[This article is presented for educational purposes]


Richard W. Payne

Simple case whistles were in common use by the Indian tribes of southeastern North America at the time of early European contact.  However, description of these instruments was vague, disclosing only that they were made from cane or reed and were of the “whistle” or flageolet type.1  Their role in the cultural life of these original American Indian inhabitants was only cursorily noted as fanfare for processions and raucous merrymaking by young men; the arcane life of these people seemed of relatively little interest to early explorers.

One of the earliest descriptions was provided by Cabesa de Vaca in 1528 who noted that visitors were welcomed to the accompaniment of a large number of “simple cane flageolets.”  Jacques LaMoyne, a member of an early French expedition to Florida in 1564, described the use of similar whistles by members of the Creek Nation to accompany processions of dignitaries.  In 1775 Bernard Romans observed the use of cane flutes among the Chickasaws.2  William
Bartram, on his visit to the Creeks of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas in 1791, described flutes made of “joints of reed” played by young men for entertainment.3

Unfortunately, knowledge of these native aerophones has seriously declined among present generations of the indigenous southeastern tribes, many of whom now live in eastern Oklahoma, although they continue to speak of whistles and flutes in their native languages.  Septal block whistles were common to the Five Civilized Tribes in the past, as were aerophones made of bark, gourd, and bone.  Whistles made from bird and other small animal bones are the only prehistoric aerophone artifacts that have survived from the indigenous eastern United States cultures.

Designations of certain whistles as “medicine whistles” bears uncertain connotations.  Clearly they were used by medicine men in stick ball games, but evidence for their precise role in native pharmacology, like the medicine tube, is largely legendary.

External similarities of “medicine whistles” to medicine tubes and the importance of the breath in arcane rites suggest their traditional role in the preparation of sacred medications.4  However, such use is only a dim memory among surviving generations.

Arundinaria, the only genus of the Bamboo sub-family of grasses native to the United States, lends itself to a variety of utilitarian purposes including house building, basket and mat construction, fishing poles, drinking tubes, blow guns, spears, medicine tubes, and musical instruments.  This sturdy plant, known commonly as “river cane,” grows in the southern United States from Florida to eastern Oklahoma, closely spanning the migration routes of the southeastern tribes on their removal to eastern Oklahoma.5  Its sturdy nodal partitions serve as natural septal blocks over which a sound-generating airstream can be funneled and its hard walls impart excellent tubular rigidity and resonance well suited for easy crafting of simple aerophones.

Although cane flutes have poorly survived the passage of centuries, it is possible to study their design and sound by an examination of those that are found in private or institutional collections.

The Choctaw flute

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The Mississippi Choctaw whistle (top) is a septal block whistle with two tone holes.  By aiming the air blade at the lower edge of the fipple, effective sound generation with a rich assortment of overtones is produced.  The narrow Creek septal block whistle (middle) has no tone holes.  The roof of the windway is provided by a finger or bandage.  The windows of both the air and tone chambers are cut in a triangular pattern with the base toward the block.  Bringing the fipple edge to a point serves to provide a relatively pure tone of a “piercing” quality.  In the Seminole whistle (bottom) the air channel is carved through the central portion of the nodal partition.  The larger end of the cane is distal to the fipple and is usually closed to produce a stopped pipe.  See details at right (All whistles from the author’s collection unless noted.  All photos courtesy the author unless noted).

Frances Densmore, in her survey of Mississippi Choctaw music a half century ago, described a Choctaw whistle used by medicine men in stick ball games to promote partisan success and to “witch” the opposing team.6  Her illustration of a whistle made by Robert Henry, a native medicine man, is similar to one illustrated by Jesse Burt and Robert Ferguson in 1973 and to one in the author’s collection (p.426 and 427).7

This septal block flute, made of river cane, measures 37.6 centimeters in length.  The average outside diameter is 16.8 millimeters and bore is 9.6 millimeters.  The windows are cut in a rectangular shape and the edges are squared.  The septum is carved to form the floor of the airway directed to the underside of the square cut tone edge.  The roof of the air passage is provided by a “bandage” of cloth, leather, or soft metal.  The distal tone chamber measures 23.9 centimeters from the fipple lip.  Two tone holes, each 7 millimeters in diameter, are placed in the tone chamber at 15.3 and 19.5 centimeters from the fipple lip.

