Thursday, March 28, 2013

Revival Of The Flute Tradition


Kevin Locke shares the background of some of the oldest flutes in his collection.
Flute Tradition Returns With The Spring
Practice Nearly Faded Away
By Dakota Wind
Standing Rock, N.D. & S.D. - Dawn hit the Land of Sky and Wind, the Land of Standing Rock, and bathed the ancient prairie steppe with warm sweet light that turned last year’s grass gold despite the cold silence of winter. The frozen air seemed to shatter with each mile I drove. Aside from my car, I imagine that the morning of the first spring must have been much like this. The cold and quiet was so sharp I could imagine a knife scraping along the backs of my exposed hands.

I pulled up to Solen High School on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. My passenger Rich Dubé, a personal friend of my Lekši (uncle) and Wauŋšpekiyapi (teacher) Kevin Locke, and I swapped stories about the gift of Šiyotĥaŋka (the flute), where it came from, when it appeared on the steppe of the Northern Great Plains, and its growing revival.

Rich Dubé, came down from the great snows of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to conduct a flute workshop in four of the schools on the reservation. I visited with Dubé the evening before. When I heard he was from Saskatoon, and was coming down to the Land of Sky and Wind, I prejudged who I thought I’d be meeting. Kevin raved about Dubé’s knowledge in the reconstruction of the traditional flute, how they were made, the original sound, and that Dubé even wrote his Masters thesis around the flute.

Naturally, I thought Dubé was going to be a member of the White Cap Dakota Nation who reside on a reserve just south of Saskatoon. Not that skin color matters but I was expecting to meet a native man. Who met me instead, and broke my prejudice, was an impeccable skinny white guy. He seemed used to native scrutiny however and graciously anticipated and answered my probing questions, which eased my mental lockjaw. I backed off when I was satisfied that he knew what he was about.

Dubé had never heard of the native flute until he attended a session for choir teachers...

Dubé is a music teacher. His story with the native flute begins about ten years ago in Saskatoon. He was teaching native youth in an inner city music program. Dubé had never heard of the native flute until he attended a session for choir teachers and he leafed through a book by Bryan Burton called Voices of the Wind which had native flute songs transcribed for the recorder. He was looking for something to capture the interest and inspire his senior kids and thought the native flute would be much more appealing to his students than just trying to play the songs on a recorder, a western European instrument.

The music teacher searched the internet looking for flute makers, and experimenting with various flute kits, discarding those that didn’t seem to have a true sound to his sharp ears. Eventually, Dubé crossed paths with Kevin Locke. Kevin sent Dubé the schematics of one of his great-grandfather’s flutes. Dubé seized the opportunity to reconstruct not just a traditional flute, but a traditional flute with the original sound.

One of Dubé's flutes.

Dubé created a cast using the original traditional flute from Kevin’s schematics. Dubé wanted to create a flute that was easily constructed and mass produced yet true to the original sound. In the end, his experiments found success in a custom size ABS plastic flute matching the exact sound of the original one-hundred twenty-year-old flute.

...small town pride in the class B team that represented the best hopes of the community...

I entered the high school and remembered my days when my team played the Solen Sioux. There was the typical small town pride in the class B team that represented the best hopes of the community, and like any small town, the team was fiercely held high in respect. Putting the games of yesteryear firmly in the back of my head I made my way down the hall towards the gym where Dubé was preparing his workshop.

Dubé’s luggage was opened up on the bleachers and inside it was as though he had brought an entire workshop. Someone had set up some tables and Dubé was quick to set drills, tools and all his accoutrements out for the workshop. In the span of twenty minutes he trained staff and volunteers in preparation for students to drill the holes of their flutes.

Kevin arrived about fifteen minutes after we got to the school. Students were quietly milling about in the halls in eager anticipation of the morning’s project. A few had poked their heads into the gym to watch Dubé set up and train the school staff. A teacher, possibly the principle, cheerfully made some announcements about lunch and stuff before she gently reminded students to be on their best behavior for Dubé’s flute workshop.

