Red Crow Discusses Native American Prophecy
MY LIFE WITH THE NATIVE AMERICAN STYLE FLUTE
An Ongoing Journey, a Work in Progress
By David Osborn
Introduction: The World of the Native American
I love to “get away from it all” from time to time, to go hiking and retreat into the timeless vastness of Nature. And when I do so, I often take a flute with me, to improvise a haunting melody on, as my surroundings inspire me. When the man-made world gets too crazy, seeing the animals, the elements and the land do what they have always done provides comfort and solace to my soul, and gives me a deep, abiding feeling of peace and reassurance. In stark contrast to the ups and downs, the vicissitudes of the “rat race”, Nature carries on as She always has, serene and unperturbed. Nature grounds me, Nature comforts me, Nature is my friend. Man, it seems to me, is the only creature who is willfully deceitful and treacherous to his own kind, in stark contrast to the creatures of the land, who will only be vicious or aggressive to defend themselves, or if their very survival is at stake. Otherwise, the Golden Rule prevails in Nature, in a spirit of live and let live.
If I had to sum things up in a nutshell, this would be the essence of my inner Native American, as I understand the highest aspirations of their civilization and culture to be. And these solid, genuine Nature-based values of the Native American lie in stark contrast to the way of the white man who, driven on relentlessly by his insatiable avarice and greed, is never content, and always striving onwards, abetted by quixotic notions of “progress” towards an elusive, ephemeral end that he himself is never sure of. These feelings, these convictions I held inside of me from a very early age as I instinctively rejected the prevailing materialism of the dominant culture. To this day, I still remember a little book I read way back when I was no more than about ten or twelve years of age: The Gospel of the Red Man, by Ernest Thompson Seton. It made an indelible impression on me, especially in its stern warnings to the white man as to where his civilization was heading. And those warnings are even truer today than the day they were first written.
When it came to playing cowboys and Indians as a kid, you can guess which side I always took – the Indian, of course! There seems to be something in me that always wants to root for the underdog. In history class in school, I was always doing research projects about some forgotten aspect of American life and culture, something lost or rejected that we would be much better off reclaiming. And so it goes for so many aspects of early Americana, so many of which were either the gifts of the red man, or directly inspired by his indigenous culture and technology. Take the field of medicine and healing, for instance: The Native Americans were masters of herbal healing, and the Eclectic School of alternative medicine and the Thomsonian herbalists eagerly learned from them and assimilated their healing wisdom. But they were soon taken over and steamrolled into oblivion by the allopathic profit-driven “health care” system that we have today. Sure, the white man and his avaricious ways “won” after a fashion – but in this, as with so many other areas of life, did we really win, and are we really that better off? Or was something incredibly valuable and precious also lost in the process?
The whole idea of complementary opposites – the balance and compensation of Yin and Yang, is a vital part of Nature, and of Life. With every so-called advance of the white man’s civilization, with every step forward of “progress”, something was also lost in the process. We all drive around in our cars today, even just to go to the corner drug store – but in the process, we got more flabby and overweight, and much more out of shape physically. Young people walk around fixated on their cell phones and mobile devices, but in the process, they pass each other by without truly interacting as human beings. And was it really such a good idea to plow the whole wilderness underfoot to put up condos and shopping malls? One film that I loved that really made one think of what the white man has lost by rejecting the red man’s civilization and culture instead of trying to assimilate and integrate more of it into our own way of life was Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves”. I couldn’t help but feel overcome by a sense of tremendous grief and wistful nostalgia with that one – and I saw it many times.
Of course, I am not a Native American, so I will forever be an outsider looking in, and probably never able to fully appreciate the sheer depth of the Native Americans’ loss and suffering. Even by genetic measures, I am only about 1/64th Indian, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I’m definitely not a registered member of any Indian tribe that I know of. Although I don’t claim to be an expert on Native American civilization, culture and spirituality, I have done some reading about it in an effort to educate myself. These include classics like Black Elk Speaks and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as well as the writings of Ohiyesa, or Charles Eastman. Verily, verily, this modern nation that we call the United States of America was built on the bones of ancient American Indian graveyards, and since God is not mocked, what we have done to the red man had, and will continue to have, deep karmic repercussions. If we can learn anything from this whole sordid history, it is that it is much better to build bridges than to build walls in a spirit of mutual brotherhood and understanding, tolerance and forgiveness.
