Kathy Montgomery

KEN LIGHT pulled on a pair of cotton gloves and gently lifted a prehistoric flute from a tray of artifacts. As Light examined the flute, R. Carlos Nakai chatted with the Arizona State Museum guide. It was the mid-1990s, and Nakai was working on a master’s degree at the University of Arizona, where the museum is located. 

Light, a flute-maker based in Montana, met Nakai, a Grammy-nominated Navajo flautist, in 1987 at an American Indian flute festival in Grand Junction, Colorado. There weren’t many people who played the flutes in those days, and not many people even knew about them. Nakai asked Light to build a custom flute to his specifications. He did, and the two began a long partnership, hosting an annual workshop in Montana and events in other places around the country. 

When Light was in the state on business, he went with Nakai to see the instruments at the museum for himself. By then, Light knew something about their history and discovery. He knew they were very, very old — centuries older than the oldest known flute in the style most people think of as Indian.

They didn’t have much time, so Light chose the flute that looked the most interesting and worked with it. Despite the flute’s age, it looked well kept, as if it had been treated as a sacred object. He could see by the wear how it had been held and played. The instrument was long, the holes widely spaced. He thought about the dexterity the musician must have possessed to play it. He took measurements, speaking into a recorder to capture his observations. 

When he returned home to Montana, Light made a replica with one modification. The original flute had no mouthpiece, just a blunt end. Making a sound required blowing across the opening in a certain way — a skill Light didn’t have. So, he carved a notch in the end, like a South American quena, and before long, he was playing. 

It felt profound. Light pondered how this piece of wood connected the modern day to ancient history. He thought about how its voice hadn’t been heard for a very long time. What’s the significance? he wondered. What were they saying?

American Indian flutes might seem ubiquitous today, but after decades of government assimilation policies, the tradition of flute playing among Indians for a time seemed lost to all but a few. Thanks to the efforts of a handful of musicians, of which Nakai is the best known, the Indian flute saw a resurgence in the 20th century. 

At the same time, the prehistoric flutes in the Arizona State Museum inspired the resurgence of a lesser-known flute, one that members of the Hopi Tribe trace to their ancestors through an unbroken tradition of ceremonial use. Now, at least one prominent tribal member would like to see those flutes come home.

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IN 1931, anthropologist Earl H. Morris discovered four flutes in what he called Broken Flute Cave, in the Prayer Rock District of Northeastern Arizona. Located between Carrizo Mountain and the north end of the Lukachukai Mountains, the cave was one of more than a dozen in the area carved from sandstone cliffs. Morris’ team found pieces of two flutes scattered in the trash above a grave. They uncovered two others (pictured) beneath the dirt floor; those were intact, tied together and remarkably well preserved. 

The flutes were simple instruments — just long tubes crafted from polished boxelder wood. But their smooth, even interiors and nearly identical finger holes demonstrated skillful manufacturing and an intentional scale. To one end, the flute-maker had fastened red, blue and black feathers, and when the flutes were played, the feathers danced.

This wasn’t Morris’ first expedition in Arizona, and these weren’t the first prehistoric flutes he’d found. Eight years earlier, he and his team had excavated five flutes at Canyon del Muerto, part of present-day Canyon de Chelly National Monument. One, encrusted with white beads, lay on the chest of an old man Morris believed to be a priest or chief — one end tucked beneath the man’s chin, the other between his thigh bones. 

“I picked up one of the flutes, shook the dust and mouse dung out of it, and placed it to my lips,” Morris wrote. “The rich, quavering tones which rewarded even my unskilled touch seemed to electrify the atmosphere. In the distance, Navajo workmen paused with shovels poised, seeking the source of the sound. A horse raised its head and neighed from an adjacent hillside, and two crows flapped out from a crevice overhead.”

The flutes in the Prayer Rock District were similar, but even older. The artifacts from Canyon del Muerto were subsequently dated to between 1253 and 1284. The flutes from Broken Flute Cave were from six centuries earlier, between 620 and 670. 

For her doctoral thesis at the University of Arizona, Morris’ daughter, Elizabeth, studied the artifacts from the Prayer Rock District. Its successful completion would make her the first woman to earn a doctorate in anthropology at the university. The co-author of her published study, B.M. Bakkegard of UA’s Department of Music, played the two intact flutes and found the sounds similar to those produced by modern instruments, with considerably more richness and depth than those captured on ethnographic recordings. 

While he had no way of knowing the techniques the original players used or the music they played, Bakkegard believed the instruments were capable of producing music of great complexity and beauty. And with “little or no” secular use of flutes recorded among Southwestern tribes, the researchers believed the flutes were most likely used for ceremonial worship.

In 1957, the Carnegie Institution of Washington transferred the artifacts from Broken Flute Cave to the Arizona State Museum — and, as far as anyone knows, the flutes were never played again.

