Dear Friends of Patricia Locke Foundation,
Just this past month the South Dakota state legislature recognized the traditional Indigenous flute as an official state instrument. It is significant that for the first time, a US State government has validated an Indigenous North American musical esthetic. South Dakota and surrounding regions have been the stronghold of this unique musical esthetic, and it is wonderful that the state legislature is encouraging a truly vital heritage.
All Indigenous North American music originates as a vocal composition. The drum merely accentuates the rhythm imbedded in the vocal composition and flute is created to instrumentalize a very unique vocal genre. There is no way of separating the flute or the drum from the vocal tradition. Many older South Dakotans recall the stalwart promulgators of this rich wind instrument tradition; Richard Fool Bull, Dave Marks, Dan Red Buffalo, Henry Crow Dog and remember that they would always reference the vocal piece from which each flute rendition is derived. The vocal compositions which the flute intones involve romantic themes and are perhaps the most lyrically dense musical genre. As such they contain idioms, vocabulary, sentence structures and grammatical constructions that offer in depth perspectives on pre-reservation life.
Most people do not possess an awareness that the “Native American” flute is different from the “Indigenous Flute”. Prior to 1980 there was no confusion because throughout the prairies and the woodlands there was one standardized tuning system that identified the Indigenous flute. Circa 1980 a Euro-American individual created a Japanese shakuhachi masquerading as something else and called it “Native American flute”. Soon after a Navajo recorded improvisational pieces on this instrument that went viral thus giving birth to a marketing and commercial phenomenon based on lack of understanding. The “Native American flute” pentatonic shakuhachi tuning system is very conducive to improvisation and this is what the non- Indian public finds so appealing. Despite the fact that the Native American flute is a recent non-Indian created instrument, it has exploded in popularity, is all over the internet and is the default music used in every conceivable media production purporting to convey Indigenous themes. Even though I don’t know how to play it myself, I like the Native American flute and enthusiastically believe that it is a beautiful instrument and has a viable role in musical expression. However, I also think that people need to be fully aware of what it is and is not. In order to create an awareness of the traditional Indigenous flute I have been conducting hundreds of flute making / playing workshops so that learners can have first hand experience with an authentic North American musical esthetic and realize that we are all legitimate heirs to a deep and rich shared heritage. The Indigenous traditional flute may be slightly more challenging to play than the Native American flute but it is much more versatile and is intrinsically adapted to intoning Indigenous North American music. If your intention is to learn or possess the original instrument of this continent when you research to purchase what is promoted as “Native American” flute on web or other outlets, you are certainly misled, and will do well to know the difference.
After so many years of attempting to set the record straight on the cultural and historic importance of Indigenous flute, it is a great victory for Indigenous people to finally have this part of our culture recognized unanimously by the US Government for the significance and importance it plays. I envision the younger generations taking up the Indigenous flute in a robust way to create their own unique expressions based on traditional compositional patterns and their own unique universal creations. This is a turning point for all who dwell on the North American continent as rightful heirs of this age-old tradition!
For a listen, please click on the audio sample below: