Native American cultures have been making instruments since ancient times, including flutes, whistles, rattles and drums. Instruments often play a role in traditional ceremonies that serve as prayers for blessings and rain. Instruments are often seen as tools of healing and a means of connecting with one’s environment. Today, many Native American artists create beautiful handcrafted drums and flutes that are collected around the world for their unique and beautiful sound.
In Pueblo culture, a drumbeat represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth and drum music accompanies ceremonies and dances. Traditional Pueblo drums are created from trees native to northern New Mexico, including aspen, cottonwood and pine. First, the log is stripped of bark, then the artist hollows out the log and dries it for up to half a year. Historically, drum heads were made from elk, buffalo or deer hides, but contemporary Pueblo artists also use cow hides. After being carefully cleaned and scraped by hand, the animal hides are soaked then stretched to fit the drum’s frame and secured with rawhide laces. Traditional Pueblo drums are works of great precision and skill, representing an ancient art that has been passed down for generations. Taos and Cochiti Pueblos are most known for making drums, though there are traditional drum makers from other Northern Pueblos as well.
Known for its distinctive sound, the Native American flute produces music that is plaintive, soulful and haunting. Native Americans have been making flutes for thousands of years. Anasazi flutes made of bone and wood have been dated to as early as 700 A.D. Today Native American flutes are made from cane, hardwood or soft wood. The Plains style wood flute is the most commonly made and used type of Native American flute and is what most people associate with the form. Most Native American flutes have an air chamber that is separate from the sound chamber, making them one of the easiest flutes to play and an excellent choice for novice flute musicians. Fingering and voicing varies widely between flutes as artists are interested in creating a unique sound rather than a standard instrument. In the last three decades, Native American flute music has gained a large audience, propelled in large part by the work of R. Carlos Nakai, a Grammy award-winning flute musician of Navajo and Ute descent. Today, flute music connects both musicians and audiences to an ancient art form and the creativity and evolving traditions of Native American cultures.