Even if they don’t have a single drop of Indian blood coursing through their veins, there is something of the Native American residing in every American. It began long ago when the first English colonist woke up one morning and realized that he was no longer an Englishman – he was an American. The Spirit of the Native American is subtle and all pervasive throughout this continent that they call Turtle Island, and it lives in the spirit of the land, which they love so dearly. This is what differentiates an Irishman from an Irish American, or even a Chinese from a Chinese American – this spiritual kinship to and identity with the land. Indeed, the American Indian has given this nation so much, but so little of it is appreciated, or even recognized, by the white man, much like the earth we tread underfoot. And whether you feel that it was an authentic and original creation or merely a syncretistic mélange of diverse musical and cultural influences coming together, some native and some European, the aboriginal people of this continent have given us the Native American Flute. And the Spirit of the Native American speaks to us every time we pick it up and play a soulful melody on it.
The Journey Begins with a Musical Road Trip
Sometime after the dawn of the new millennium, my great odyssey from southern California, a land that had been, in a musical sense, dominated by the Shakuhachi, and later the Pan Flute, for me, into the Great American Southwest – the great states of Arizona and New Mexico – began. More than any other part of the country, I feel, the Great American Southwest is dominated by the Spirit of the Native American. It was here that Geronimo made his last stand, here that the last great battle of the American Indian Wars had been fought. It was here, among the Pueblo, the Navajo and the Hopi tribes, among others, that the anthropological study of Native American culture and spirituality really came into its own. It was here, in Santa Fe, that Georgia O’Keefe fell under the spell of the Land of Enchantment – New Mexico. As geographical convenience and proximity would have it, the first state that I would explore, and live in, would be Arizona – in the city of Tucson, to be exact. New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, was to come later, with Albuquerque, and then Santa Fe.
For various reasons, I often found myself in a dilemma, moving back and forth between the cities of Tucson and Albuquerque, trying to figure out which one was best for me, and which one I liked better. That entailed many road trips along the interstate highways that linked the two towns. And conveniently situated along these interstate highways were Bowlin’s trading posts. Now, I didn’t particularly go for much of the other stuff that they sold, with the possible exception of Indian style moccasins to “cozify yer feet” – but one thing that did attract my attention were the Native American Flutes that were sold there. The flutes that were most readily available at these Bowlin trading posts were made by a certain “Navajo guy”, as I called him, whose name, I later learned, was Jonah Thompson. He signed his flutes with a big “Navajo” inscription, with his initials, JT, underneath. The ones I really liked played quite well, and they were quite cheap – only about sixty dollars or so. I bought, and still own, a few of his flutes, which have been described as “the most flute for your money”. I even sent one that I liked to my friend Sam in Romania – a kind of musical “switcheroo”, I felt, since I was an American who played a Romanian flute – the Pan Flute, and he would be a Romanian with an American flute. Pretty nifty, huh?
I had been bitten by the Native American Flute bug, and from my very first encounter with the Native American Flute, I found myself pulling off to the side of the road, more often than not, every time I spied a Bowlin’s trading post. The standard fare at these trading posts were flutes made by the “Navajo guy”, Jonah Thompson, but every now and then, flutes that were not by the “Navajo guy” would show up. I remember pulling in to the Butterfield Station trading post – if my memory serves me correctly, and finding a flute that was totally different, and a cut above, the basic model flutes provided by Mr. Navajo, JT. It seemed like this flute wasn’t made from the basic pine that Jonah offered, but from a dark, richly grained hardwood like Walnut, or maybe Indian Rosewood. The fetish or “bird” was of a pretty basic style and design, unlike Jonah’s exquisitely carved totem animals – but what was really different about this new flute was that its true sound window and cutting edge were inlaid with a metallic material. Pretty clever, I thought, since wood can get soggy. And it played great! After some inquiry and some serendipitous meetings with other Native American flutists, I later learned that the flute maker of this fine instrument was Butch Hall of Weatherford, Texas.
On another trip farther afield – namely, through Indian country in Oklahoma – I recently picked up what has been my most prized Native American Flute yet.
There are many Indian trading posts in Oklahoma, and all of them had their billboards out on the interstate, hawking their wares, but one of them really caught my eye. It said something like, “Native American Flutes – high quality, large selection.” You can bet that I really slammed on the breaks for that one! They did indeed have a large selection of flutes, by all kinds of makers, with an incredible variety of style and design, but one flute stood out head and shoulders above all the others. That remarkable flute was a standard size F# flute by LeRoy Cully, and it was handsomely crafted from aromatic Red Cedar. What I really like about this flute, and what makes it my favorite to this very day, are a couple of things: First of all, its true sound window and cutting edge were ample and spacious, giving it a big, singing, vibrant tone throughout its range. And secondly, it was very well tuned, with cross fingerings that worked out very well, giving me a lot of desirable fingering options for playing a wide variety of notes.
