Wado ("thank you") for coming here to meet us, and to get to know a little about us at Turtle Mound Flutes.
Turtle Mound Flutes is a partnership consisting of me, John Ellis, and my loving partner, Claire. I am responsible for making the flutes that you see on these pages, and Claire keeps the business side running so I can hang out in the shop.
For over forty years I made my living in the high-tech world centered in real-time computer system and software development. I earned my M.S. in Computer Science from New Mexico State University in 1969 on an Air Force advanced degree program. In return, I ended up spending nearly 11 years in the Air Force during an era of great advances in software engineering. It was the Air Force that moved me to Florida in 1972. I worked on a number of exciting programs, including 3 years working with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center on the Space Shuttle program. I was the liaison between NASA and the Air Force for the application of the shuttle's Launch Processing System technology to the Air Force shuttle facilities at Vandenberg AFB in California. The Air Force shuttle facility program was later cancelled following the Challenger disaster. After departing the Air Force in '78, I worked for several aerospace contractors on a variety of military, NASA, and commercial systems before forming my own consulting company in '99.
My interest in music goes back to junior high school, when I was introduced to the guitar by a school friend. The next Christmas I got my own. When our church youth group planned to put on a talent show, I discovered that another boy in the youth group, named Bob Cross, was also a guitar player and singer, and we formed a "folk duo" we called the Bayou Brothers for the show. We felt good about the number we did and loved playing together, so we took on other performances. We later added a third group member to the group, also from the church. Dave Peterson had recently gotten a guitar and we became the Bayou Brothers, a trio. I expanded out to add some different instruments to our sound and we found places we could play almost every week. We never made a penny, but we played together and had a lot of fun for a couple years. As high school was ending and we were going in different directions for college, the group dissolved. I tried to form another group in college, but it didn't have the chemistry and didn't last very long.
Although I never put away my instruments completely, I didn't perform in public again until I joined the Praise Band at the Pineda Presbyterian Church in Melbourne in 2006. It is a great opportunity to play with a very talented guitarist/singer named Ken Holt (www.kenholtmusic.com). Although my primary instruments are guitars, 6-string (steel and nylon strings) and 12-string, I also bring out my 50+ year old Gibson 5-string banjo, an autoharp, and occasionally my Native American Flutes for various numbers. This venue has also given me the opportunity to share a little of my Cherokee heritage when I've told the history and traditions along with a song like Amazing Grace, sung by the whole band in Cherokee, or why we sing the Cherokee Morning Song four times, to the four sacred directions.
Then in 2013 I took my performing in a different direction. I took on the stage persona of Johnny Kee and began performing the old folk, blues, gospel, hymns, and spirituals that I first learned 50+ years before. New to my vocal & instrumental performances were solos played on Native American style flutes (that I had made) on many of the old songs. With the assistance of a little electronic gadget called a "looper", I could appear to have continuous guitar accompaniment as I transition into and out of the flute instrumental sections of the songs.
In October 2018, Johnny Kee released is first full length CD, called Echoes From the Trail, This CD contains 12 songs from the 2014 version of the Cherokee Hymn Book, sung in Cherokee and accompanied by the variety of instruments I play. Each song has at least one section with a flute solo and/or duet. Currently in development is a second CD planned for release in the spring to summer of 2020, with the working name Johnny Kee, Storyteller. It will consist of old folk and gospel songs that tell a story, and will again feature the Native flute on most (maybe all) of the songs.
My Introduction to the NAF
In early 2006, Claire visited her sister in Asheville, NC and brought me back a CD of Native American Flute music called Tribal Winds. Although I was aware of NAF music, I had never really listened closely. That music touched me and I played that CD almost constantly. When we were back up in Cherokee in July, we decided to once again see the fabulous Cherokee pageant "Unto These Hills". One of the opening acts that evening was a NAF artist named Andrew Vasquez. We had seats near the front and I was able to see his playing well. I thought that I could probably learn to play this instrument. We bought his CD Wind River at the gift shop after the show and got him to autograph it. A few days later we made a short trip down to visit a dulcimer shop in Mountain City, GA and found a couple Dana Ross (Falcon Flutes) flutes there. I picked out a nice yellow cedar flute in A and immediately fell in love with it. When we returned to North Carolina in October, we visited Keith at the Indian Store in downtown Cherokee. After trying several of the flues he had there, I settled for an Odell Borg High Spirits walnut flute in F#, this decision based heavily on Claire's objective evaluation of the sound as I played them.
