It has only been in the relatively recent times that the old stories, the myths and legends, of the Native American people have been written down. Sequoyah developed the Cherokee syllabary (phonetic characters used in the written Cherokee language) during the early 1820s, the first true written language among Native Americans. Prior to that, the old stories were passed down orally from generation to generation. As stories were retold and passed from generation to generation and from village to village, variations arose. On this page we present a couple of the legends that relate to the Native American Flute.
The Legend of the First Flute
There are many, many stories among Native American people regarding the gift of the first flute from the Great Creator, and the lessons given to the first flute player. Many of these stories have a similar theme that involves a cedar tree and a woodpecker. I hope you gain greater understanding of the flute from this one…
Long ago, long before the white man came to this land, there was a young warrior who lived in a village in the great wooded mountains that today we call the Great Smokies. This warrior always felt he needed to prove himself to the others in the village because he wasn't the strongest, or the swiftest of the young men. But his heart was pure.
One day he was just outside his village when he saw a mighty elk, the ahwi-egwa, passing among the trees in the distance. He decided that if he could kill this great animal, it would feed his people for a good time and give them its great hide for many uses. So he started out into the woods in careful pursuit. But this elk had not grown old by being foolish and he quickly realized he was being hunted. So he went deeper and deeper into the heavy brush, staying just beyond the reach of the young man, leading him ever further from his village. At long last, the elk disappeared far ahead and left the young warrior on his own in the forest. Although he was certainly able to take care of himself, our young man had to admit that he was lost and did not know his way back to his village.
After several days of wandering alone, he realized he was more lonely than anything else, and he called upon the Great Creator to give him comfort. He soon found a beautiful place to sit and rest at the edge of a great clearing, right below a huge ajina, cedar tree. As he sat and rested, he heard a beautiful, soothing sound coming from above him. It reminded him of the songs his mother had sung to him as a child and he felt comforted. As he looked up into the tree, he realized that this great cedar had a section that had died - perhaps from a lightning strike long ago, or from bugs or disease - and the sound was coming from the wind blowing across a hollow branch. When the wind died down and the sound stopped, he climbed up into the tree and retrieved the branch that had been making the beautiful sounds.
Wanting to recreate the pleasant tones from the branch, he brought it to his lips and blew across it. But no sound came from it. So he tried every which way and finally felt great sadness, as he could not find a way to coax a sound from that branch. In desperation, he raised his voice to the Great Creator and asked: "Oh Great Spirit! You have put magic into this hollow branch but I have not been able to find it. Please show me how to make the beautiful sounds from it."
As our young warrior held the branch up to the Great Spirit, a little woodpecker, the dalala, flew down and landed on the branch and cautiously walked down the branch toward the place where the warrior was holding it, and began pecking. When he had finished, there were two small holes in the top of the branch, and the woodpecker gently lowered himself down over them as if nesting there. Not sure what to do, the warrior raised the branch to his lips and gently blew into it. This time a deep, mellow sound emerged from the other end and his heart once more felt light and happy.
The young man loved the beautiful sound that the branch made when he blew into it, but after awhile, he became bored with just a single tone. So once again he raised his voice to the Great Creator: "What You have given me is truly beautiful and I am very grateful for this gift, but I know that there is still greater beauty from this branch and I respectfully ask for Your help in finding it."
And as he turned back, he saw that the woodpecker arose from his spot on the branch and began walking down toward the far end of the branch. Then he stopped and began pecking again. When he finished pecking a hole through the branch, he moved down and began pecking again. This he repeated until he had created six new little holes along the length of the branch, after which he returned to his nesting place and once more sat to rest.
The warrior saw that the holes were placed so that he could cover them with his fingertips, if he used both hands. And so he did, covering three holes with fingers from one hand, and the other three with the fingers from his other hand. Then once more he blew into the end of the branch. And he discovered that by covering and uncovering the holes, he could make a great variety of tones. He sat down and played one note, then another, then another, and another, and another. Each individual note was itself beautiful, but they just didn't seem to go together. He knew there had to be a way to use these individual sounds to create beautiful music.
So once again he looked to the Great Spirit: "Oh Great Creator. You have given me a wondrous gift, but I am unable to create the beautiful music that I know it can make. I ask that You show me how to take these sounds and put them together that I might create a beautiful song that I can play."
This time the Great Creator spoke back to our young warrior, "To make beautiful music, you must learn to recognize the beautiful patterns of nature that I have given you. You must go to the center of the clearing and look at the trees that surround you. Where the trees lie low, you must play a low note. And where the trees rise higher, you must play a higher note. And where the trees are the highest, you must play your highest note. Where the trees remain at one level for a time, you must play the note longer. And where the trees change often, you must likewise change your notes often. Now go and learn to play the trees."
The young man did as he was told and found a place in the center of the clearing. As he sat down, he noticed the trees as he had never seen them before. And he raised the branch to his lips and gently blew his first note. Then he saw the next tree rose and he searched and eventually created a higher note. With time and patience, he was able to easily follow the trees and the sounds that he created pleased him.
He raised his voice to the Great Spirit: "I have done what You have instructed and I want to play for You."
