The Native American Flute

Multi-media Piece, Carroll County Times, 2004

By Ken Koons

Watch on Youtube.

Article, Carroll County Times, 2004

By Lindsay Kishter, Times Staff Writer

C. Randall Daniels Sakim explained to his Native American flute playing class all the ways they could use the wooden insrument they held in their hands. Weddings, funerals and any other important ceremony usually involves flute playing in the Native American community, he said, but another quite common use is for courting. He said that a person would literally court another by hiding in the bushes or under the window of the person they liked and playing the flute to try and woo them.

The flute playing class accompanied a flute construction class, both taught during Common Ground on the Hill's two Traditions Weeks June 27 - July 9, weeklong workshops where artists, musicians and dancers gather to teach their skill.

The flute construction class, taught by Robin Tillery, allows for the students to construct their own flute out of cedar wood, deemed a sacred wood that holds the breath of the Creator, according to a story Sakim shared with the class.

The students begin with two long blocks of wood with the center routed out in two parts, leaving a small segment uncarved for sound. The pieces are glued together, creating the inside of the flute. Students must then sand the middle, carve and sand the sides to make one circular piece and carve out the soundhole, the most important part of the flute. The measurements that Tillery uses were taken from a flute found in a Milwaukee museum.

Each flute is different from the next, said Sakim. And each one has a different sound, said Tillery, because the Native Americans originally had no knowledge of the European way of tuning. Such tuning has only been introduced in the last 30 - 50 years, and only for performance purposes.

The students also have the opportunity to design their own bird, the piece of wood that covers the soundhole to make sure the air passes through smoothly and consistently. Some chose the design of a deer, a bear, or an actual bird.

"I try to get people to do their own design. It makes it more individualized," Tillery said.

Flutes were originally constructed by carving out by hand the insides of two pieces of wood, then using pine pitch and leather to put them together. The Native Americans occasionally used river cane as well, since the inside was already hollow. They would then use arms and finger joints to measure the length of the flute and the space between the finger holes, making each flute even more unique.

Tillery has been making flutes for about seven years, and he learned to make and play the flutes through instruction by Sakim and other flute players and studying them in books. He has made between 400 and 500 flutes in that time. He said he decided to learn to make flutes after trying to buy one, and not being able to find one that made the sound he wanted. He became enthralled with the simplicity of the instrument and the way it has evolved.

"In just about every indiginous culture in the world there has been some kind of flute or whistle," Tillery said, whether they were made of stone, rock, river cane, bone or wood.

Sakim has been making flutes since before he can remember - his father made them, and he grew up learning to both construct and play the flute. Sakim said the there is no way that flute songs or tunes are written down to be passed on. He said many learn simply by watching and hearing, and the melodies become ingrained in them and are passed on to others.

"You just learn it as an innate part of your culture," Sakim said. "Our melodies arenĂ­t set in stone, only the pattern of the melody is preserved and passed on." Sakim said that although the Native American flute has been experiencing growing popularity in movies and is be-coming a performance instrument, he personally prefers not to use it in secular settings.

"My feeling toward the flute is that it is a sacred instrument," Sakim said. "But it is characteristic of my culture not to impose my views."

Sakim prefers to use it in a small community or private setting as a part of prayer and meditation. He said he was recently asked by a family of a sick friend to pray and meditate for her with his flute, but he also has played at funerals.

Sakim said he doesn't have a problem bringing the flute to Common Ground and sharing it with other cultures because each culture has something different to offer. Also, he said it is not his right to decide who can and cannot play the flute.

"I don't own the flute, and mine actually owns me," Sakim said. "One doesn't acutally play the flute. One cares for the flute properly and the flute actually plays you. In my opinion, the flute is a being unto itself."

Sakim originally brought Tillery to Common Ground to teach flute playing and construction after Sakim witnessed people who had purchased flutes not caring for them properly or respecting them. He proposed the idea for the flute class as a way to introduce Common Ground participants to the history and importance of the Native American flute.