The fundamental scale of this instrument is d sharp”, f sharp”, and a sharp”.8  A full diatonic scale of two octaves can be produced by this instrument when utilizing the second, third, and fourth harmonic levels by particularly stopping the distal vent with a free finger.  The effect is like that produced with the tabor pipe, an ancient whistle configuration which has occurred independently in many cultures.9  The incised crosses on this Choctaw flute relate to the cross pattern by which stick ball players are scratched from the right shoulder to the left hip and the left shoulder to the right hip.

The Choctaws commonly refer to their whistles as “canes;” in the Choctaw language the proper name for flute is uskula which relates to uski, their term for river cane.10  Present day Choctaws, even those living in Mississippi, seem to have lost knowledge of their flute during the half century since Densmore’s study, which belies their great interest and success in renewal of their ancient cultural traditions.

The Chicasaw flute

Chickasaws speak of their flute as oskola and cane as oske, an alternate term of the Choctaw word.11  Vague memory of such instruments allows only that they were similar to the Choctaw whistle but had three tone holes.  In that case they would be even more comparable to the pre-Columbian tabor whistles of Mexico which might have some bearing on their ancient trade routes.12

The Creek flute

A whistle from eastern Oklahoma identified as of Creek provenance is fashioned from rather thick walled and narrow bore river cane, the patina of which indicates considerable age and usage (p.426 and 427).  Overall length is 37.0 centimeters and the distance from fipple lip to distal end of the bone chamber is 16.75 centimeters, delivering the fundamental tone of a sharp”, an octave above middle C.  The outside diameter of the instrument measures approximately 13 millimeters and bore averages 9.5 millimeters.  The central flattened area is perforated on either side of the septum to form triangular windows with their bases at the septum.  The septal block is shaved down and slightly inclined distally to provide the air channel floor and directed to effectively bisect the fipple point.  The roof of the air channel is provided by a finger or a bandage.  The small bore and long tone chamber of this design delivers a relatively easily controlled harmonic series which, in the absence of tone holes, comprises the scale of instruments of this configuration.

Willie Lena, a Creek-Seminole medicine man, reports that in the past similar whistles were used in the preparation of medicine.13  The Creeks use the term fehpah to designate a flute or trumpet; the root of this term is fepe, meaning gourd.14  Perhaps this association is based on the prior use of bark and gourd trumpets for musical instruments.

The Seminole flute

Rather vague memory of a cane flute among the Seminoles was noted by Densmore in 1956.15  Her informants made a cane whistle which had four tone holes, with additional holes along the lateral aspect of the tone chamber, a rather doubtful configuration which apparently was not playable.

A whistle presumed to represent Seminole heritage (p.426 and 427) was discovered by Woodrow Haney, an elder of the Seminole and Creek tribes and also a very competent native flutist.  Mr. Haney made several of these whistles in which the sound-generating mechanism is quite similar to that of ancient Peruvian whistle pots and the traditional boatswain’s whistle.16

The airstream is directed from a circular opening across a larger circular window.  In fashioning these ingenious whistles, oblique cuts are made through the coned areas of the proximal and distal nodal partitions.  An efficient whistle results by exposing a small opening proximally as the airstream vent and transecting a larger portion of the distal nodal cavity to serve as the sound-generating window and outer fipple lip.  Usually the airstream strikes slightly low on the fipple lip requiring the distal end of the whistle to be closed for efficient sound production, as in the boatswain’s whistle and whistle pot.  It is possible, using a suitably thick node and a very precise cut, to raise the distal fipple edge of the window high enough to efficiently sound with the open bore.  By closing the distal end of the tone chamber the fundamental tone is lowered one octave and the harmonic series of these whistles follow the characteristics of stopped organ pipes, with an absence of even-numbered upper partials and a somewhat hollow timbre.  The Seminole stopped whistle measures 27.3 centimeters in length with a bore of 8 millimeters and delivers the fundamental tone of a sharp”.  Mr. Haney also has made flutes from gourds in which an inset block is necessary to form the windway.  He notes that the Seminole term for gourd also denotes flute.

The Cherokee flute

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The Cherokee septal block whistle has a narrow fipple lip which is covered with a metal bandage held in place by a ribbon binding.   This whistle is comparable in size (53.3 cm) to the medicine tube (p. 430) (Oklahoma Historical Society, Cherokee Strip Museum Collection, Perry, Oklahoma).

