Music is vital to the history, traditions and storytelling of Native Americans and First Nations people, and plays an important role in many tribal ceremonies, pow wows, celebrations, courtships and healings.
While Indian Country is full of talented Native singers and musicians who have earned well-deserved recognition for their gifts, they couldn’t create their magic without musical instruments.
Indian Country Today Media Network spotlights five natives who have perfected the craft of making drums, flutes, rattles and even guitars. Some do it for a living, and for others, it’s far more than a hobby. As one music-maker said, “Native Americans don’t refer to making instruments as a hobby. It’s a cultural connection.”
1. Rock-Star Guitar Maker
Name: John Longbow, 45
Instrument he makes: Guitars
Tribal affiliation: Choctaw and Chicaksaw
Home: Rio Rancho, New Mexico
John Longbow started making guitars when he was a young boy working on a construction site with his father. “What else is a 10-year-old going to do if he’s trying to get out of doing work with his dad?” he explained.
The first guitar he ever constructed was held together with a lot of glue. “It worked for about an hour, and then it broke,” said the self-taught musician, who also played woodwind and brass instruments all through high school. “I didn’t know nothing!”
But he sure learned a lot about making guitars in the last 35 years. After graduating from the University of Santa Cruz with a major in music and a minor in manufacturing, Longbow attended the Roberto Venn School of Luthiery for guitar building and instrument making.
“I still have the telecaster copy I learned to build there,” he said. “It’s still usable and people play the hell out of it.”
Now the owner of Longbow Guitars, a business he started in 1984 after the metal band he was in split up, the Choctaw/Chickasaw native has become well-known for his beautifully crafted bass, acoustic and electric guitars. To date, Longbow has created more than 900 of these instruments, each one taking about three months to build, from start to finish.
“My specialty is the Cheyenne hollow body, he said, “with a zebrawood top, cherry sides and back. It’s one of the better ones out there.”
While he sells guitars from $1,500 to $3,000 to musicians from all cultures and walks of life, all his endorsers have been Native American.
“My first endorser was Tony Bellamy of Redbone. He got my name out there and became a good friend.” An endorser, said Longbow, is someone who promotes the product and plays it on stage. “He got me recognized by David Allen Coe, who has also endorsed me.”
These days, Longbow is tuned in to his special “Artists Series” of guitars. “I am getting the top native painters to put their paintwork on my guitars,” he said. Painters like Maria Allison, Ryan Singer, Ryan Williams and Bruce King. “I want to push my guitars into a higher-end boutique market,” he explained.
He’s also giving back to the native community in his own special way. At the Planet Indigenous Music Festival in Toronto, Longbow held a seminar to teach people who live on the reservation how to make guitars. It was such a hit with attendees that he continues to offer this program on a number of reservations in the U.S. and reserves in Canada.
Like the individuality expressed in his Artists Series, he teaches novice guitar makers how to customize guitars and make them their own. “There are lots of problems on the rez … if people don’t want to go to school and are still locked up in their problems, the least I can do is distract them for a while and show them how to build a guitar.”
Name: Will Moreau Goins, 52
Instrument he makes: Rattles
Tribal affiliation: Cherokee, Tuscarora and Cheraw
Home: Columbia, South Carolina
Will Moreau Goins has worn many hats in his 52 years. He’s an author, musician, educator, recording artist, activist, community leader, storyteller, beadwork artist, arts administrator—and the Southeastern Woodland native also finds time to make musical instruments, too.
“The first instrument I ever made was a spoon that I whittled out of wood at the age of nine,” said the versatile Goins, who grew up in a musical family and traveled with a bluegrass band for three years until he was 12, playing the recorder, spoons and washboard.
These days, Goins makes drums, flutes and rattles, but he said that rattles are his specialty. “The rattle is a significant instrument for Cherokee people more so than anything. It leads very ancient and important dances for us,” he explained.
To make his rattles, Goins uses gourds and turtle shells for heads, mainly—and recyclable tin cans when he goes into schools as an Artist in Residence. The “noisemakers” he uses inside are stones, seed beads, pebbles, shells and deer hooves. But what makes this artist’s rattles so distinctive are the handles.