It didn't take long to decide that I'd like to try making a flute. At the Melbourne Pow Wow in early December, 2006, I ran across a vendor who had a Crazy Crow NAF "kit." It was just the two cedar sticks that had been routed out and some deerskin lace and a little block. I was fortunate to be walking through Utah Farris's tent a short time later and he saw what I had sticking out of my bag. Utah makes a really beautiful flute and he sat down with me to walk me through the construction of the sound mechanism, drawing out sections to cut and angled on one of my "sticks." The instructions that came with this kit were woefully inadequate, but with additional research and some advice from local flute maker Mike Knight (Old Turtle Flutes), I completed that first flute on New Year's Day of 2007. It looked nice enough and actually played halfway decent (key of G). Encouraged by relatively good results on my first attempt, I found a couple sources on-line and bought a couple more routed-out flute halves to try again. I took it slow and easy on first one, and then the other, and both came out reasonably well.
In April I took these two latest creations to Musical Echoes (2007, the year that Mike Knight won his 3rd best flute maker award) and got Kuzin Bruce, Leonard "Lone Crow" McGann, and Utah to critique them. I wrote down as much as I could remember after walking away from each of these master flute makers, and then took their advice to heart. After a couple months of struggling with inadequate tools in my crowded garage, I made a decision to pursue flute making seriously. We erected a shop behind the house and purchased the most essential tools (belt sander, router & table, band saw) and I went to work. Today I'm making flutes full time and am encouraged by the response that my flutes are getting.
I'll forever be grateful to all those who have provided serious critique and guidance (and encouragement) and I look forward to continued improvement as my experience grows.
My Cherokee Heritage
I first learned that I had Cherokee ancestors when I asked my mother about my family tree in response to a homework assignment to support a class-wide genealogy project in junior high school. Through a mix of mainly English, German, and Swiss blood, I learned that my distant relatives were tied to the Harrisons who signed the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin) and became president (William Henry and another Benjamin) and the Fleckensteins who once owned a castle located on the French/German border, which was a subject of each of those countries as the land passed back and forth as the result of various wars and international squabbles. I also learned a great story about when our Ellis family first came to the U.S. through Ellis Island. But I also learned of my great, great grandfather, John Kee.
This was the late '50s and I didn't understand that being Indian still wasn't something that one talked much about. My mother shared little of what she knew of our Cherokee heritage with me. I learned much more from my cousin, Patricia (Pat) Wiechman (nee Kunz), who spent much more time with Grandma Kunz, the granddaughter of John Kee, and heard the family stories. Pat even sang the hymn Yes Jesus Loves Me in Cherokee for me that she learned from Grandma many years before. Grandma didn't mind admitting she was part Cherokee and sharing what she remembered.
Through those stories that Grandma Kunz told of her father and grandfather, I learned that John Kee was a full-blood Cherokee boy when his family was rounded up by General Scott's soldiers and driven from the eastern Cherokee homeland over the infamous Trail of Tears toward "Indian Territory." I believe that they traveled the so-called Northern Route, passing through Nashville, TN and Hopkinsville, KY before crossing the Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. However, they never made it all the way to the Indian Territory as the family "deserted" (the term given to those who dropped off the Trail) at West Plains in southwestern Missouri when John's mother became deathly ill. The Kees settled in nearby Thomasville, a little town just outside West Plains.
Routes of the Trail of Tears (1838-1839)
When John Kee grew up, he married Elizabeth Suthern and they had seven children; one of the four boys was named John Hardin Pain Kee, born on November 3, 1854. When he was 23, John H.P. Kee married 17-year old Phoeba Ann Nassalroad on August 30, 1877. John and Phoeba moved to Fair Grove, Missouri and had five children. The oldest (Henry, born Aug 2, 1878) and the youngest (Johnny H., born Apr 3, 1893) were boys, with three girls in the middle: Minnie Viola (Aug 18, 1883), Dora Louise (Feb 23, 1885), and Clemma Elizabeth (Sep 11, 1888). For at least a time, John H.P. Kee worked for the U.S. Postal Service carrying the mail from Fair Grove to Springfield (about 16 miles) and back again each day by horse and buggy. As the family story goes (and I have neither proved nor disproved it), until 1911 Missouri had a law that any Indian caught within 10 miles of a white settlement could be shot on sight.
Henry and Johnny Kee were said to be very talented musically. Henry was a piano tuner who, it is said, had perfect pitch. Although without formal training, both could pick up just about any musical instrument and play it. Johnny once made a 5-string banjo using a parking meter head for the round frame. I currently have that banjo, although it long ago became unplayable. Clemma (called "Aunt Bea") is said to have been a very good piano player, and they all loved to sing. This side of my family must have had an influence on love of playing and singing.
