A prayer for Hawk LittleJohn

“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.

Of note

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.’”

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19 thoughts on “A prayer for Hawk LittleJohn

  1. Rachel E. Spector

    Once upon a time I met a man named Hawk LittleJohn. I am trying to find him, but I think this may be the same man. Did this man ever live in Boston? It was around 1978 when I knew him. At that time, I had no idea he was a flutemaker, but he did practice traditional medicine and taught at UNC.

  2. PHYLLIS SETZER

    I WORKED WITH HAWK IN THE EARLY 70′S. I DO NOT EVER KNOW HIM TO LIVE IN BOSTON BUT HE LIVED IN MADISON COUNTY NORTH CAROLINA AND LATER WENT TO CHAPEL HILL AND MET A LADY THERE WHILE HE WAS SPEAKING AT UNC AND MARRIED HER.HE LOOKED LIKE ONE OF THE INDIANS YOU WOOD SEE IN THE MOVIES, VERY HANDSOME.

  3. Beth LittleJohn

    I am Hawks youngest daughter. He did live in Boston in the late 70′s. So it probably is the same man Rachel. He lived there with my mother while she completed her residency at Mass. General.

  4. john barlett

    I am a 50 year old man from muncy pa. I never had a chance to meet hawk, however i am a freind of michael coup once a week we get together to do a sweat at his lodge in eagles meere, pa. Hawk has influenced my life without ever having met him, all of the native american traditions that were imparted to my friend, he is trying to pass along to a band of brothers that will inturn try to pass along to future generations. a prayer goes out once a week to grandfather & uncle Hawk

  5. NICK SCHATZ

    I KNEW HAWK AS A FRIEND AND A MINISTER OF LANDS,HE CAME TO KENTUCKY AND DID A WEDDING FOR ME AND MY SPOUSE AT THE TIME, I HAVE A FLUTE THAT HAWK MAID AND I WOULD LIKE TO SEE IT PUT TO USE OR IN A PLACE FOR PEOPLE TO SEE. HAWK TOLD ME THAT IF YOU PLAY THE FLUTE EVERYDAY YOU WILL BE AT PEACE WITH-IN YOURSELF. I HAVE NEVER FELT WORTHY TO PLAY THE FLUTE HE MAID, BUTT I THINK OF HAWK ALOT AND SOMETIME I TALK TO HIM IF HE WERE STANDING IN FRONT OF ME, GOD BLESS HAWKS FAMILY AND HE WILL BE MISSED BY MANY FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS,, NICK

  6. Joseph Naytowhow

    I am a Cree Canadian from Saskatchewan and I was fortunate to be gifted in the Cherokee tradition with a wood song Hawk Littlejohn flute in 1998-9. I travel with this flute in all directions of our Mother Earth. Some places I have played are London, England, Yukon Territories, Alberta, B.C, Kansas and Ontario. Thank-you Hawk and Geri. Hawk’s Spirit and Passion for Wind Spirituals can still be heard in the sunrise breath and throughout the walking of Moon and Sun spirit.

  7. Greg Sprole

    I have a flute made by, and this is hand written on the back of a Woodsong/Hawk Littlejohn business card, Red Wolf Littlejohn. I assume kinship. I cannot find anything on him, but the flute is, well, magical.

  8. Beth Littlejohn

    Greg,
    Redwolf Littlejohn is my brother and Hawk’s son. Sometimes we would make flutes with dad as we were teenagers growing up. My brother has alwayss been a talented wood worker like my dad. I’m glad that you enjoy your flute and I hope that it gives you peace and magic as you play. I will let him know you like it.