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ANTHROPOLOGISTS IDENTIFY the people who inhabited the Prayer Rock District caves as belonging to the Basketmaker culture, so named for the abundance and quality of the baskets the people produced. Based on similarity of diet, habits and religious practices, including the ceremonial use of the flute, they believe the Pueblo peoples are their most likely descendants — and that of those peoples, the Hopis have the closest relationship to the Western Basketmakers. 

On this, scientists and Hopis agree. The tribe’s stories say that when the Hopis emerged into this, the Fourth World, they were greeted by Massaw, guardian of the land, who sent the Hopis to travel the world in the four directions, leaving behind their footprints — pottery, petroglyphs and structures — before converging at the center of the Earth, on the Hopi mesas. 

As they traveled, the Flute Clan migrated with the Horn Clan, creating two flute societies, the Blue Flute Society and the Gray Flute Society. They marked their journey by etching flute players on rock walls in places such as Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly, and as far north as Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. When they finally arrived at the Hopi mesas, they contributed the Flute Ceremony.

In 1958, Elizabeth Morris traveled to Mishongnovi to watch a Flute Ceremony and saw Hopis holding older flutes and playing newer, rim-blown flutes made of cane. Today, clan priests still perform the Flute Ceremony in August every other year. On alternate years, Snake and Antelope priests perform the Snake Dance. The purpose of both ceremonies is to call on the Cloud People to bring rain.

Hopi migration stories and anthropological evidence seem to intersect in places such as Casa Grande, Mesa Verde, Navajo National Monument and Canyon de Chelly, among others. And while anthropologists still don’t know why the ancients left these places, they do know that around the time these communities emptied, the population of the Hopi mesas swelled.

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AFTER HE CREATED his first replica of the Broken Flute Cave instrument, Light decided against reproducing it commercially, but he did play it at some workshops and made a few for friends and colleagues. Over the years, more enthusiasts visited the Arizona State Museum to examine the flutes. Among them was retired Oklahoma medical doctor and amateur ethnographer Richard Payne, who extensively researched and collected Indian flutes. And in 2002, flute enthusiast Clint Goss published on his website the measurements he took during his visit. Before long, flute-makers began to produce and market replicas and variations on them.

Michael Graham Allen, the principal musician and composer of the flute duo Coyote Oldman, was among the first. Allen had experience playing a Japanese rim-blown flute called the shakuhachi and had been making flutes from all over the world since the 1970s. In his travels to craft fairs to sell flutes, he’d visit museums and ask to see the flutes in their collections. “I was showing flutes across the country to people who didn’t know there were Native American flutes, even the Native Americans,” Allen says. 

He met Payne at a show in Oklahoma City, and the two became friends. In 2000, Allen created a replica of the Prayer Rock District flutes based on measurements in published archaeological studies and those Payne had given him. “Almost all old flutes in North America, Native flutes, had really no scale at all,” Allen says. “They were just randomly punctured tubes. … If you looked at 100 Yuma flutes, they were all slightly different. There was no being in key and no tuning. But [this] flute was an exception, and it was obviously a really evolved flute. … So, this was really a surprise and a wonderful thing.”

Allen played a slightly modified version of the flute on the album Rainbird in 2004 and believes it marked the first time the flute had ever been recorded. It also introduced the flute to a wider audience.

More recently, flute player Gary Stroutsos approached Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva, a Grammy-nominated singer, with a replica of a Broken Flute Cave instrument. Tenakhongva had seen the original flutes at the Arizona State Museum but had never heard them. The first time he heard Stroutsos play the replica flute, he says, it sent chills down his spine. 

Tenakhongva and Stroutsos teamed up at the Grand Canyon Music Festival and later joined percussionist Matthew Nelson to make an album and documentary called Öngtupqa at the Canyon’s Desert View Watchtower. The trio continues to make music today, and Tenakhongva believes the sound is similar to music made during the Hopi migration.

Tenakhongva wanted to raise awareness of the Canyon as a place of worship for many tribal members. But he also wanted to bring attention to the original flutes, which he notes are nothing like those discovered in other regions or countries. And while the tribe has yet to initiate a formal request, ultimately, he’d like to see those flutes returned to the Hopi people. 

“It’s made its journey globally and returned back here, to where it’s destined to come,” he says. “It specifically belongs to the Flute Clan that is still here on Hopi today.”

Meanwhile, a number of artisans sell flutes inspired by the Prayer Rock District instruments, but many have modified the design extensively. Allen’s, for example, are no longer replicas. “They are … different enough that they are no longer Native flutes at all,” he says. 

But Light declined to modify the design once he decided, finally, to add them to his catalog. “They’re magical things,” he says. “That’s the part of it that I like and that I pursued. And that’s the richest part of all this.”