded flute music
that was collected between 1905 and 1952. Instrumental and Vocal
Love Songs of the North American Indians, by Mary F. Reimer, analyzed
the stylistic unity of flute and vocal love song melodies. The
most recent study, The Flute of the Canadian Amerindian: An
Analysis of the Vertical Whistle Flute with External Block and Its
Music by Paula Conlon, is an extensive study on the design and
construction of the flute, and also includes aspects of measurement and
To date, no attempt has been made to analyze and determine past and
present tribal differences concerning the various aspects of the
courting flute. Additional research is needed on individual
playing styles and repertoire of flute players and the construction and
design used by individual flute makers.
At one time, the courting flute player’s audience was small and
intimate, confined primarily to the one being serenaded and secondarily
to family and friends. Now, the audience that hears the beautiful
and haunting sounds of the courting flute encompasses a wide range of
people and situations. Audiences are now composed of Indians and
Doc Tate Nevaquaya has performed throughout the United States, Europe,
and the Far East, as a solo performer and in conjunction with
exhibitions of his art work. Some highlights of his public
performances include, “Night of the First Americans,” held at the John
F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1982), a Goodwill Tour to
England, sponsored by the Smithsonian Instruction, and numerous
performances on CBS, NBC, and ABC television networks.
Tom Mauchahty Ware has performed at pow-wows, rodeos, and various
expositions that feature American Indian music and dance
traditions. He has also performed in Europe at folk
festivals. Kevin Locke has widely traveled and performed in the
United States, Europe, Africa, and Australia. His flute
performances, along with hoop and eagle dance demonstrations, include
the performance of the vocal sing as well as the flute
traditions. He also relates the social context of the flute in
Traditionally, the courting flute was played by men only. It was
played solo and was not used to accompany the voice, nor was it
accompanied by other instruments. No formal instruction was given
to a young man when he began to play it. He learned on his own by
listening to other players. These aspects have changed in the
20th century. Now, it is used as part of the orchestration of
contemporary Western musical compositions, played by women, and taught
in the school classroom.
Louis W. Ballard, an American Indian composer of Cherokee and Quapaw
descent, has utilized the courting flute in two of his compositions,
Ritmo Indio and Mid-Winter Fires. These chamber works feature the
mellow timbre of the courting flute, creating a unique nuance when used
in combination with Western orchestral instruments. Ritmo Indio,
a study in American Indian rhythms for woodwind quintet, was written in
1969 as a Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation-commissioned work for the
Dorian Woodwind Quintet of New York City. That same year, it won
the first Marion Nevins MacDowell award for composition. The slow
second movement, entitled, The Soul, uses imitative counterpoint in
cannon form and features a five-holed Sioux flute in combination with
flute, B flat clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and F horn. The theme of
this movement was adapted from a Northwest Coast Tlingit paddling song.
Mid-Winter Fires was composed in 1970 for the White House Conference on
children and Youth. It was written for the five-holed Sioux
flute, B flat clarinet, and piano. It was later arranged for
recorder because adequate flutes were not available. Mid-Winter
Fires is a short contemporary chamber work in A B form and is not based
on traditional American Indian melodies or rhythms. The flute
part does not exhibit characteristics of courting flute music.
Therefore, the composer used the flute only for its unique tone quality.
Women have learned to play the flute and have actively performed on the
instrument. For example, Cheryl LaPointe (Rosebud Sioux), played
the courting flute as her talent for the Miss Indian America contest
one year (ca. 1968).
John Rainer (Taos Pueblo), who teaches American Indian music at Brigham
Young University, offers a course on flute music, flute playing, and
construction. During the first two weeks of class, students make
their own instruments. The remainder of the term is devoted to
the study and composition of flute music.
The work and contributions that I have made in the revitalization of
the courting flute encompasses all areas that have been
discussed. I am a descendent of two flute players, Curtis
Pequahno (Pottawatomie), and Jess Wapp (Sac and Fox), my
grandfather. I have had an interest in the courting flute since
my early childhood. In 1074, I was fortunate to receive a
travel/study grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study
and perform with Doc Tate Nevaquaya. Since that time, I have
performed throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, giving
lecture-demonstrations on the courting flute. I try to show the
development of the music by playing the music of both the older and
newer generations. Through my research, I have become acquainted
with many flute players and makers. I have made it a point to
communicate my findings to them, in hopes that more knowledge
concerning the social context, music, and construction of the courting
flute will be known by them. My present research on the subject
is now centering on defining tribal differences of the music and
construction of the instrument, individual playing styles of flute
players, and the changes that are beginning to happen with the present
generation of flute players and makers. In efforts to make the
courting flute and its music better known, I have two future projects
planned. One project will be a method book on making and playing
the courting flute. The other project will be a recording of
older flute melodies from the woodlands tribes.
Music in a culture will change as the culture changes. For the
courting flute, change has occurred conceptually, contextually, and
musically. It will probably never be heard again in its
traditional context, nor will the many old and beautiful love songs
that were once used to court young women be heard again, but the beauty
of the flute and the music that it can produce will never be lost, even
though many new changes have and will yet occur.