Sweltering Down in Tucson? Come ALL the Way Up to High Spirits!
About two thousand feet above Tucson, which languishes in the oppressive heat of the Sonoran Desert, tucked away like an eagle’s nest in a secluded valley not far from the Mexican border in Nogales, lies the sleepy little town of Patagonia, Arizona. Although other shops and businesses line its main street, Patagonia is unique – to my knowledge, at least – in that it is a town whose main industry is the making of Native American Flutes. At the north end of town, safely tucked away off the main drag, lies the High Spirits flute factory and showroom, which is the brainchild of Odell Borg, its owner and proprietor. When I lived in Tucson, one of the things I would do to “beat the heat” would be to retreat up to Patagonia. You didn’t have to go all the way back to the High Spirits flute showroom to play and try out some of Odell Borg’s flutes – there was an art gallery on Patagonia’s main street that sold and displayed a good selection of his flutes. For food and refreshment, my friend Cecilia had a restaurant and pizzeria called the Velvet Elvis.
A popular used bookstore in Tucson at which I used to hang out, called Bookman’s, had a good selection of High Spirits flutes for sale, which I also tried and sampled. The various sizes and keys of High Spirits flutes were aptly named after different kinds of birds – the A flute was called the Sparrow Hawk, if I remember correctly. In keeping with this “birdland” theme, the fetishes, or “birds” of Odell’s flutes were cut out with a jigsaw into the profiles of birds. Bookman’s also sold smaller size “pocket flutes” that High Spirits made that were really handy to just slip into your backpack whenever you went hiking. High Spirits flutes were definitely a cut above the Navajo guy’s flutes, which were available at the Bowlin trading posts. After trying out many of Odell’s flutes, I finally settled on a standard size Native American Flute in F#, which was made out of aromatic Red Cedar. That flute was mine for many years, but now, it is the proud possession of my Romanian friend Sam’s son, Grigore.
High Spirits flutes are definitely a cut above those made by the “Navajo guy”, and a considerable hike upwards in price as well. In addition to the basic Red Cedar, Odell makes flutes from other acoustical woods, like Walnut and Spanish Cedar. Without going to the opulent extremes of some of the gilded high end flutes that are out there, High Spirits is quite creative, yet elegant and sensible, with embellishing and ornamenting its flutes. Some of his flutes are even made with things like inlaid turquoise. Although High Spirits is fairly reliable and consistent with the overall quality and tuning of its flutes, in the final analysis, I would prefer to hand pick the flutes I buy from them in person, to pick out a truly great flute from those that are merely good. Whereas the basic method of flute making that Jonah Thompson uses is to hollow out two slabs of wood and glue them together to make the flute and its bore, High Spirits makes its flutes by drilling out a solid piece of wood. Another ergonomic feature of Odell’s flutes is his distinctive design of the mouthpiece or blowing end of the flute, which facilitates both blowing and breathing by enabling the player to steady the instrument against his upper teeth.
Odell Borg is quite active as a flute businessman and entrepreneur. In addition to making his flutes, he is also quite active in the educational department as well, with several “how to” videos on playing the Native American Flute on YouTube, as well as Native American Flute methods and songbooks, one of which I sent to my friend Sam in Romania. Indeed, High Spirits Flutes have quite a market presence, as Odell’s mission seems to be to provide flute buyers with instruments that are consistent and reliable in quality, yet affordably priced. One serendipitous thing I discovered while doing internet research on the Native American Flute is that the Japanese have their own Native American Flute association, called JIFCA, or the Japan Indian Flute Circle Association, with Odell Borg as its leader and chairman. Below is a link to Chairman Odell Borg’s “Goaisatsu”, or welcome address, on a page of their site entitled, “Fruuto Saakuru Towa”, which translates to “About Flute Circles”, or, “What is a flute circle?”:
Starting a Native American Flute Colony in Romania
The Native Americans were the original inhabitants, the indigenous or aboriginal peoples of the North American continent. Similarly, the Romanian people claim to be the descendants of the ancient Dacians, who were the original indigenous people of Eastern Europe. The original capital city of the Dacians was Sarmizegethusa, in the Apuseni mountains of southern Transylvania. All other peoples of Eastern Europe, say the Romanians, are nomadic immigrants. Like the civilization and culture of the Native Americans, Romanian culture is permeated by a deep love of Nature and the land. If you talk to a Hungarian, however, you will probably hear that that’s just a bunch of poppycock dreamed up by some Romanian romantics in the 19th century somewhere – that all the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Balkans were originally nomads, just like they themselves were.
