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What Do YOU Hear In Your Head? (when I say "traditional Native American Flute music")

When they first contacted me, it seemed like a good opportunity. A video game company wanted “authentic” Native American music, including flute music, for their new history based game. It was set in colonial times and they wanted Indigenous music to be an important part of the soundtrack. Based on that, I was excited to be a part of the project and we quickly came to an agreement.

It didn’t take long for reality to set in.

Indigenous music from the Americas is incredibly diverse, so I asked what seemed a relevant question. What is the specific setting for the game? The “Native American” music might sound quite different depending on the geographic region and time frame. I started to share the differences between Northern and Southern style drumming, cane and cedar flutes, music from the Southwest and the Eastern Woodlands, blended forms of post-contact music, etc.

“We don’t care about all that. We just want something that will make people think there are Indians around.” Silly to have expected otherwise, I suppose.

It quickly became apparent that this dominant-culture produced video game would be viewing history from just one perspective - guess whose? I bit my tongue and thought about all those Native American movie extras who, for a much needed paycheck, fell off their horses when John Wayne shot at them. I went to the studio, beat on a few drums and played some stock Native Flute phrases for them. Then I recommended they call my friends who had a good Cherokee drum group (so they could cash in as well), collected a nice check and went on my way.

An isolated incident? I wish. Not long after, I was invited to submit a track to be considered for an upcoming film project. The producers said they wanted “traditional” Native American flute music. And I fell for it again. This time, I recorded a solo flute track in a traditional style, played on a traditional Cherokee river cane flute. Just to be clear, what they received from me was a track of Cherokee traditional style music, created and performed by a Cherokee, played on a traditional style Cherokee river cane flute which had been made by one of my tribal brothers. The film makers decided they would not be able to use the music I sent them because it “didn’t sound Indian enough”. After sharing the details of the music, I asked them just how they thought I could give them music that sounded any MORE Indian. I never heard back from them.

So what do YOU hear in your head when I say “traditional Native American Flute music”?

Here is the modern stereotype of “traditional” Native American Flute playing. Note that nothing about it is specific to any particular culture. Solo flute, very gentle, no strong beat, slow moving, meditative, simple, LOTS of reverb and/or delay (echo) as though you are playing in a canyon, maybe some “nature sounds” added in - gurgling brook, Eagle calling, that sort of thing. Could be labeled “spiritual” in a vague kind of way. Sound familiar?

A Cherokee Elder once told me that he laughs and shakes his head just about every time he hears modern Native Flute players. “It always sounds like a dirge. But our flutes are joyful! They can dance”. For him, the modern stereotype isn’t traditional sounding at all. News flash. Like everything else in Native American cultures, our music making is more diverse and sophisticated than the dominant pop culture wants to acknowledge.

So what is going on here? Is it just another example of dominant culture folks clinging to a simple minded, comfortable and New Age notion of Native American culture? That would be the easy answer, but it’s probably more complicated than that. Because a fair number of Native American folks also buy into the modern stereotype of what “traditional” Native Flute music is “supposed” to sound like.

Go back fifty years and Native American Flute was not on the radar. There were very few flute makers left. In a few native communities, there might be a flute player or two continuing the tradition. Here and there, a handful of researchers were beginning to study artifact flutes and trying to recreate them. The very few recordings being made were not intended for a general audience. This all changed rather quickly when R.C. Nakai began recording in the 1980’s for the Indigenous speciality label, Canyon Records. By the late 1980’s the pump was primed and when Canyon Label released Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy in 1989, it blew up. A meditative masterpiece, Canyon Trilogy crossed over into the dominant culture, especially among the New Age crowd. It took about thirty years, but Canyon Trilogy eventually went platinum, meaning it sold more than a million copies. It’s a remarkable achievement for an album of solo music on an instrument that was unfamiliar to the casual CD buying public.

Nr. Nakai’s artistry on Canyon Trilogy inspired me and whole lot of other people to become Native American Flute Players and/or makers. Like anything that sells well, it also generated a host of imitators who tried to copy the imaginative soundworld of the original. And the modern stereotype of what “traditional” Native American Flute is “supposed” to sound like was born.