Dora Louise Kee, the middle child of John H.P, and Phoeba, married a Swiss immigrant named Adolph Kunz. Dora (my Grandma Kunz) and Adolph Kunz had eight children, the youngest a girl named Helen Louise Kunz, born August 19, 1923. While in the U.S. Navy teaching laboratory technology in California near the end of World War II, Helen met a young sailor from Milwaukee, Wisconsin named Irvin John Ellis, who was one of her students. They fell in love and married at Treasure Island, CA on Valentine's Day of 1945. When Helen became pregnant, she was given a medical discharge from the Navy and returned home to Springfield, Missouri to have a son (me) on March 20, 1946. She often reminded me that I was the cause of her military discharge.
Getting In Touch With My Heritage
My interest in my Cherokee heritage began to peak in the early '90s when I visited the Smokey Mountains and Cherokee, North Carolina the first time. Although I could certainly have gone there sooner, I was always a little apprehensive that I would be disappointed in what I found, or didn't find, there. But when I finally got there, I had a strange sense of coming home, of being where I belonged. Within a couple years and a couple visits, we bought a little place between Franklin and Sylva, about 20 miles south of Cherokee, and made several trips there each year until recently.
But another event had an effect that evoked an even stronger feeling.
During the summer of 2006,
Claire and I decided to visit her father in a nursing home just outside
Evansville, IN on our way from our home in Florida to our place in North
Carolina. En route to Evansville, we learned that his condition had turned
suddenly critical. He hung on for a couple weeks, passing in and out of
coherency. Finally, we departed Evansville for our place in NC, and that’s
when a strange thing happened…
We were following a
computer-generated route that was displayed on my little Palm Treo (an early so-called
“smartphone”), tied to a GPS navigation receiver, to display our location on
the map and show where our next turn would be. As we passed through Kentucky, my
receiver apparently lost synchronization with the GPS satellites and my display
showed us drifting off the highway and into unmapped fields, which we definitely
weren’t. We were approaching a sequence of turns and I wasn’t sure which way
we should be headed, so I decided to pull off and see if I could get my receiver
and Treo resynchronized with the satellites.
we approached the next exit, I caught a sign out of the corner of my eye that
said something about the route of the “Trail of Tears”.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that the Trail went through this part of
the country. We turned onto the main intersecting road and drove down a bit looking
for a good place to pull over. The first intersection had a sign pointing the
way to the “Trail of Tears Commemorative Park”. So we pulled in.
What we found there was almost mystical - I don't know how else to explain it.
In the park we discovered that the site had been established as a camp for groups traveling the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears to rest and take on supplies. At the time, I wondered if my great, great grandfather, John Kee, and his family might have stopped there! I have since learned that it is quite likely that they did pass through this site because it was the route that passed near Springfield, Missouri. I must have known they had been there because I could feel their presence at the park site.
Our shop is located out back on 2 acres in a semi-rural area on the outskirts of Melbourne, Florida - on Turtle Mound Road. We have one neighbor who has several horses and a working dairy backs up to part of our back property line. I also love our home for the wildlife that shares it with us, including a number of endangered and threatened species - sand hill cranes, gopher tortoises, and indigo snakes (although Claire doesn't appreciate the snakes, but that's a whole series of stories). There is a red shoulder hawk that sometimes watches over the shop, and many birds of all kinds: ibis, cranes, woodpeckers, cardinals, mockingbirds, crows, vultures, and others.
But it's the turtles that seem to dominate. We've had several gopher tortoise nests, with one currently active right up against the outside the front wall. About halfway up our 100-yard long driveway, the pond is home to a half dozen Florida soft-shell turtles and a couple red-ear sliders. The Florida soft-shell is strange looking, with its long neck, long skinny snout with eyes on the top of its head - almost like a small crocodile - and duck-like webbed feet.
Add to these turtle-connections my membership in the Turtle Moon Band of the Southeastern Cherokee Council and my memories of the turtle mound I first came to know as a young boy at the Indian Mound Reservation scout camp (see below), the name Turtle Mound Flutes seemed uniquely appropriate.
About Our Logo
I grew up on the north side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a very active Boy Scout in Troop 9 in the late '50s and early '60s, working my way up to the Eagle rank and earning the God and Country religious award. I especially loved the outdoor activities, camping, canoeing, archery, etc. During my scouting years, I spent a couple weeks each summer at the Milwaukee County Council's summer camp near Oconomowoc, which is not quite halfway to Madison. The camp is called Indian Mound Reservation and is located on Silver Lake. Where the camp fronts the lake, a large 35 foot high prominence overlooks and projects out into the lake. The top of this prominence is a treeless, grassy area that served as the camp's parade ground, with a large flagpole and a small cannon near the point overlooking the lake. As we gathered onto the parade ground each evening to "retire the colors," we passed a large effigy mound. This mound has the shape of a headless turtle and gave the camp its name. It is the shape of this turtle mound that you see in our Turtle Mound Flutes logo.