A medicine flute possibly of Cherokee provenance is in the collection of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Cherokee Strip Museum at Perry, Oklahoma (p. 429).  This instrument was donated by Mrs. A. M. Miller, of Billings, Oklahoma, who was of Cherokee heritage and background.  This aerophone, made of river cane characteristic of the eastern Oklahoma variety and showing external similarities to the medicine tube, measures 53.3 centimeters in length with an average bore of 1.3 centimeters and an outside diameter of 2 centimeters.  The fipple lip is 27 centimeters from the distal end, delivering the fundamental tone of c’; no tone holes are present.  The air passage is covered by a small piece of tin secured with sinew and hemmed green ribbon.  This whistle, with its simple linear decoration and rich patina of age and handling, delivers an easily controlled harmonic progression.  Dimensions of the Cherokee flute are similar to the medicine tubes common to the eastern Oklahoma tribes.  In 1963 Grace Woodward described the use of a cane flute by the Cherokees in the dance preceding a stick ball game.17  Neither medicine tubes nor whistles are utilized by present day Chereokees, although the breath continues to play an important role in t heir native medical practice.18

“War bundle” whistles of the Menominee, which were used as signaling devices during battle, and the “grass dance” whistles of the Osage and Sioux bear striking similarities to the Cherokee whistle.  However, grass dance whistles, used in secular dances of Plains tribes, are customarily made of ash or box elder and require an inserted block.  A bird effigy is carved at the distal end.19

Modern peyote whistles of the Plains tribes, largely used to announce the Peyote ceremony, are often of the septal block cane type, and may show similarities to those of the eastern Oklahoma Indians (p. 431).


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This Comanche septal block peyote whistle dates from the nineteenth century.  The lateral wavy incised pattern is similar to that decorating the Cherokee whistle (U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center).

Only vague memories of traditional whistles native to eastern Oklahoma Indians remain, although it would seem that such instruments were common and served useful functions in the past.  While there is no doubt that whistles were important in the distant past of the Five Civilized Tribes, their specific characteristics must be surmised on thin and circumstantial evidence which only faintly shows through the veneer of acculturation.  Use of whistle tones as a mean of communication has been demonstrated among various indigenous tribes, particularly those living in areas of rugged terrain.  Such whistles were used in ceremonies associated with stick ball games, for entertainment purposes, diversion along the trail, battle commands, gaining attention, and accentuating activities.  Their external similarity to the medicine tube, particularly evident in the Cherokee flute, might suggest their use in the preparation of ritual medicine, although this association is difficult to assign.  Indeed, there is virtually no use of the traditional flutes described among the present day tribes of eastern Oklahoma.  This is in contrast to the current enthusiastic use of dance and peyote whistles made of cane, bone, and various tubular materials by the neighboring Plains tribes of western Oklahoma.20


Richard W. Payne is a flutist with an interest in the historical development, acoustics, and crafting of, and performance on sound edge aerophones (flutes and whistles).  His publications in the field of music include studies of indigenous flutes.  He is a member of the National Flute Association, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the American Musical Instrument Society.  Dr. Payne, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, lives in Oklahoma City.  He and his wife Eula have a long term interest in Native American culture and music.

 1  In a strict definition whistles are distinguished from flutes by their provision of a fixed channel through which an air stream can be directed over the sound producing edge.  The present discussion is concerned entirely with the whistles (duct flute, block flute, recorder, flageolet) which are often loosely called flutes.  Plebian usage may also term a whistle with tone holes as a flute.

 2  John R. Swanton, “Early History of the Creek Indians,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 73 (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution, 1922); 358; Swanton, “Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 103 (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution, 1931), 223; Swanton, “Indians of the Southeastern United States,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 137 (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution, 1949), 628-629.

 3  Mark Van Doran, Travels of William Bartram (New York:  Dover Publications, 1928), 395-396.

 4  The medicine tube or bubbling tube is generally fashioned from cane cut to the length of the maker’s forearm and the bore opened by perforation of the nodal partitions.  Generally two nodes are included in the length of the tube.  These open tubes are used by medicine men to “bubble” into liquid medicine, thus incorporating his medicine song or invocation into the sacred liquid.  the breath is of great importance, infusing supernatural properties in “remaking” ritual preparations.