“A traditional way to make a rattle is to use a small antler as a handle,” said Goins, who lives in South Carolina, a big hunting state that offers up a treasure trove of rattle-making materials. “Bucks shed their antlers over the winter and it’s not uncommon to find them as you hike around the hills.”
He also makes handles out of animal bones. “Hunters are rarely interested in keeping the legs on their deer and often toss them in the field.” He’ll either leave the hair on it or bleach the bone and sun-dry it.
No two rattles are alike, he said. “They are all very custom-made and handcrafted,” and he sells them anywhere from $25 to $150.
Most important, Goins said, is to know where an instrument, like a rattle, comes from. When you hold it in your hand, you have to feel a connection to it. “As a traditional artist, I like to know what the material is, where it came from, what energy was put into it, when it was made. So I am ensuring this when I make a rattle … I know what energy I put into the making of it so that it can sing.”
3. Making Sure Mother Earth’s Beat Goes On
Name: Alex Maldonado, 54
Instrument he makes: Can make drums of all sizes
Tribal affiliation: Pascua Yaqui
Home: Mesa, Arizona
Alex Maldonado is an award-winning flute and drum maker, and a NAMA-nominated recording artist, who started making drums because his brother, the drum maker in the family, dared him to learn.
“I wanted to add drum music to my next flute recording, and asked my brother to make me a drum. He said, ‘No, I’ll teach you.’ I told him I didn’t want to learn,” the Pascua Yaqui native recalled. “But he finally wore me down and I said, ‘Fine, teach me.’”
Fast-forward 20 years and a few thousand drums later, and drum-making is now one of Maldonado’s specialties, a skill that he is passing on to his 27-year-old son, Nick. Together, they own Two Hawks Art Studio & Gallery in Mesa, Arizona (www.twohawksasg.com), where they make and sell drums, flutes, furniture and metal sculptures.
“One of the most unique pieces that my son and I made is a Native American drum set, just like a rock and roll drum set,” said Maldonado proudly. “Last year, it won First Place at the Santa Fe Indian Market for the ‘Musical Instrument’ category.”
Maldonado can make drums of any size—from hand drums to pow wow drums—because he makes all his own rims, in different widths and depths, using materials, such as cedar or cottonwood, from lumber yards or logs that he has had milled. “The biggest pow wow drum I ever made was 32 inches in diameter by 18 inches tall. I carved buffalos around it, with Indians hunting them.”
The hides he uses are another important consideration, he said. “On a bigger drum, like a pow wow drum, you want a thicker hide because it could easily get ripped with all the guys beating on it.” Maldonado uses hides from cow, deer, elk and buffalo.
He sells many of his drums at Indian markets, and his customers are both native and non-native. They will spend anywhere from $135 for a hand drum, up to over $5,000 for a fancy pow wow drum. And that prize-winning, one-of-a-kind drum set? It’ll set you back a mere $7,000.
For Maldonado, making instruments is all about the artistry. “I believe drum-making is a dying art. When you look at the Indian Market, there are only a handful of real drum makers—and then a lot of other guys who make them from kits,” he lamented.
To that end, Maldonado has taken on a new role. “I’ve been teaching some of the guys around here how to make drums in the hopes that they will teach their kids. I will continue to make them as long as I can. And hopefully, they will keep the tradition going, too.”
4. A Patient Past-time
Name: Charles “Luke” Rogers, 46
Instrument he makes: Water drums
Tribal affiliation: Tuscarora
Home: Lumberton, North Carolina
They say that “necessity is the mother of invention.” So when Luke Rogers’ fellow Tuscarorans were talking about needing some drums for tribal ceremonies, he did what any good friend and craftsman would do: He volunteered to make them.
Since that day more than a year ago, the 46-year-old native has crafted more than 40 small drums, each one measuring about 4 ½ inches tall and 5 inches in circumference.