Think back to the question about what YOU hear in your head when I say “Native American Flute music”. My description of the traditional Native Flute stereotype is essentially based on the soundworld of Canyon Trilogy, except that Mr. Nakai is too fine a musician to rely on nature sound effects. So where did that soundworld come from and is any of it traditional? If so, whose tradition?

I have had the privilege of working with R.C. Nakai several times over the years. I admire him greatly as a musician and as a person. The following is based on my memories of conversations with him and on hearing him speak publicly about his work. Any errors are my own.

R.C. Nakai is Diné/Ute/Basque and was raised in the Southwestern homelands of his Diné People. He started his musical life as a trumpet player, an instrument he still plays from time to time in spite of an injury that damaged his embouchure. He is a great fan of experimental jazz trumpeter, Don Cherry. When Nakai began playing Native American style flute, he enjoyed heading into the nearby canyons and improvising with the echoes he heard coming back to him from cliff walls. In the recording studio, he explored ways of recreating that soundscape using digital reverb and delay units.

What is traditional about this soundworld? That it came from Nakai playing his flute outdoors in the land of his People. It is from a specific place, culture and ecosystem. It was not intended to become a universal sound ideal or style of playing for the Native American Flute. In his public appearances and flute workshops, Nakai consistently encourages flute players to find their own path with the instrument rather than simply imitating what everyone else is doing.

As to the music itself, Nakai has freely spoken to the reality that most of what he records is newly made by him and his colleagues in a very intuitive way. He has recorded only a few historical Indigenous songs, mostly not from Diné or Ute sources.

It should probably be noted that most of the Native American Style Flutes R.C. Nakai uses for performances and recordings were crafted by Ken Light, who taught science at a reservation school for many years, but is not Native American. Ken Light models his flutes after 19th Century northern plains Lakota style flutes.

To summarize, a Diné/Ute former trumpet player walks into the land of his People and improvises new music on his Lakota style Native flute, which was made by a non-Native flute maker. Inspired by the echoes he hears from the canyon walls, he then goes into a recording studio where he uses the latest electronic gadgetry to create a remarkably beautiful and fresh sounding album. The album manages to cross over into the dominant culture’s awareness and quickly becomes stereotyped as “traditional” Native American flute music, spawning a cottage industry of imitators. In a sadly familiar feedback loop, a dominant pop culture stereotype also becomes a common misconception for many Native American people.

The only problem I have with any of this is the stereotyping. I am mixed blood Cherokee, was trained as a composer/pianist and have been a music techie since I was a kid. We are adaptable and flexible Peoples. We will use whatever tools are available to tell the Story that needs to be told. Too often, the dominant culture hears us only in the context of its own Story. In the dominant culture’s Story, either there are “no real Indians left” or we are just relics, a few leftover mystic warriors from the past. If you see a mystic warrior standing on a mesa top with the sun rising while he plays his flute, he must be playing “traditional style” on his “spiritual instrument”. And “traditional” can only mean one thing for all of us, because, hey, Cherokee, Kiowa, Ojibwe, Apache, what’s the difference?

To be fair, I oversimplify, but not by much. And the growth of interest in Native American Flute has allowed me to have many wonderful experiences over the years for which I am eternally grateful. But as I have followed R.C. Nakai’s example by trying to find my own path with the instrument, I also follow his example by resisting stereotypes about Native People, our music making and our beautiful flutes.

The hundreds of Indigenous cultures in the Americas produced a multitude of flute designs. There are rim blown flutes, notched flutes, block flutes, whistle like flutes, wooden flutes, cane flutes, fired ceramic flutes, flutes carved from seed pods and bone. I could go on. What is now commonly called a “Native American Flute” is based on a kind of two chambered external block flute that was fairly common in parts of what is now called North America. Even with this basic design, there were significant variations in cultural usage, materials used, design elements, etc. Tuning was not standardized. There was no such thing as a “Native American Flute in A”, for example. Most modern flute makers tweak the traditional tuning systems so that we can get along more easily when we play with musicians from other traditions - one of my favorite things to do.

Cello sounds like a spiritual instrument when my friend Dawn Avery (Mohawk) plays it.

Electric guitar sounds like a spiritual instrument to me when Annie Clark plays it.

Playing Native American Flute as my main instrument doesn’t make me less of a “real musician” (Why is “real” or “legit” musician so often defined in terms of having Euro-Classical music reading skills?)