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Flute playing has been a part of Aboriginal cultures from South America to the Arctic tundra. The flute was traditionally used in storytelling, courtship, healing and entertainment. Traditionally, men also played the flute to bring themselves back into balance with their surroundings.
Flutes are made from a variety of materials, including wood, cane, clay, antler and bone. Some of the smaller ones are constructed of willow and are about the size of a pennywhistle. The largest flutes are over a metre long.
The smallest Aboriginal flute, the eagle bone whistle, is made from a bird's wing bone (ulna). It is used in Sun Dance ceremonies. This flute is part of the regalia of certain societies and also may be used as a hunting caller.
The most popular type of Aboriginal flute is the end-blown block flute. It originated in the northeastern region of North America, in what is now Nova Scotia and Maine. It was in wide use throughout the Eastern Woodlands region, which includes the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, up until the mid-1700s.
An end-blown block flute is very different from standard European wooden recorders. It has an upper air chamber, and the air flow is controlled by a small carved bird tied over the sound hole. Some flutes are constructed in two lengthwise halves, like a reed cut down the middle. The flute has three to six finger holes. The end of the flute often displays a carved bird's head.
After colonization, Aboriginal flute playing all but disappeared until the early 1970s, when it was revived by such artists as John Rainer (Taos Pueblo/Creek) [www.johnrainerjr.com/] (accessed June 4, 2007), Stan Snake (Ponca), Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche) [http://folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=3025] (accessed June 4, 2007) and R. Carlos Nakai (Ute/Navajo) [www.rcarlosnakai.com/] (accessed June 4, 2007).
By 2000, an astounding number of Aboriginal flutists from all corners of the continent were recording albums and performing their own personal interpretations of traditional or contemporary Native flute music.
An ever-growing number of non-Aboriginal New Age artists have begun to incorporate Native flute music in their music. This raises serious concerns about the use of another culture's heritage to make money. This practice is considered cultural appropriation, which is seen as a form of colonialism.