“My drums are made from real trees and real deer skin. And they all have a different sound—no two are the same,” said Rogers, who sells his water drums for about $100 apiece. “I try to customize them, too. So if someone is part of the turtle clan, for instance, I will carve a turtle in it.”
Making drums is a patient process. Rogers said after he cuts down a cypress tree, he hollows it out and has to let it dry for about nine months. “I have to chop down the whole, healthy tree, but nothing is wasted. I use the limbs to make drumsticks and rattles.” Out of just one cypress tree, Rogers said, he can make about 30-40 drums. For the drum skin, he uses hides from deer caught by his father-in-law, a hunter.
By day, Rogers works as a correctional officer for Scotland Correctional Institution. So for now, drum-making is an enjoyable pastime. But who knows where it may lead?
“Some people from up north came down and saw my drums, and said they were amazed at the quality of my work,” Rogers said, taking a moment to beat a little bit on his own drum.
5. A Noted Flute Maker
Name: Tim Blueflint, 50
Instrument he makes: Flutes
Tribal affiliation: Bad River Chippewa and Comanche
Home: Henderson, Nevada
Tim Blueflint developed an interest in the flute out of a love for his grandmother. “I used to watch my grandfather play his flute and my grandmother would be transformed into another realm,” he recalled. When Blueflint was in his 20s, his grandfather passed away. “I couldn’t let my grandmother go through the rest of her life not hearing that sound again, so I learned how to play.”
But Blueflint did more than just learn how to play the flute. Ten years ago, the former sales executive and RV salesman learned how to make them, too, and is now recognized as one of the most distinguished native flute makers in the country—and has won a number of awards within the Native American arts community.
For the Bad River Chippewa and Comanche native, making flutes is all about “advancing the evolution of the instrument” and preserving tradition. “Old flutes (like the one his grandfather played) produced a sound called a warble. That sound is like a touchstone to my family and culture, and there aren’t many people left who can make warbling flutes. So I decided I was going to learn how to do it.”
At “Shades of Rez,” his studio in Boulder City, Nevada, the 50-year-old artist has crafted more than 2,000 flutes through the years. His specialties include a modern version of old-time warble flutes, contemporary concert flutes and his high-end artisan line—flutes embellished with artistic touches, including one trimmed in gold and embedded with 87 diamonds.
But the real beauty of his instruments is that no two are the same. “Flutes are like people—they’re all individual and have their own voice,” explained Blueflint. “I don’t use any templates, or computerized machinery that produces many of today’s high-end flutes. Everything I make is done by hand, every piece of wood is individually voiced.” And each flute, he said, is perfectly concert-tuned.
It’s this attention to quality, fine details and craftsmanship that resulted in him being featured in a documentary called “How It’s Made” that aired on the Science Channel in 2012. The way Blueflint makes his flutes starts with the perfect piece of wood: “I grew up on the California/Oregon border, so I feel a real connection to a lot of woods from the Pacific Northwest: myrtlewood, redwood, maples and cascara.” He also fashions his flutes using rosewood, ebony and burls found in forests across the globe.
No surprise, the native artisan’s flutes have international appeal. Hobbyists, musicians and art collectors from all over the world order them—from Japan and Canada, to England, Australia and Sweden.
What’s more, a number of elite native musicians are making beautiful music with Blueflint’s flutes, too, including Grammy-Award-winner Mary Youngblood; Shelley Morningsong, who won a Native American Music Award for “Record of the Year;” and Tony Duncan, five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer and leader of the musical group Estun-Bah.
Blueflint’s flute-making journey has been immensely rewarding, he said. “While I am making instruments, I am an instrument, also. When I finish a flute, I am amazed it came from my hands.” The real payoff? “When the new keeper of it picks it up and plays it, and you hear the music they create with it … it’s an amazing blessing.”
With every flute that Blueflint makes, he remembers what his grandfather taught him: “The flute is meant to be an instrument that takes the song we carry in us and puts it out in the material world with our intentions.”
Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer in Northern California, whose piano teacher walked out on her the very first day of lessons. Undeterred, she learned to perfect the playing of one particular musical instrument through the years: the radio.