It’s Not Only a Man’s Instrument

The following information is gleaned from the book, The Native American Flute: Myth, History, Craft, by C.S. Fuqua.

Two-flute-players_5wide-2Although the love flute myth—the development of the native flute for use by a male to court a female—is certainly a most treasured Native American tale, it is not the whole story. Before Europeans arrived in the New World, native men regarded native women as equals and, in some ways, viewed them as more powerful. A common belief held that women could dream themselves special powers to be used in the traditionally female roles of treating sick children, preparing food, and gathering food. Unlike most modern cultures, the mother’s ancestral line, not the father’s, determined a child’s lineage. In community affairs, women, some of whom became shamans, always had the right to vote. If the community’s women grew dissatisfied with the chief, they had the power to impeach him. They commonly served in advisory positions to the chief, assisted him in managing village affairs, regularly spoke in council meetings, and held the power to forbid braves from going to war. And when it came to music, women, as well as men, played the flute.

Songs and music varied from tribe to tribe, utilized in activities from honoring Creator or Great Spirit, to shaman medicine songs for cures and bringing rain, to help in locating game, to lullabies, to children’s games, vision quests, harvests, war, and death. For some, music was so important that, when a village member returned from visiting another village, one of the first questions from others would be, “What new song did you learn?”

Although customs and practices differed between Native American cultures, the flute became one trait common to most. North American native cultures placed great value in the power of their flutes. Most cultures maintained a deep connection with their past through stories handed down primarily in music, but that changed after Europeans arrived, and most native history was lost. Many native scholars blame that loss on the placement of native children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into so-called Indian schools where teachers forced native children to speak English, wear western-style clothing, and study western-based history rather than studying and preserving their own history and heritage through traditional sources and methods. Native Americans were expected to assimilate into a more European, Judeo-Christian lifestyle. Where women once held high esteem and equality, their share in power and authority slowly disintegrated.

Erosion of women’s power and honor extended even to music as certain myths and practices deemed unchallenging to western thought, especially the quaint and sweet, were embellished and perpetuated, especially concerning the flute as a courting instrument. The fact that flutes were used much more broadly than courting in native life was simply ignored. Foremost, the flute had traditionally been a social instrument, used for the sheer joy of making music. Musicians of both genders played flutes in various ceremonies, depending on the native culture, that included weddings, thanksgiving to various gods for a good harvest or hunt, rites of passage, and appointments of new tribal leaders. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the talents of both men and women flautists were nurtured as soon as discovered, usually at a young age. Tribal members valued their flute players, believing musical ability to be a divine gift.

While many European author accounts indicate the flute played a part in courting, they don’t mention 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, not the father’s, that women were held as equal individuals within the culture, unlike women of Western society at the time…..

Many Native American activists today believe that Western immigrants have waged a constant cultural war, not to mention a physical war, on American Indians, a war born primarily out of Western fear of native women’s social equality in native culture. The first immigrants, especially those steeped in Puritan, Catholic, and Quaker Christian tradition, did not tolerate women in prominent positions of government or societal decision-making. They reported back to the home countries that native women were subservient, that the natives as a whole were savages. European immigrants then began the systematic elimination of indigenous women’s power within their own tribes and clans. The attempt succeeded somewhat, as evidenced by the perception that the Native American flute is solely a male instrument, but women have begun to regain their rightful places in tribal life. Even female deities and original native mythologies have enjoyed a resurgence among many native peoples in recent years. More than a fourth of federally recognized tribes are now chaired by women. As of February 2006, women led 133 tribes, according the National Congress of American Indians.

The resurgence of power, however, 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 opponents in various tribal races have ridiculed their female opponents as inept, unable, and too female to make the important decisions required of a chief for the good of the tribe. Some opposition has even come from other women, but the fact remains that women are changing the face of government on reservations as they take on positions of administrators, teachers, and community organizers, regaining positions of authority like those held by their ancestors.

Old views die hard, though. Surf around the Internet to various Native American flute sites and you’ll encounter the long-accepted gender bias against women playing the Native flute. One site discounts historical fact completely in preference of the love flute myth as the only possible explanation for the flute’s development and use, asserting that, “traditionally, women never would touch a flute.” Many contemporary male flautists still maintain that women should enjoy the flute only as listeners, but as more women take up the instrument and assert their power among the tribes, the narrow-minded views are slowly beginning to fade, forcing mythology and cultural prejudice to give way to truth.

C. S. Fuqua has authored many books, and he also crafts Native American flutes from bamboo, cedar, and PVC. Check the menu tabs MUSIC BOOKS and ABOUT US to learn more.


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