“I will listen for his flute in the voice of the wind.”
– Ken Light, flutemaker
It is said that when white settlers came upon Cherokee villages, they heard hundreds of people playing flutes. Flutemakers — who gave voice to the spirit of the trees from which they carved their flutes, and to the wind and water that touched the trees — were revered members of the tribe.
Through their flutes, the people sang. One of the greatest modern-day Native American flutemakers, a legendary craftsman, spiritual teacher and keeper of the traditional Cherokee ways, died on Dec. 14 at his home in Old Fort after a long illness. Hawk LittleJohn was 59.
To honor his life and work and benefit his family (including his wife, Geri, and their unborn child, due in June), his friends have arranged a live musical tribute — the most impressive group of Native American musicians ever gathered in Asheville.
For lovers of the genre, it promises to be the musical powwow of a lifetime.
Hawk LittleJohn was one of those people who walked tall on the planet. He was a complex character, a man of great charisma who tempered his strength with humility and a seemingly endless reach of compassion. From his lifelong dedication to the Cherokee traditions came his power and mission. He was an expert in Native American medicine who served as adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s medical school and as a cultural consultant with both the Smithsonian Institute and the North Carolina Museum of History.
But the guiding principle of LittleJohn’s life was his passionate concern for the environment. For more than 10 years his musings on Cherokee life, traditions, spirituality, and medicine were recorded in the influential Katuah Journal in a column called “Good Medicine.”
Environmentalist David Wheeler is currently editing a collection of LittleJohn’s Katuah pieces for publication. And Cullowhee poet Thomas Rain Crowe speaks intensely of the flutemaker’s effect on his life: “‘There are no more buffalo,’ Hawk would say,” relates Crowe. “It was his way to express his mourning of the loss of species — the animals, plants, the environment in general — at the expense of ‘progress.’ It was a reminder that we can’t live in the past, that we must live in the present and make the best of it. When you were around Hawk, you sensed buffalo everywhere — so powerfully did he exude the natural world.”
Chicago filmmaker Robert Jackson directed Songkeepers, a video about Native American flutemakers in which LittleJohn demonstrates his techniques. “Hawk was the wood and sawdust and smoke of his flutes,” says Jackson. “He could take that wood and make it feel like it was all part of you.“
“The flute is my connection to my grandfather and his grandfather and their grandfathers before them,” LittleJohn says on the video. “The flute is my connection to Plains Indians who have the flute. It is my connection to my history — and it is my gift to my unborn and my unborn yet to be. We’re all connected. That’s why we call it the ‘Great Life.’”
Native American flutes have a pentatonic scale, which makes them sound a world apart from classical European flutes. LittleJohn made Woodland flutes, which some people feel have a sweeter, less reedy sound than Plains flutes. He used only native woods — usually dead wood or wood he salvaged from old buildings — combining techniques he learned from his grandfather with modern equipment to create consistently beautiful-sounding instruments. Like his grandfather, he burned holes into the flutes to “put fire into them” and tied on them a braid of sweet grass to make them “sing sweet.”
“All my grandfathers are standing behind me,” he said in the video. “My people have lived in these mountains for 5,000 years. On every mountain ridge we’ve played a flute.”
“Flutemaking is about more than making instruments,” notes Geri, LittleJohn’s wife and flutemaking partner. “Hawk always said … that if you played the flute, you didn’t have to pray. If you’re playing from your heart, the song is a prayer.”
“It’s the holiest sounding instrument,” concurs concert organizer Mark Fields. “Something about the sound and the simplicity of the flute makes it the most powerful of all instruments. It gives us a vibrational connection to all of life.”
Or, as LittleJohn put it, “If you’re sitting in a quiet place just randomly playing the flute, magic comes.”
Power in numbers
Native American music is always based in ancient roots, but today’s practitioners recognize no boundaries in expressing themselves. One can discern strains of folk, jazz, gospel, country — even rock — in their sound. A voice might be recorded in a lone canyon or emerge orchestrally embellished from a high-tech studio.
Recognizing the music’s growing appeal, the Grammy Awards added a Native American category to its roster this year, giving the genre a long-awaited mainstream nod.
Singer Rita Coolidge — honored last year with a lifetime achievement award at the Native American Music Awards — will host the Asheville concert. After many successful years playing rock and country, the Tennessee native is exploring her Cherokee roots. With sister Priscilla Coolidge and niece Laura Satterfield, she performs in a new group, Walela (Cherokee for “hummingbird”).
“Priscilla and I have sung together all of our lives,” Coolidge reveals. “As children, we made a promise to both of my grandmothers to sing together. We are now singing in the voice that we had formed in our hearts back in those hills in Tennessee. We’re coming in to honor Hawk as three women, three voices.”
Mary Youngblood was dubbed best flutist, best female artist and best New Age artist at last year’s Native American Music Awards. Of Aleut-Seminole heritage, she is the only professional female Native American flute player in existence.
“I do feel like a pioneer,” she admits. “Native American music is still a male-dominated field — but remember, women are huge consumers of music, so it’s an exciting time to be [a] Native American musician and female.” The concert’s a dream come true for Youngblood: It’s the first time she will meet and share a stage with the superstar of Native American flutists, R. Carlos Nakai.
With more than 27 albums in commercial distribution, Nakai is largely responsible for the growing popularity of the flute — if not the entire Native American music genre. He’s a classical musician who returned to the instrument of his forefathers — a brilliant composer, scholar, teacher and international ambassador of native music. Nakai (of Navajo-Ute heritage) met LittleJohn at Spirits on the River, a Native American restaurant in Swannanoa.
“He presented me with some flutes,” Nakai reveals. “We spent time talking and became friends. I’m coming [to the concert] to honor that friendship and will play on some of the flutes he has sent me.”
Pianist/composer Peter Kater is a frequent collaborator with Nakai, most notably on the now-classic soundtrack for the TV series How the West was Lost.
“It’s quite possible that Hawk’s gift to the planet might very well be the gift of bringing people together,” Kater declares.
The flutes made by Hawk and Geri LittleJohn fetch from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Yet Hawk was famous for giving away a good number, as well.
“I had come to see R. Carlos Nakai in concert,” Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach begins. “In the lobby of the theater there was this gentleman … sitting at a table with flutes. I came up and introduced myself. I told him I was a storyteller looking for a flute to use in my stories. Hawk picked up one flute and played it. It had a high sound. Then another, it was lower. Then a third that was even lower. I loved the sound of that one. ‘How much is that flute?’ I asked him, afraid to hear the answer.
“‘It’s yours,’ Hawk said, and handed the flute to me. ‘I’m a storyteller,’ I protested, ‘not a flute player.’ ‘Take it,’ he insisted. ‘This is yours for sharing our culture.’”