I play a Romanian flute – the Pan Flute, or Nai – but that kind of flute is, morphologically speaking, quite different from a Native American Flute. Nevertheless, the Pan Flute is not the only flute in Romanian folk music, even though it may be the most known and loved. Much more similar to the Native American Flute are the vertically blown Fluier, or “Whistle”, as well as the Caval, a long, deep voiced vertical flute that is played by shepherds, in one form or another, throughout the Balkans. Seeing the similarity of these flutes, I thought that it might be a good idea to do a kind of cross-cultural and cross-continental flute exchange with my good Romanian friend Sam, who was an avid hiker and mountaineer. My vision, however romantic it might have been, was for Sam to take his Native American Flute along with him on his many hikes and sit down to play it in some panoramic, wind-swept mountain valley high up in the Carpathians.
Quite early on in my encounters with the Native American Flute, if you will remember, I sent Sam one of the “Navajo guy’s” flutes that I found in a Bowlin trading post – I believe it was the Continental Divide Trading Post in southern New Mexico. I also sent him, some time after that, a Native American Flute method and songbook by Odell Borg. I also brought a gift over from the States on a certain trip I made to Romania – a little book about the wisdom and spirituality of the Native Americans, featuring the writings of Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman), Luther Standing Bear, and many others. Although he goes by the nickname, “Sam”, Sam’s full name is Gheorghe (George) Stefan (Stephen) Samoila. Seeing many quotes in the book by Chief Dan George, Sam thought that it was only natural that he take the Indian name Chief Sam George. In return, Sam named me Davidica Grey Owl.
On my last trip to Romania, I decided to give Sam one of my prized Native American Flutes as a gift – the F# Red Cedar flute that was made by High Spirits. Upon giving him the gift, I learned the truth, which dashed my initial romantic flute vision of him somewhat: Sam told me that, although he loved to sing, he was not really musically inclined in terms of playing a musical instrument, and that he had given the flute I sent him from the Bowlin trading post to his son Grigore, who played the guitar and would really want to play the Native American Flute. And so, the High Spirits F# Red Cedar flute that I cherished for many years went to Grigore, just like the last one had. Sam’s sons, Alexandru and Grigore, own and operate a café and bicycle shop called Pinion near Piata Romana in downtown Bucharest. It is my hope that their café might become the meeting place of Native American Flute circles in the future.
In parting, I would like to leave you with a quote by Chief Dan George, which is Sam’s favorite:
My friends, how desperately we need to be loved, and to love!
Playing the Native American Flute: Mapping Out Your Flute’s Inner Landscape
I firmly believe that the Native American Flute is the easiest melody instrument in the world to play, and without a doubt, the easiest flute. Even if you have always wanted to play a flute in the past, but have failed dismally every time you tried to learn how – or especially if this has been the case – you gotta try this flute! There’s no worry about embouchure and tone control on the Native American Flute – just blow into the hole, and you get a perfect sound every time. And whereas a modern silver flute has a whole plethora of keys and holes, the Native American Flute has only six – and not even all six are necessary to play a whole bunch of beautiful melodies on it – you can keep the fourth hole closed, and still make beautiful music on it. Because the fourth hole is so often kept closed, there are Native American Flute makers who make flutes with only five holes, leaving the fourth hole out. Odell Borg has worked out a compromise solution – a leather strip to cover the fourth hole for beginners, which can be removed once you progress to the intermediate and advanced stages of playing.
Uncover all the holes, from the bottom up, except for the fourth hole, which you keep closed, and you will play what they call a Minor Pentatonic scale. This is like playing only the black keys on the piano – you can’t hit a sour note – guaranteed! The Native American Flute has a very limited range – only a little more than one octave – and this is probably its greatest limitation. It’s what you can do and how you can artfully exploit all the musical possibilities of the notes within that narrow space that differentiates the novice player from the virtuoso. Although playing a beautiful melody, or simply “doodling around” on the Native American Flute comes very easily, the basic disciplines of melody and intervals, of rhythm and meter, apply just as much to the Native American Flute as they do to any other form of music, vocal or instrumental. Perhaps the most demanding form of musical discipline to master on the Native American Flute is the art of ornamentation or embellishment.