Ballard, Louis W. 1969 Ritmo Indio. New York: Bourne Co.
1970 Mid-Winter Fires. New York: Bourne Co. Personal
Bierhorst, John 1979 Cry from the Earth: Music of the North American Indian. Folkways FC 7777.
Buss, Judy Epstein 1977 The Flute and Flute Music of the North American
Indians. Unpublished M.A. Thesis. University of Illinois at
Conlon, Paula 1983 The Flute of the Canadian Amerindian: An
Analysis of the Vertical Whistle Flute with External Block and Its
Music. Unpublished M.A. Thesis. Carleton University.
1983 Personal communication. Flute player and maker (Okanagan). Friend of Woodrow Haney.
1976 Indian Flute Songs from Comanche Land. Played by Doc Tate
Native American Music NAM 401C. Personal communication.
Fool Bull, Richard N.D. Old Sioux Love Songs. Played by Richard
Fool Bull. Lakota Recording and Handicraft RPI 39494. 1973
Gillis, Verna 1979 Comanche Flute Music. Played by Doc Tate Nevaquaya. Folkways FE 4328.
Goslin, Lester. Personal communication.
In Sharing a Heritage: American Indian Arts. Contemporary
American Indian Issues Series No. 5, Edited by Charlotte Heth.
Los Angeles: UCLA Publiation Services Dept., 1984.
Hall, Clyde 1983 Personal communication. Friend of Woodrow Haney.
Hofman, Charles 1964 War Whoops and Medicine Songs. Folkways FE 4381.
Hueneman, Lynn 1978 Songs and Dances of Native America: A
Resource Text for Teachers and Students. Tsaile, Ariz.:
1980 Review of Comanche Flute Music, played by Doc Tate Nevaquaya
(Folkways FE 4328) and Flute Songs of the Kiowa and Comanche, played by
Tom Mauchahty Ware (Indian House IH 2512). Ethnomusicology
2:339-341. Personal communication.
Isaacs, Tony 1978 Flute Songs of the Kiowa and Comanche. Played
by Tom Mauchahty Ware. Indian House IH 2512. 1984 Love
Songs of the Lakota, performed on Flute by Kevin Locke. Indian
House IH 4315 (cassette only). [Reissued by Indian House on
CD in 1996]. 1984 personal communication.
Kurath, Gertrude P. 1959 Songs and Dances of Great Lakes Indians. Folkways FM 4003.
Lee, Dorothy 1979 Native North American Music and Oral Data: A
Catalogue of Sound Recordings, 1893-1976. Bloomington:
Indian University Press.
Locke, Kevin 1982 Lakota Wiskijo Olowan: Lakota Flute Music by
Kevin Locke. Featherstone FS 4001C. Personal communication.
Merriarn, Alan P. 1953 Songs and Dances of the Flathead Indians. Folkways FE 4445.
Nevaquaya, Doc Tate. Personal communication.
Payne, Dr. Richard 1983 Personal communication.
Rainer, John 1981 Personal communication.
Rhodes, Willard N.D., Indian Songs of Today, Library of Congress AFS
L36, N.D., Plains: Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Caddo, Wichita,
Pawnee. Library of Congress AFS L39. N.D. Sioux.
Library of Congress AFS L40.
Reimer, Mary F. 1978 Instrumental and Vocal Love Songs of the North
American Indians. Unpublished M.A. Thesis. Wesleyan
Sportswood, Richard K. 1976 Songs of Love, Courtship, and
Marriage. Folk Music in American, vol. 2. Library of
Congress L 1362.
Wahpeconiah, Edward Wapp 1983 Introduction to the American Indian
Courting Flute. The American Rendezvous Magazine 2:30, 57.
Ware, Tom Mauchahty 1982 Personal communication. 1983 The
Traditional and Contemporary Indian Flute of Tom Mauchahty Ware.
Indian Sounds IS 5050.
This article was written in the early 1980s, so much of the
content is out-of-date; however, it’s historical significance is not
Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) (1932-1996).
See also, Sunrise: American Indian Flute; and Morning
Star: Native American Flute Music, by Tom Mauchahty Ware
As of 1996, Kevin Locke has now recorded 11 albums, appeared on three compilation albums and two story tapes.
As of today, there are numerous talented flute makers who continue the tradition of making flutes.
Dr. Richard Payne, flute historian, (1918-2004) left an enduring
legacy of books, photographs, and music. See also Songkeepers
(DVD) and Toubat (DVD).
As well as Kevin Locke.
Since the time of this article, many more research papers/studies have been written on the Native American Flute.
Mary Youngblood (Alutiic/Seminole) has won two Grammy Awards,
and was the first Native American Indian Woman to win in the
newly-created “Native American” category of the GRAMMYs, which category
is sadly now defunct, making her both the first and last Native
American Indian Woman to win a GRAMMY Award in that category.
See Songs of the Indian Flute, Volume One and Volume Two, a
two-CD compilation by John Rainer, Jr., and The Native American Plains
Flute and Friends, by Dr. Richard Payne and Friends, which contain many
traditional selections from different Tribes and Nations, thus
illustrating their differences.