Locke offered a heart-felt greeting to the youth who assembled at the school.

About fifty-five high school students filed into the gym, arranged by year, and immediately staked out spots on the basketball court. The gym quickly filled with echoes of growing chatter which became a loud buzz with the arrival of fifth and sixth graders from the nearby community of Cannonball, who took the floor closest to where Dubé was set up.

The principle made a few announcements reiterating students to be on their best behavior and extended a welcome on behalf of the schools and introduced Kevin. Kevin introduced Dubé who shared some technical things about the flute and what to be expected in the workshop, and the students listened as best as students could while they itched to get to the construction.

Dubé divided the large group into three and subdivided each of those into three at each table. From the time of Dubé’s beginning instructions to the last student drilling the last hole in the last flute and the last student assembling the various pieces into a replica of the Lakota Grandfather flute, about forty minutes had passed. At one point in the assembly Kevin remarked, “Rich is really organized,” a sentiment which was repeated by high school staff.

Dubé (orange shirt) plays a quick tune between instructing students.

When the last flute was put together, Dubé called for the students to gather together once again on the basketball court where he offered some basic flute instruction. It was this instruction that Dubé’s experience as music teacher came out. When the students were quieted with their flutes and ready to play, Dubé played a few simple songs with the students who echoed his rendition of the old English tune “Hot Cross Buns.” The fifth and sixth grade students were quite familiar with playing the song on their recorders and followed Dubé’s instruction swiftly.

There, Kevin shared the story of the first flute.

After Dubé’s crash course in flute basics, Kevin stepped in and shared a few flute songs, one of which was the Flag song which the students recognized right away. The students had grown tired of the floor towards the end of the workshop and took to the bleachers on the other side of the gym after the song. There, Kevin shared the story of the first flute. He played the first flute song as part the story, and sang the song at the end.

One of the things that Kevin shared, a traditional belief, was that the Dakota and Lakota people are people of the wind. On the tips of ones fingers are what we call fingerprints. We all have fingerprints. For the Dakota and Lakota people however, fingerprints are more than something that identifies and/or incriminates a person, they say that the patterns tell one which direction the winds were blowing on the day of one’s birth.

In the days of warriors and legend, the flute was played by young men in traditional courtship, to win the heart of a particular young woman. A young man might sit outside the lodge of a young woman and serenade her. If he was successful, she might contrive an excuse to fetch water or gather additional firewood to spend a few moments with a suitor.

"Indian Courting" by Captain Seth Eastman, 1852.

The flute was a part of daily life.

The flute was a part of daily life. Early American Western artists like Seth Eastman and George Catlin painted scenes of young men playing the flute. When the post reservation era began, traditional courtship faded and was nearly forgotten.

In the 1970s, Kevin Locke took up the flute and learned about the tradition from men like Richard Fool Bull, William Horn Cloud, Joseph Rockboy, Asa Primeaux, Henry Crow Dog, Bill Black Lance, Charles Wise Spirit and Pete Looking Horse among many others. At a wacipi, Locke saw Richard Fool Bull’s display of flutes and remarked, “Someone should learn this tradition,” to which Fool Bull said, “Maybe you should.” And Kevin did.

Locke hopes to pass on the flute tradition to the today’s generation. Dubé’s flute workshop fits snugly into the world of the young native student. An individual can construct a flute with traditional specs and a faithful sound and be finished in five minutes using Dubé’s kit. In a world where studies come first, where extracurricular activities play a large role in a student’s life and where popular media influences style and dress, there’s still time and place for dancers and singers to hit the pow-wow circuit.

In the Land of Sky and Wind the wind is a constant presence. The people of Standing Rock are people of the stars. They are people of the wind. Maybe the flute tradition will work itself back into the daily lives of the people as it once did. 

Visit Kevin Locke online at Kevin Locke.
Visit Rich Dubé at Northern Spirit Flutes.