The material posted here is derived from The Native American Flute Book by Bob Edgar.
You can get the book from the flute maker, Stephen DeRuby. Call 1-800-4-FLUTES

The Origin of the Flute

(from The Native American Flute Book by Bob Edgar)

told by Carol Proudfoot-Edgar

Ancient stories and stone carvings indicate that the flute, like the drum and rattle, has been made and played for tens of thousands of years. These instruments have always been considered gifts from the Spirits. Oral tradition often conveys the circumstances under which these gifts came to the people. Details of the stories vary since the Spirits of the land vary (types of trees, birds, animals). This story comes from the Lakota Sioux. Cedar flutes of modern design are thought to have been used first by the Sioux.

The First Flute

Long ago a young man saw a young woman in his village and longed to find some way to talk to her. He was too shy to approach her directly. She was the daughter of a chief and it was well known that she was very proud. Many men tried to court her but she sent them all away.

One day, this young man went on a hunting trip. He found the tracks of an elk and began to follow them. Although he caught sight of it now and then, the elk stayed far ahead of him, leading him away from the village until he was deep in the hills. Finally night came and he made a camp. He was far from home and the sounds in the night made him feel very lonely. He listened to the owls and rustling of the leaves, the creaking of the tree branches and the whistling of the wind. Then he heard a sound he had never heard before. It was a strange sound, like the call of a bird and yet different from any bird. It sounded as if it came from the Land of the Spirits. Strange as it was, that call was also very beautiful. It was like a song and he listened closely to it. Soon he fell asleep and dreamed.

In his dream, a Redheaded Woodpecker came and sang that strange and beautiful song. Then the Woodpecker spoke: "Follow me" it said. "Follow me and I will give you something. Follow me, follow me."

When the young man woke, the sun was bringing early morning light. There in the branches of the tree above him was the Redheaded Woodpecker. It began to fly from tree to tree, stopping and looking back. The young man followed. Finally the Woodpecker landed on the straight dead branch of a cedar tree. It began drumming with its beak on that hollow limb, which was full of holes made by the Woodpecker. Just then a wind came up and blew through the hollow branch. It made the song that the hunter had heard.

The hunter saw what he should do. He climbed the tree and carefully broke off that branch. He thanked the Redheaded Woodpecker for giving him this gift and he took it home to his lodge. But he could not make it sing, no matter what he did. Finally he went to a hilltop and fasted for four days. On the fourth day a vision came to him. It was the Woodpecker and it spoke again, telling him what to do. He must shape one end of the flute so it looked like the open mouth of a bird. He must carve a block in the likeness of the Woodpecker and fasten it with a reed and thong in a certain way near the other end of the branch. Then when he blew into that end of the flute and covered the holes with his fingers, he would be able to play that song.

The man did as his vision told him. He carved the flute so that it looked like the head and open mouth of a bird. He attached the likeness of the Woodpecker with a reed and thong and when he blew into the flute it made music. Then he began to practice long and hard, listening to the sounds of the wind and the trees, the movement of the waters and the calls of the birds, making them all part of his playing. Soon he was able to play a beautiful song. Now when he hunted and camped far from the village he had his flute with him and could play it to keep himself company and call the spirits of the land to help him.

Finally, he knew that he was ready to visit that young woman he had liked so long from afar. He went and stood behind her lodge and played his best song on his flute. She heard the song and came out into the moonlight. She went straight to where he was playing. She walked up to him and stood close to him and he lifted his blanket and wrapped it around them both.

So it was that the young hunter became the husband of the chief's daughter. He became a great man among his people. Ever since then, young men who wish to go courting have learned to make the cedar flute and play those magical songs. To give honor to the Redheaded Woodpecker that gave such a special gift, many of those flutes were shaped like the open mouth of a bird with the likeness of a Woodpecker attached to one end.

For those who practice and play, the flute has continued to reveal its magical powers for singing songs of the Spirits, for singing love songs to all creatures, and for piercing with joy the heart of the flute player

© Carol Proudfoot-Edgar 1995

  This page was revised on February 27, 2000