Need a laugh?
Native American flutes have always been known primarily as “love flutes” or “courting flutes” and were generally played for no other reason than courting rituals by a young man serenading his intended bride, although some men played them for their wives as a sign of love.
The above statement—paraphrased from an “authentic” Native American flute history and instrument website—is baloney, indicative of the uninformed, misogynistic belief of many, if not a majority, of modern Native American flute fans, crafters, and musicians. Rather than research and discover the flute’s rich background, they’ve accepted the love flute myth as history—that the flute was developed as a courting tool for men only—while ignoring the instrument’s true background and multitude of uses by native people. When confronted with reality, they respond with claptrap like the following halfwitted comment in an online native flute forum: “Granted, everyone had their own traditions and norms about flutes, and I’m sure someone will jump in here and say ‘oh sure, women have always played flute in my tribe.’ But as a generality women were kind of kept off the business end of a flute.”
Sadly, most Americans of both native and immigrant heritage have been brainwashed to believe certain stereotypes and false “history” of early native life, especially that of native women, stereotypes created by early European invaders and perpetuated in magazines, books, and, later, movies. When the native flute’s popularity surged in the mid-twentieth century, accepted stereotypes did what they do best—smothered the instrument’s true history with nonsense.
Before Europeans landed in the New World, native cultures were matriarchal and celebrated men and women as equals. The mother’s ancestral line, not the father’s, determined a child’s lineage. In community affairs, women became shamans, had the right to vote, could impeach a chief if a majority became dissatisfied with leadership, served in advisory positions, assisted in managing village affairs, spoke in council meetings, had the power to veto war, and even fought in battles themselves. And the flute? Yes, it was as much a woman’s instrument as a man’s.
So why are we saddled with this love flute myth malarkey as history? Gullibility and laziness. While failing to explore fact-based sources, we’ve accepted and internalized the erroneous accounts of American Indian life by European invaders. To undermine native culture, Europeans deftly exaggerated accounts of Native American life and lied about women and their status. They portrayed native women as obedient, subservient to “red devils” who attacked and scalped good Christian explorers whose only goal was to bring patriarchal European civility, social harmony, and redemption to an evil and barbaric world. In reality, Europeans could not cope with the independence, power, and equality of native women compared to the role of European women. So they set about transforming native culture into a crude version of European culture.
Pre-invasion cultures developed a deep connection to their past through stories and music, but that ended in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Europeans forcibly took native children from their families and sent them to “Indian schools” where teachers required native children to speak only English, wear western-style clothing, and study western-based history rather than preserving native history and heritage through traditional sources and methods. As Europeans forced Native Americans to assimilate into the European, Judeo-Christian lifestyle, the cultural status and equality native women had once enjoyed vanished, and their share in power and authority disintegrated.
Erosion of women’s status extended even to the native flute. The flute had traditionally been a social instrument, used for the sheer joy of making music. Songs and music were like breath itself, an integral part of existence. Native people embraced music to honor the Creator. Shamans utilized music in medical cures. They integrated music into ceremonies to call rain and locate hunting game. Children incorporated music in their games, while adult tribal members included music in vision quests, harvest rituals, war, and death rituals. Although customs and practices differed between cultures, the flute was common to most. Plains Indian tribes could be identified from a distance by the songs they played as they traveled. Members of some tribes played flutes to announce their peaceful approach to a new village. In what’s now the southwestern U.S., the Hopi people not only valued flautists of both genders, they nurtured a flute clan responsible for developing the talents of flautists. Each autumn, a girl and boy, side-by-side, both playing flutes, would lead a procession and ceremony in honor of the gods to ensure good rains and crops. Even today, despite dominance of the love flute myth, Native American flutes are used in ceremonies other than courting rituals, including weddings, worship ceremonies, and political ceremonies.
