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date: 26 May 2020


  • Mary Riemer-Weller


Large wooden courting flute of the Sioux Indians of the northern Plains area of the USA. The name is derived from sĭyo (‘prairie chicken’) and tanka (‘great’ or ‘large’). This flute typifies a wide variety of such instruments used by native peoples throughout the USA and Canada, including among others the Iroquois ká’keeta’, Ojibwa bibigwan, Omaha niçude tunga, Cheyenne kahamaxé tahpeno, Flathead chłkhwa (cłxwa), Apache sul, Navajo dilnih, O’odham wa:p kuikuḍ, Yuman wĭlwĭl’tĕlhuku’p, Creek fīpa, and Yuchi lhokan’. Although occasional reference is made to the use of the flute in ceremonies and as a warning or war signal, it was usually played by young men for serenading and courting women, and for self entertainment.

It is normally made of wood or cane, with an external duct. No two instruments are identical. Plains flutes are commonly made of red cedar, although other straight-grained woods such as box-elder, ash, sumac, elderberry, redwood, osage orange, and fir are also used in the Plains–Plateau area; cane flutes are made in the southwest. Flutes have also been made from gun barrels and nickel tubing. The instruments are generally about 3 to 5 cm in diameter and 45 to 65 cm long (28 cm among the Northern Ute) A typical Plains flute is made from a straight section of wood split lengthwise and hollowed to form a cylindrical bore. A block is left inside, creating a partition between the upper and lower chambers. The upper chamber is proportionally shorter (1:4) than the lower. On the front surface a small hole is cut in each chamber, just above and below the partition. The surface around the holes is made flat and smooth and a thin wooden or lead plate is laid over it. A rectangular hole in the plate is cut exactly over the two holes in the cylinder. A wooden block or saddle, flat on the underside and carved on top according to the maker’s tradition, is tied over the plate. Air blown into the end of the upper chamber flattens into a thin stream as it passes out of the upper hole and between the partition and the plate. Entering the lower chamber, the airstream impinges on the sharp edge or lip of the plate and divides. Most of the air enters the body of the flute, while the surplus escapes from underneath the block, which has been positioned to leave the second hole partially uncovered....

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