By Edward Wapp Wahpeconiah (Comanche/Sac & Fox)

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 compositions.

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 innermost feelings.

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 block.

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 performances.

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 the future.

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 acoustics.

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 non-Indians.

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 Sioux tradition.

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 Communication.

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 Urbana-Champaign.

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 Personal communication.

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.:  Education House. 

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 University.

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 diminished.

  Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) (1932-1996).

  See also, Sunrise:  American Indian Flute; and Morning Star:  Native American Flute Music, by Tom Mauchahty Ware (Kiowa/Comanche).

  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.











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