On our flutes and drums, the logo is turned sideways and the name is shortened to the abbreviation "TMF".
Mound builders, which included the distant ancestors of the Muskogee, Cherokee, Natchez, and others, were common across the Midwest through the Southeast of the present day United States. Several mound builder cultures arose in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota and then quickly declined after 500 AD. When these cultures disappeared, they left behind mound clusters shaped like men and animals. The mounds found in Wisconsin tended not to be very tall, but covered considerable ground. Mounds in this area were mainly in the form of lizards, turtles, birds, bears, foxes, and men.
In 1851, Dr. I. A. Lapham discovered a turtle-shaped effigy mound on the prominence overlooking Silver Lake, and some other effigy mounds on a nearby farm. Careful measurements of the Silver Lake turtle mound were taken in 1876, showing it had a total length 281 feet with a tapering tail of 210 feet. The height was about 5 feet at the head, 3 feet at the middle of the body, 3½ feet at the rear hips, and 1½ feet at the end of the body. This mound has been well preserved and is one of the finest examples of the turtle effigy mound in the county.
According to a local legend, there were once three turtle effigy mounds with their heads pointing to a spot in the middle of Silver Lake where an Indian Chief had drowned. His people built the mounds to honor him and to point to the spot where he died. The 1851 map shows two turtle mounds, but the third has never been discovered.
Indian Mound Reservation was established in 1917 as a campground for Boy Scouts. Today the Boy Scouts have a new summer campground, but Indian Mound is still used by the younger Cub Scouts, and the Boy Scout Order of the Arrow.
Our Flute Making Philosophy
Our goal is to make the finest Native American style flutes with the full respect for the traditions and heritage that is due these instruments. We are grateful to the Great Creator for the gifts of Elohino (Mother Earth) with which we work. We embrace the Native American belief that we are the custodians of Elohino and that all living things are to be respected. Our flutes honor the spirits of various birds and animals, and some people recognize their animal totems in the images and spirit of individual flutes.
Our flutes are carefully tuned using a Korg CA35 chromatic tuner, temperature compensated to a standard 72oF. I try to incorporate appropriate elements of modern technology (such as the tuner) with the traditional spirit of the ancient flute makers. When tuning, I initially use drill bits and files to bring the flute roughly into tune. Then I burn in the final tuning of each hole.
Our Native American style flutes all are made with four direction holes, offering thanks to the Great Creator in the four sacred directions:
The Native American Flute is special in the spirituality that many people find in it. To others it is just a hollow piece of wood with some holes in it. We are especially concerned with making instruments for those who see the flute as more than just a wooden musical instrument.
Turtle Mound Flutes in the News
Turtle Moon Band - Southeastern Cherokee Council
In October 2006 while in Cherokee, NC, I found a stack of Cherokee Heritage Calendars for the coming year. This is a calendar that is dedicated to artists of Cherokee blood from all over the country. I was particularly attracted to the April print. It was a lovely Cherokee maiden in profile, dressed in a fringed buckskin dress. She had angel wings and was playing a flute. The piece was called Cherokee Angel and was drawn by a woman named Joyce "Spirit Wind" Bugaiski.
A local Native Heritage group sponsored a Native American Heritage Day at the Cocoa campus of the Brevard Community College on a Saturday a few weeks after we returned from North Carolina. There were a number of exhibitors at tables in a large meeting room in one of the college buildings. I saw a stack of the same calendar I had purchased in Cherokee, and then noticed that among the beautiful prints on display at that table, was the Cherokee Angel and it was then that I recognized the artist from her picture in the calendar. I ended up buying a print of the Cherokee Angel and got to talk a bit with Joyce and her husband, Harry.
Claire had our Cherokee Angel print framed and I hanged it in our living room. I took a photo of the print as it hung and sent it to Joyce in an e-mail message. I explained to her about my journey to learn about my family history and my Cherokee heritage. After exchanging a couple messages, she told me that she was a band chief in an organization called the Southeastern Cherokee Council, Inc. (SeCCI) and she invited me to a band meeting in Lakeland. I attended their next meeting and felt I had found a home that would help me along my journey, and submitted my application for membership. I am now the "Cultural Editor" for the SeCCI newsletter, the Cherokee Talking Leaves.
Chief Spirit Wind honored me with the Cherokee name, Utsaduh Unole, "Many Winds" at a naming ceremony in May, 2008.
You can learn more about the Southeastern Cherokee Council at our tribal website at www.secci.com.John Ellis
Utsaduh Unole, "Many Winds"
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