Many early Europeans noted in their writings that native people used the flute as a social instrument to make a joyful noise. In June, 1528, while exploring the west coast of Florida, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca wrote that “a chief approached, borne on the back of another Indian, and covered with a painted deerskin. A great many people attended him, some walking in advance, playing on flutes of reed.” Had only men been playing, it’s likely the writer would have said so. In 1539, a member of the Hernando de Soto Spanish expedition to Florida wrote that “some Indians arrived to visit their lord, and every day they came out to the road, playing upon flutes, a token among them that they come in peace.” In yet another account, the same writer, describing events in what is now Alabama, wrote “the Cacique came out to receive (de Soto) … and he was surrounded by many attendants playing upon flutes and singing.” Note the writer chose the word “attendants,” not “men.”
In Pueblo country around 1540, Pedro de Castaneda wrote about his travels that “the people came out of the village with signs of joy to welcome Hernando de Alvardo and their captain, and brought with them into the town with drums and pipes something like flutes, of which they have a great many.” Around the same period, Antonio de Mendoza wrote, “The Indians have their dances and songs, with some flutes which have holes on which to put the fingers. They make much noise. They sing in unison with those who play, and those who sing clap their hands in our fashion … five or six play together, and some of the flutes are better than others.” Pedro Fages, writing about an encounter in California in 1769, described a dance for which “only two pairs from each sex are chosen to perform the dance, and two musicians,” presumably of each gender, “who play their flutes.”
Then came the turning point in flute accounts when artist George Catlin in 1832, capturing the European desire to romanticize and diminish native life, described the flute as strictly a courting instrument. Writing about the Plains flute while in Upper Missouri, Catlin said, “In the vicinity of the Upper Mississippi, I often and familiarly heard this instrument, called the Winnebago courting flute, and was credibly informed by traders and others in those regions that the young men of that tribe meet with signal success, oftentimes, in wooing their sweethearts with its simple notes, which they blow for hours together, and from day to day, from the bank of some stream—some favorite rock or log on which they are seated, near to the wigwam which contains the object of their tender passion until her soul is touched, and she responds by some welcome signal, that she is ready to repay the young Orpheus for his pains with the gift of her hand and her heart.”
Europeans latched onto the courting aspect while ignoring that marriage and courtship rites varied from culture to culture, that the courtship period itself could last more than six years, that the girl had the power of choice, that the genealogical line was through the mother’s family, that women were held as equal individuals within the culture, unlike women of Western society, that the flute certainly was not a courting requirement. The flute became an effective tool in the Europeans’ determination to assimilate native peoples and erase native women’s status. The first Europeans to migrate to North America, especially those steeped in Puritan, Catholic, and Quaker Christian traditions, did not tolerate women in prominent positions of government or societal decision-making. Portraying indigenous society as barbaric and the people as savages, Europeans systematically eliminated indigenous women’s power within tribes and clans. Portraying the flute as a man’s-only instrument helped achieve that goal.
In last few decades, native women have begun to regain their rightful places in tribal life. Even female deities and original matriarchal native mythologies have enjoyed a resurgence among many native peoples. A quarter of federally recognized tribes are now chaired by women. In 2014, 147 native women were elected to serve as tribal leaders—26 percent of 566 federally recognized tribes. Female tribal leadership in 2015 decreased slightly to 24.5 percent.
Nevertheless, the resurgence of power doesn’t thrill everyone in the Native American community. Since Wilma Mankiller became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1985, some male candidates in various tribal races have continued to ridicule female opponents as inept, unable, and too female to make the important decisions required of a chief—as if men have proved themselves more qualified than women in anything. Women are changing the face of tribal governments as they become administrators, teachers, and community organizers, regaining positions of authority like those held by their ancestors. And they’re playing the flute, demonstrating once again that it is not a man’s instrument, that it’s an instrument of the people—all people.
The Native American flute has grown so popular today that it has taken on mystical qualities with some claiming it will help lead the world into salvation. For those who prefer to leave mysticism to the mystics and simply enjoy an instrument solely for its music, the native flute is a welcomed addition, finding itself in the capable hands of both male and female artists. Rather than wrongly claim the flute has served only a courting function for native men, we should accept the fact the instrument is no more masculine or feminine than life or death. It is now, as it always has been, an instrument that adds beauty and dimension to music without regard to the musician’s gender.
Want to learn more about the flute, its history, mythology, crafting, and music? Check out Native American Flute ~ A Comprehensive Guide, the book from which this information was gleaned, available through most bookstores.