    Frederick G. Speck, “Creek Medicine Songs and Formulas,” University of
Pennsylvania Anthropological Publications, 1 (Philadelphia:  University of     Pennsylvania Museum, 1909), 62.

 5  Arundinaria is a hard comparatively rigid grass with strong nodal partitions lending itself readily to whistle and flute construction.  Phragmytes communis and Arundo donax (giant reed) are rapidly growing reeds of more general distribution which can also be used for the construction of whistles or flutes but they are considerably less sturdy than Arundinaria.

 6  Frances Densmore, “Choctaw Music,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 136 (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution, 1943), 1L7-1L8, 127-130.

 7  Jesse Bart and Robert H. Ferguson, Indians of the Southeast Then and Now (Nashville, Tennessee:  Abingdon Press, 1973), 98.

 8  Musical notation is described according to a Manual of Style, 13th. ed. (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1962), 174.  thus, middle C is designated as c’ and higher octaves are noted with increasing primes.

 9  The tabor pipe (Morris pipe, England; Txistu, Spain; Tlapitzali, Aztec) is characterized by a narrow bore and three (occasionally four) tone holes distally placed, which by harmonic progression from the second overtone (octave) to the third overtone (fifth) will produce a diatonic scale of two octaves requiring the fingers of only one hand.  Fewer tone holes will produce a pentatonic scale.

10  Cyrus Byington, “A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 46 (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution, 1915).

11  Jessie Humes and Vinnie May Humes, A Chickasaw Dictionary (Ada, Oklahoma:  The Chicasaw Nation Publishing Co., 1973).

12  Use of pre-Columbian whistle pots extended as far north as Mexican trade areas.

13  Willie Lena, personal communication with author.

14  R. M. Loughridge, Dictionary Muskogee-English (St. Louis:  J. T. Smith Publisher, 1890).

15  Frances Densmore, “Seminole Music,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 161 (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution, 1956); 39-40.

16  Karl G. Isikowitz, Musical and other Sound Instruments of the South American Indians (Goteberg, 1935), 369-371; United States Navy, The Blue Jackets Manual (Annapolis, Maryland:  U. S. Naval Institute, 1940), 773-784.  The boatswain’s pipe was standard nautical equipment at the time of the early voyages to the Americas.

17  Grace S. Woodward, The Cherokees (Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 50-52.

18  Frances Densmore, “Menominee Music,”  Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, 102 (Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution, 1932); 68-71.

19  The Grass dance, also known as the Omaha dance, is a relatively recent ceremony of the Plains Indians succeeding the Scalp dance.  Whistles, generally made of ash or box elder without tone holes, are used in this ceremony.  These whistles, called “big elk flutes,” exhibit effigies incorporated into the distal end.  Such an appendage usually represents the sandhill crane or gar fish.  Reyal B. Hassrick, The Sioux, Life and Customs of a Warrior Society (Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), 116; Jack Frederick Kilpatrick and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick, Run toward the Nighland:  Magic of the Oklahoma Cherokees (Dallas:  Southern Methodist University Press, 1967), 1-12.

20  Indians of the American Southwest also use septal block whistles that bear some similarities to those of southeastern tribes.  The Papago flute is a larger version of nodal block construction with the roof of the air column provided by a finger; the Pima and Apache flutes are smaller versions employing a cloth bandage to cover the air column.  Instruments of this size are more likely to allow more pleasant musical expression than the whistles described and may explain their being called “flutes.”  These instruments are frequently made of locally grown Arundo or Phragmytes reed as Arundinaria is not indigenous to the Southwest.  The Tarahumara flute is a beaked whistle made of the Arundinaria which grows in the deep canyons of northern Mexico.  The Seri Indians of northwestern Mexico use a small septal block whistle flute similar to the Creek instrument.  Richard W. Payne, “Indian Flutes of the Southwest,” Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, 15 (1989); 5-31; Richard S. Felger and Mary Beth Moser, People of the Desert and Sea:  Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians (Tuscon:  University of Arizona Press, 1965); 170.


Payne, Richard W.  Medicine and Music:  Whistles of Eastern Oklahoma Indians.      Chronicles of Oklahoma 68:424-433, 1991.











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