The Native American style flute is an end blown, two-chambered instrument with open finger holes, held and played in front of the player rather than to the side as with a transverse flute. The air is directed via a flue created by both the ‘nest’ area of the flute and the block which is tied atop it; technically, the instrument is a whistle rather than a flute. The modern NAF has a range of just over one octave and is typically tuned to a pentatonic minor scale which gives the instrument it’s distinctive, plaintive sound.
The NAF was traditionally made from cedar or river cane, but makers are now using a huge variety of woods including maple, redwood, cherry and even bamboo and PVC pipe! The history of the instrument is vague, but a great deal of folklore surrounds it; many tales tell of the flute being a courting instrument played by a young native man to win the heart of the woman he loved.
For many people, much of the appeal of the NAF lies in the fact it requires no prior musical knowledge in contrast to the much more structured approach to Western instruments, which many people can find off-putting. Playing ‘from the heart’ is a term often heard when discussing the NAF, as improvisation and developing your own music and style of play are very much encouraged.
In general, the NAF falls into one of two categories: plains style or woodlands style. Plains style flutes have the flute located in the bottom of the block sat atop the flute and tend to give a clearer tone. Woodlands style flutes have the flue located in the body of the flute itself and tend to give a more mellow tone. Wood choice can also influence the sound of the flute: the softer woods such a cedar are said to give a rounder, softer voice, whereas harder woods like walnut are meant to give a clearer, crisper sound. Some say these factors are of little or influence to the sound of the flute and it is in fact the construction methods that shape the flute’s voice. Because there is no set method for the making of the instrument as there is for, say, a violin or recorder, the range of flutes on offer from various makers and their voicing are as diverse as the stars!
Note that we use the term Native American style flute within the community which the majority shorten to ‘NAF’ (or sometimes ‘NASF’) Under the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts act of the USA, describing an item as Native American made when it is not is illegal and carries a hefty penalty. Only a flute that has been made by an person listed on the Bureau of Indian Affairs Roll as a registered Native American may describe their instruments as being a true ‘Native American flute’.