The Magic of Native American Courting Flutes

The Institute of American Indian Studies in Washington has a perfectly unique way to top off Valentine’s Day week. On Saturday, February 17 from 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m., Ojibway artist, and musician Allan Madahbee will explain the cultural significance and the hauntingly beautiful sound of the Native American courting flute. In Native American culture, the flute is deeply rooted in the traditional Eastern Woodland Indian traditions as well as in the culture of indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Traditional Native American flutes are known by several names, one of the most common being the courting flute. As the name suggests, the courting flute was played during courting rituals by a young man serenading his intended bride. Courting was not a private affair, and this formal ritual normally took place in front of the entire tribe. It is said that once the young man and young woman were joined together, she would break the flute in half so he would never play it for anyone else. This is why some tribes do not allow, or at least discourage females from playing these sacred flutes.

Today, makers of Native American Flutes like Ojibway artist and musician Allan Madahbee craft their personal style and sound into their creations. Madahbee began to research the Chippewa flute culture and was influenced and mentored by Joseph Firecrow of the Cheyenne nation. “We became friends and he provided guidance and feedback and explained some of his methods of flute making. With his passing last year, we have all lost a great Native American flute maker and musician. I am proud to continue our flute making traditions.” The sound of the courting flute that is usually made of cedar has an uncommon scale for Western music and is entrancing.

Born on the shores of Lake Huron, Allan Madahbee is a registered Ojibway (Chippewa) Indian that has pursued the traditional arts and crafts of his ancestors. He has been making Native American flutes for about ten years. “I had always thought they were a product of the Southwest Indian tribes, but a book that I found that was written during the 1800s about Chippewa culture, had a passage about the Chippewa flutes, along with pictures. This made me realize that they were indeed a part of my Chippewa culture. Knowing that my ancestors constructed these flutes for hundreds of years has inspired me to continue this tradition. Also, the haunting sound from these mystical instruments is a large part of my inspiration.”

Along with constructing Woodland flutes, beaded moccasins, woodcarvings, Native American regalia, and rock sculptures, Madahbee always returns to his artistic roots in paintings. Mainly self-taught, Madahbee had high school art courses with fellow Ojibway artists Blake Debassige and James Simon – two well known Anishnawbe artists that are respected and have their paintings displayed around the globe.

Space is limited and reservations are suggested. To make sure you get a spot call the Institute for American Indian Studies at (860) 868-0518 or email general@iaismuseum.org to reserve your spot. The program is included in the price of admission: $10 adults; $8 seniors; $6 children; IAIS Members free.

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