  9. rick aiken

    My Mom and Dad were very good friends with Hawk and Judy. My Mom worked for Judy Littlejohn at Murphy Medical center. I am trying to locate Judy in NC.
    My wife has a medical condition and No ONE in Louisville, Ky can find what is wrong. Really need her help and possibly bring my wife to NC for treatment.
    any help will be appreciated,
    R. Aiken

  10. Beth

    Mr. Aiken,
    I saw your post and i can definitely get you in touch with my mom how can she contact you? She is going out of town today but will be back tomorrow. Just let me know and we should be able to get you all in touch! Best wishes
    Beth

  11. rick aiken

    thank you so much. We have Dr. Judy’s phone number in rolidex, but it is in North Carolina. Our email address is ccookin@aol.com Thanks again and will be in touch.

    Rick Aiken

  12. clive beattie

    in 1994, i read the celestine phophecy by james redfeild. it came as confirmation to all i had attained, spiritually. in a meditation, i was told to “go to north caralina and buy a flute”.kinda strange, but ok, per the book, all i have to do is be open and read the signs. so off i go, stopped in GA to visit brother, on my way north i saw a wood shop ( a sign? ), so i stopped purchased an applewood vase and asked if he knew a flute maker? no, but i know an old fella that does, he gave me his phone number.after deciding that little switzerland would be “too chalenging for a flatlander to build a house in, with a pile of quaters, i called from a pay phone. the old fella was tending his garden in the lower 40, but the sweet lady told me that hawk had recently divorced and had moved to fort something.there are no fort anythings in nc ( unlike florida!), so after an hour of fine combing the map, off to old fort we go.it is a “t” junction town. i looked in the native american store window, a stuffed bear, several artifacts ( a sign?), but it was closed. looking around, i was a music hall ( sign?), the EMT guys inside laughed me out the door, when i wanted to check the phone book for HAWK LITTLE JOHN, couldn’t possible be his real name! so i am lost, begin to leave town, when i veiw a store (sign?) “john’s”, as i’m pulling in, my wife tells me i’m a fool, he wouldn’t make flutes and own a store.she was right, but i see a guy with a radio on his side and ask him if he knows a flute maker, “you mean hawk little john?” we spent two hours with hawk and i assume geri. hawk was not thrilled about, what buffy described “as civization moving in”, siting the kona crowd as a problem.fortunately, i had never heard of kona coffee at the time.my wife jorie and i got the tour,we fed the trout in the pond, saw where the sweat lodge was to be erected, enjoyed the shop, methods, materials etc.hawk laid out, perhaps ten flutes, played each one. i selected one that was constructed from lighting struck poplar.not knowing that hawk was famous, untill recently. the flute has been one one my few “important” material goods.as IVAN came to destroy all we owned, i took my flute and my 1946 churchill books in a sack, and was happy to discover, though i have “nice stuff” around me, it holds no import at all.i an honored to have spent time with hawk, particulary that he showed my wife and i, both love and trust. two hours, with the right intent, can influence a life. i llove my flute and consider where or with whom it actually belongs.

  13. David Lowe

    my wife and I attended an Elderhostel at Unicoi State Park in Ga in Jan 1989. There were two themes – Wood Carving and Cherokee culture. I chose carving, my wife choose Cherokee. At the noon break, the buzz was all about the Cherokee lecturer. The Cherokee classroom in the afternoon was crowded with woodcarvers joining in. Every session presented by Hawk Little John had standees in every available spot. Wood carvers had to carve before and after class. Not only was Hawk’s personal story enthralling, and inspirational, but his love for his people impregnated every word we heard. We did not learn of his flute excellence in his lectures. Of 50 rhostels we have attended, we rate this one the very best.

  14. Traveling back from Roanoke in 2007, I thought I might stop and check in on the only medicine man I have ever known. It was then I found that Hawk Littlejohn has died.

