Native American Courting Flute | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Native American Courting Flute

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Native American Courting Flute | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeNative American courting flute

Native American courting flute, 1994

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1996.118.93

EnlargeDetail of the courting flute

Detail of the courting flute

Detail of the loon's head on the end of the courting flute. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1996.118.93

EnlargeLouis Webster playing one of his flutes.

Louis Webster playing one of his flutes

Louis Webster playing one of his flutes. Source: Photo courtesy Lewis Kock, Wisconsin Folk Museum Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Documentation Project

Enlargedisassembled pieces of a traditional flute.

Disassembled pieces of a traditional flute

Photographed above are the pieces of a flute, including: a. two-piece flute body, b. bridge and the sound producing portions of the flute, c. mouthpiece, d. birch bark reed, e. silk gasket, and f. air block that directs and contains the player's breath within the flute to produce tones. Source: Chippewa Customs, 1929 Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 86, WHS Museum Library

Native American courting flute carved by Louis Webster, of Menominee, Stockbridge, Potawatomi and Oneida descent, 1994.
(Museum object #1996.118.93)

Once common among Wisconsin's Woodland Indians, the use of traditional flutes began to decline in the late 1800s. Almost a century later, however, the making and playing of flutes saw a notable resurgence. Today, flute players can be heard playing traditional love songs as well as new compositions at tribal fairs and pow-wows across North America. Louis Webster, one of the new generation flute makers, created this loon-themed example made from redwood in 1994, inspired by one of the members of the Loon Clan of the Anishinabe tribe in Minnesota.

Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1949 of mixed Woodland heritage, Webster was raised on the Menominee reservation. Growing up surrounded by music, with his grandfather, father and mother all playing musical instruments, Webster knew from an early age that he wanted to be a musician. It was a Native American song, music, and dance course he took at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the 1970s that piqued his interest in the courting flute. As part of the class, the instructor, ethnomusicologist Edward Wapp Wahpeconiah, brought in instruments from around the globe, including a wooden flute. After closely studying the flute Webster decided he could make one himself, triggering a lifelong passion for its production and playing.

The flute, according to Webster, is not a precise instrument and each one is different. The flute featured here is a seven note system in the key of G flat. The length of the flute helps determine its key and players must use a different flute to play songs in various keys (much like the harmonica). The noting system is created by the size and spacing of the tone holes. For Webster, the flute and the music it makes represent something more spiritual than just sounds. Webster's flutes are deeply symbolic, with the tone holes representing the Earth, the heavens, life, and love. The flute player's breath is believed to give the flute its life.

Addressing the spiritual nature of flutes Webster said, "People can take inanimate objects and make them instruments of power. Same with the flute. It's your will and your belief that gives something power. Some people expect to find nirvana by getting one of these flutes. And in some cases it works. But it doesn't if your heart really isn't there to begin with. If you really let the flute get inside you, it can do wonderful things for your being."

The flute once played an integral role in love and courtship in Native American society. Traditionally, courtship was a public affair that involved a girl's family and friends. Prior to marriage, families guarded their daughters against having free friendships with young men and an exaggerated shyness among adolescent girls was considered charming.

To attract a girl's attention, a young man would arrive in the evening outside of her family's home and play a beautiful love song on his courting flute. The pleasing tones of the instrument, rising and falling in slow sliding cadences, served to entice her into falling in love with him. Specific traditions varied between different villages and tribes. One tradition held that although a young man would play his courting flute, the girl was not allowed to respond to this advance alone. The potential mate first needed to offer the spoils of a hunting expedition to the girl's parents before he could be considered an acceptable suitor.

The courting flute is no longer learned or played in its traditional context. In earlier days, flute players received no formal instruction, rather learning only by listening to others play, but today lessons are often offered in a classroom setting. In addition, while it was once played only by men with no other instrumental or voice accompaniment, the flute is also currently played by many women, often as part of contemporary Western musical compositions. Even though it has greatly evolved, the beauty of the Native American flute and its haunting music have endured in the modern age.

[Sources: Densmore, Frances. "American Indians and Their Music" (New York: The Woman's Press, 1936); Densmore, Frances. "Chippewa Customs" "Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 86" (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1929); Interview with Louis Webster by James Leary, January 1995; Interview with Louis Webster by James Leary, November 1989, WHS Archives M98-044 Box 2; Wahpeconiah, Edward Wapp. "The American Indian Courting Flute: Revitalization and Change"]


Posted on February 08, 2007