Hawk Littlejohn (June 12, 1941 – December 14, 2000) was perhaps the greatest contemporary Native American flute maker. At the time of his death, he was living in Old Fort, North Carolina, where he made his flutes and kept alive his native Cherokee traditions. His expertise in Native American medicine afforded him a position as adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's medical school, and as a cultural consultant for the Smithsonian Institution and the North Carolina Museum of History. He also wrote essays on Cherokee life, traditions, spirituality, and medicine in a column called "Good Medicine" for the Keetoowah Journal. An important aspect of Hawk's spirituality was his commitment to environmentalism and the connectedness of all life. The flute was his connection with the past and the future, and he combined historical and modern methods in its making. Like many flute makers, Hawk often used dead wood or scrap wood, especially due to the quality of wood in the wild and of old growth wood used in the old buildings. He used a modern lathe to shape the flute, but burned the holes in the traditional fashion with heated steel rods. His flutes are played by flutists all over the world, and flute makers all over the world take inspiration from his craft.  (http://www.allvoices.com/people/Hawk_Littlejohn)

Hawk was a fourth-generation flute maker, Cherokee Medicine Man, and spiritual leader. He was gentle, wise, generous, intimate, and soft-spoken.  He also had a wicked sense of humour, was a bit of a trickster, and felt that “playing the flute is like prayer.”  Everyone who met him was deeply touched by him.  This article was written by Hawk in 1998, and remains as valuable today as it was then.


Traditionally the flute was used by different cultures for different things.  The Plains Indians used the flute for courtship.  Once the woman had been successfully wooed, the flute was usually put away, its purpose served.  In my culture, the flute was used as a form of meditation.  It would be taken someplace quiet and one would just play to empty oneself.  I still often use it that way.  It works because we human beings are problem solvers, and the flute gives the problem solving part of our brain something to occupy itself with so that the other part can be freed up to soar with the melody.  My assistant often jokes that it enables you to get the benefits of meditation without the discipline.

However the flute is used—for performance, for pleasure, for courtship or for meditation—the Native American Flute has a beautiful and haunting quality about it.  This is because it naturally has a pentatonic scale which makes it sound different from instruments that have their roots in the European culture.  It is not an instrument that has to be learned.   You don’t have to be able to read music or know about keys—I don’t—to be able to play your own music and find your own song.  This is true of all Native American Flutes.  However, not all flutes sound alike.

There are three major things that affect the sound of a flute.  The first is construction type.  The flutes that we make are Woodlands style flutes, based on a design passed down through my family for four generations.  They differ from Plains style flutes in that they have no gasket and, therefore, have to my ear a sweeter and less reedy sound.  A blind Comanche woman who has been playing a Plains style flute from her own heritage for years recently bought one of my flutes and sent me a letter.  In it she was able to provide me, perhaps due to her greater reliance on her hearing, with the most insightful description of the difference between the sound of the two types of flutes.  She said that the sound of my flute was like the Woodlands themselves, full of depth, shadow and nuance.  While, to her ear, the voice of her Plains flute was starker, more of a shadowless, flat, open landscape, like the Plains themselves.

The second thing that affects the sound of a flute is the type of wood that it is made from.  Due to my personal beliefs, I am passionate about the environment.  Therefore, I use only American woods to make the flutes, and I make it a practice to use as much salvaged wood as possible.  For example, all of the Chestnut that I use comes from an old schoolhouse I bought and tore down to keep it from being burned, and the wood is over 100 years old.  I use a wide variety of fruit and nut trees, as well as Poplar and Eastern Red Cedar, to make flutes.  I am fortunate to live in Southern Appalachia where all of these different woods grow.  In addition, many of the woods that other flute makers sell for a little more money as exotic because they are not available in their region, such as figured and spalted maples, are common here.  Therefore, all of our basic flutes are priced the same.  Each type of wood has a subtly different voice, although, as a general rule, the hard woods tend to be brighter, while the soft woods are mellower and more resonant.  No one wood stands out above the others; if it did, I would not make flutes from as many woods as I do.

The third thing that affects the sound of the flute is craftsmanship.  In his time, my grandfather was a fine flute maker.  But due to the limitations of trying to make something perfectly round—both inside and out—with a pocket knife and river stones for sanding, there were many inconsistencies between one flute and the next.  Of every five flutes that he made, all would play well, but he was lucky if two sang.  I used to make all of my flutes completely by hand, just like my grandfather, and his grandfather before him.  However, I now combine the old methods with the use of modern equipment which allows me to make consistently beautiful sounding instruments and keep up with an ever increasing demand while keeping the cost of the flute within reach of most people.

                            (copyright Geri LittleJohn, 2011)

In loving memory,
Hawk LittleJohn
(June 12, 1941 – December 14, 2000)