    Hawk led an intense evening for me in his sweatlodge set beside a bubbling stream on the hillside below his house in the N. GA. mountains on cold fall night in 1984. I came with a friend to help bring in his corn harvest just before he and Judy were to move to NC. It happened that also a small group of men were visiting to capture the oral songs Hawk knew. They were traveling around the US, seeking to gather the old songs before they disappeared. I would love to find them and listen again to the songs. While the harvest was going on a fire had been burning all day, heating the stones which we moved into the center depression of the domed sweat lodge. A large spider, an inch across, crawled across my shoulders. I stood still and it moved off onto a branch. I was not afraid, it just seemed right. One of the visitors said it was a powerful sign. All men, we climbed in and started with the normal process of addressing those issues each wanted to bring into this supportive environment. The heat was intense and then the gourd with cool water would pass. It was almost unbearable until we began to sing and then, the heat seemed to disappear. We sang and prayed and sang inside the lodge, songs I had never heard and may never hear again. Before the heat became too much we would crawl out time and again to gather our strength, cool off and then return to the sweat. It seemed that the leaves were covered in snow the last time as I was too weak to stand and only crawl on a few paces from the lodge and collapsed. A few minutes passed and when his voice guided me up and over to the round pool of water fed by the stream. I plunged into a round deep catch in the stream. My head came out of the water, my feet standing in the chest high pool feeling more energy than I thought existed in me. Later, up the hill at his house, the songs continued; the warmth, friendship, great food and incredible sleep, I will never forget that time. It was during that day Hawk touched something in me and led me to do the work I do as Eprida, bringing humankind into harmony with life. The honor given me has its roots in Hawk.

    I remember after the harvest before the sweat, he and I were walking alone through the forest. The afternoon sun, spotlighting rich areas of life under forest canopy, he told me of his work with the forest service to protect the Cherokee sacred places during their clear cutting. He said, with a twinkle in his eye, “They asked me to point out the sacred places on the maps so they would would not cut near them, but I said I could not, as they were too sacred. Instead I would go to the proposed sites and walk the ground, looking for natural migration paths animals would use to get away from the saws. By modifying the plans slightly by removing streams, and other barriers, would allow the site to be cut and recover without long term damage.” His sincerity and care for the earth was deep and passionate. Even in that one weekend, he impacted my own future. His energy still flows in the flutes, songs and lives of the people he touched and healed. With all my love to Hawk, friends and family. Danny Day

  15. Bob Jackson

    Beth I can still hear your father talking to me in his soft spoken and powerful manner. The gift your father gave me is always in my heart. When I play one of his flutes it brings back wonderful memories of sitting out on the front porch with him in Old Fort, telling tall tales and laughing a lot.I’m glad I had the opportunity to film him for Songkeepers, so other people could see what an exceptional human being he was. He was my instant best friend, and shall always be so.

  16. arifa

    Hello Beth,
    Is your mom still making flutes? I’ve searched for a website for Little John flutes to no avail. Thanks, Arifa

  17. Fred M. Culiner

    I never met the Littlejohns but bought several flutes by telephone back in 1998. Geri would set the phone down and play what she felt I was looking for in a flute. She was always right on and I only regret not driving down to meet the Littlejohn family. It brings tears to my eyes every time that I remember receiving a flute and being thrilled by holding it and playing those first notes. Such soulful melodies have come from my flutes that were created by Hawk and Geri and I can feel their soulful goodness in these magical instruments. I have unsuccessfully tried to contact Geri to see how to get a repair on one lightning struck poplar flute that my grandson, in an evil moment, damaged. This was my very first flute that I got from Geri after hearing her play it. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Sincerely, Fred

  18. Jerry Rogers

    I met Hawk through the “Songkeepers”. I bought a flute at a craft festival after hearing it and started to explore the native american flute.

    When I watched Sondkeepers for the first time, Hawk stood out above all others in the video. He was genuine, soft spoken yet strong, and I was awe struck. I could feel the pride in his heritage and felt connected to him after hearing his words.

    It was only after attempting to google him that I learned of his passing. I am glad that I met him through Sondkeepers and regret not having ever met in person.

  19. Steven Johnson

    I met a fellow who worked construction. His name was Hawk Littlejohn however his wife was named Rose. Is this the same Hawk Littlejohn? At the time they lived in Tennessee. Ciirca early 1970′s.

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