But the Great Creator answered, "No. You are not yet ready. Go back to the clearing and watch the birds as they fly around you. Where the birds rise up into the sky, let the notes follow them upward. And where they swoop down, let your notes follow them down as well."
Once more the young warrior did as he was told. Again it took time, but eventually he was able to follow the eagle, the great awohali, from high as it swooped down to the lake to grab a fish in its mighty talons and climb again to return to its nest. And he was able to follow the pheasant, the hluh-disda, as it was flushed from the brush and rose swiftly to escape into the air. And he followed the buzzards, the ani-suli, as they soared to and fro looking for a suitable meal. And again he was pleased with the sounds that he created.
The warrior turned to the Great Creator again: "I have learned to follow the flights of many birds and I now want to play for You."
But again the Great Creator stopped him short. "No. You are still not ready. Go back to the clearing and close your eyes. From your heart, feel the trees around you and play the trees as you feel them. And from your heart feel the flight of the birds above you and play the birds as you feel them. And let the notes of the trees and the birds blend together."
So the young warrior returned to the clearing and found a comfortable place, where he settled and closed his eyes. At first he was distracted by many thoughts and he could not feel the trees and the birds. But he gradually cleared his mind of outside thoughts and started to feel the trees, and he played them. And he felt the birds, and he played them. And they all blended together in beautiful music.
Once more the young warrior turned to the Great Spirit: "I have done what You have told me and would like to play for You."
This time the Great Creator responded: "Yes. You may play for Me."
So the young man closed his eyes and raised the branch to his lips. He played the trees and the birds that rose from his heart, and the Great Spirit felt a tear roll down His cheek from the beauty of the music He heard.
The Legend of the Cedar Tree
One of our favorite woods for making Native American style flutes is red cedar. Cedar is one of the sacred woods of the Cherokee (and other Native) people. In respect to that special place in Cherokee culture, we share the following story with you.
Traditionally, the Cherokee believed that the earth is a great island, brought from the bottom of the great sea by dayunisi, the little water beetle, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord that runs up to the great sky vault, which is made of rock. The sky vault is like a huge bowl placed upside-down over the earth. Each day the sun travels from east to west along the underside of the sky vault. At sunset, the sun slips under the western edge of the sky vault to return during the night from west to east along the far side of the sky vault. In this story, you will need to understand these relationships.
Long ago, when the Cherokee people were new on the earth, there was little appreciation for the night time. All of their activities happened during the day. In fact, the people thought that they would be better off if there were no darkness of night. So they turned to the Great Creator (Ogedoda) and asked that it might be day light all of the time.
The Great Spirit heard the voices and wanted to make the people happy. So he asked Grandfather Sun (Iga-e-hinuhdo) not to go behind the great sky vault at the end of the day, but to stay on the underside and give continuous light to the people. It wasn't long before the forest became thick with new growth, making it hard to find the path or even to walk. The weeds grew wild in the gardens and the people had to continually tend to their corn (selu) and beans (tuya) and other crops. With no relief from the sun, it became very, very hot. With continuous sunlight it was hard to sleep, and needing to work so much harder, the people became very tired and impatient with one another. There was little happiness.
It wasn't long before the people realized that it had been a mistake to ask for continual daylight, and they decided to call upon the Great Spirit once again. They cried out: "We were wrong and made a great mistake in asking for it to be daylight all the time. Please hear our cries. It would be better if it were always night time."
Again the Great Spirit heard their pleas and thought about their request. But He loved the people and therefore asked Grandfather Sun to stay behind the great sky vault and not to come to the underside to shine down on the land and the people. The sky became dark. But without the sun, the people could not see to hunt and the crops stopped growing. The only light and heat came from the fires, but there was a constant need to gather wood to keep them burning. And so the people became cold, tired, and very hungry. Many of the people died.
Those who remained gathered to once more cry to the Great Spirit: "We have made a terrible mistake in asking You to change the cycles of day and night. Please help us, for we are dying in the continual darkness of night. In the beginning you made the day and night perfect, as they should be. Forgive us and return the day and night as they were before."
The Great Spirit asked Grandfather Sun to once more begin his normal journeys, along the underside of the great sky vault during the day, shining down on the land and the people, and then to slip under the western edge and return on the far side of the sky vault at night, leaving the people in darkness. Soon the weather became more pleasant and the crops began to grow again. The hunting was good. The people had plenty to eat and there was far less sickness. Balance and harmony were returned to the lives of the people and life was once again good.
The people were grateful to the Great Creator and acknowledged the great wisdom in the Great Creator's ways. Each morning they would arise to give thanks for the peaceful night, and each evening they would give thanks for the wonderful day. The Great Creator accepted the thanks of the people and was pleased to see them living in happiness again.
But the Great Creator was sad at the thought of those who had perished during the prolonged night. So He created a new tree that he called the ajina, the cedar tree, and put the spirits of those who had crossed over in it. So when you smell the aroma of a cedar tree or see one growing in the forest, if you are Tsalagi (Cherokee), you are looking at the spirit of your ancestors.
The cedar tree holds powerful protective spirits for the Cherokee. Many carry a small piece of cedar wood in their medicine bag worn around their neck. It may also be placed above the entrance to their homes to protect against the entry of evil spirits. There is also strong medicine in drums or flutes made from cedar wood.
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