The basic five holes on the NAF will give you the basic Minor Pentatonic scale – this is pretty much standard and uniform on any instrument you buy as a kind of bottom line or basic common denominator of tuning and melody. Using the fourth hole will greatly expand the repertoire of different scales and tonalities that are available to you as you play. But hidden within every individual instrument is its own “inner landscape” of cross-fingerings, many of which can produce subtle shadings of pitch and timbre, as well as many interesting special effects. Therefore, I highly recommend that you undertake a systematic exploration of all the different cross-fingerings on your flute to discover these hidden gems. Although this method may sound a bit weird or exotic, I have used the hexagrams of the I Ching – the ancient Chinese oracle, or Book of Changes – to map out the inner tonal landscape of my flutes. Just as there are six lines to an I Ching hexagram, there are six holes on a NAF. And just as each line of an I Ching hexagram can be either Yin or broken, as well as Yang or solid, so too can each hole of the NAF be either open or closed. You don’t really know your flute until you have systematically explored all of its cross-fingerings, by one system or another – there are 64 basic possibilities.
Another hidden dimension, or at least a subtle one, that differentiates the novice player from the virtuoso on the NAF is that of the breath. The NAF, like all other flutes, is a wind instrument, and the breath is the heart and soul of its sound, as well as its driving force. Since the NAF is a “fipple flute” like the recorder, the lips of the player do not come into such intimate contact with the instrument and its sound production mechanism to be able to modulate the tone and texture of the sound to any significant degree. However, the breath still drives the sound, providing its motive force, and this is very accessible to the player. The basic tone of a novice player will often be limp, wilted and lifeless, whereas that of a virtuoso player will be singing and vibrant – and the difference between the two all lies in the breath. Expert players can make their flutes woof, sigh or grunt, or they can make the tone and pitch fall away, or vanish into thin air, all through the subtle art of breath control. A wide range of dynamic capabilities and an exquisite responsiveness to the player’s breath is one of the things that makes all the difference between a truly great Native American Flute from one that is merely good or mediocre.
Native American Style Flute Making – Not as Easy as It Looks
I am currently in the process of making my first Native American Style Flute. I picked Alaskan Yellow Cedar, a soft, coniferous wood, to be the wood, since I figured it would be easy to work with. I was able to find a Native American Style Flute builder in Missouri, Mr. Scott Jones, at www.woodwindflutes.com, who is in the business of selling flute blanks – and he was even willing to make them to my custom specifications, since I like flutes with narrower bores, which is contrary to the prevailing trend. Although I have quite a few hand tools that I have used for flute making over the years, I confess that I do not have many power tools, which are great labor saving devices, so, doing the whole process by hand, I feel like I am on the “slow boat to China”. So far, it has been a very rewarding experience, albeit a very slow one, and slowly but surely, I am witnessing the birth of something incredibly beautiful. I definitely underestimated the difficulties before I started, and it has been a great learning curve with more than a few snags and setbacks – but the next time around, I’ll be that much better and more experienced.
My basic philosophy when it comes to flute building, no matter what kind of flute you’re making, is that the flute is, by its very nature, one of the most personal and intimate of instruments. And so, if you have the time and inclination, as well as the craftsmanship skills, the best way to get a flute exactly like you want it is to build it yourself precisely to your own specifications. The trick is to start with a clear artistic and creative vision of what you want to accomplish, both musically, acoustically and visually, and see your vision through to its final results. And that is exactly what I am doing with this first flute of mine. As I work on this first flute of mine, I will have the opportunity to test my theories out in practice, to see exactly what works, and what doesn’t. In addition to my own personal theories and convictions regarding how the Native American Style Flute should be, there is a lot of basic stuff to master that comes with the territory in building any kind of Native American Style Flute, as well as various secrets and tricks of the trade that are best learned not from any manual, but only by doing.
There definitely seems to be somewhat of a mania for wide bored Native American Style Flutes by most makers nowadays. But when I have poked around in antique stores in Albuquerque, as well as certain folk music stores in Tucson, it seems like many older specimens of flutes have bores that are not that wide at all. Makers nowadays seem to like wide bored flutes because they have a big, full bodied sound that really projects out on stage to really wow the audience. I thought I was all alone in my desire to make flutes with a narrower bore until I met a guy who was playing a Native American Style Flute in front of a Whole Foods store in Albuquerque. I asked him if I could take a closer look at this flute and – lo and behold – it was an “A” flute with a bore diameter of only about 16 millimeters (about 5/8 of an inch). These were my ideal proportions exactly! I asked him who made his flutes, and he told me that they were made by a maker named Guillermo Martinez, who lives in California. He even has instructional videos up on YouTube.
I will continue to inform you of how my first hand-crafted Native American Style Flute turns out.