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How to make a Southeastern indigenous flute from river cane

How to make a Southeastern indigenous flute from river cane

The Creek flute was identical to the quena of South America and different from the Western Plains flute, which has a separate reed.

One of the biggest surprises during the past 15 years of my research into the Southeast’s past, was the rich musical tradition of the Southeastern indigenous peoples at the time of initial contact with French, Spanish and English explorers.  The chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition stated that the orchestra, which accompanied the leader of Kvse (Kusa~Coosa) played at least 32 different wind and percussion instruments.   The Great American Disease Holocaust, the Native American slave trade,  deerskin wars and ultimately. the Trail of Tears wiped out those rich traditions.  However, even as late as the mid-1700s,  William Bartram described the Creeks and Cherokees as being very talented musicians, who played several instruments that were not familiar to Europeans.

What really surprised me, when I dug deeper on this subject, was the eclectic nature of Southeastern indigenous music.  The percussion instruments were very similar to those of southern Mexico, while the wind instruments were the same as those played in the Andes.  The ancestors of the Chickasaws and Creeks made far more use of copper in creating musical instruments than either Mesoamerica or the Andes.  Archaeologists have found 2000 year old copper pan pipes, tinkle-bells and cymbals in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia mounds. Nevertheless,  most of the wind instruments in both the Creek Homeland and Peru were constructed from river cane.   Yes, river cane . . .  those dense bands of tall stalks with feathery leaves that can be found on the edge of almost every Native American community site in the Piedmont, Cumberland Plateau and Highlands.

River cane on the banks of Talking Rock Creek (GA) near a Kusa village, visited by De Soto’s men.

River cane is vastly superior to bamboo for make musical instruments, smoking pipes or furniture.  It is actually a domesticated plant, developed from a indigenous Southeastern grass that has leaves like a river cane.  The Creeks grew three varieties. One for arrows, one for pipes, flutes and atlatls, and a giant variety for making furniture. The walls of the river cane are thicker and have denser fibers than bamboo.  This makes the wood stronger, but also causes a richer resonance when used as a musical instrument.

zampoña (Kausebo), ampara (Quechua) or siku (Aymera)

When it dries, the river cane is rock hard and does not splinter like bamboo. Take heed from my years of making ceremonial pipes from mountain river cane.  Ignore videos that show the artisan working dry  river cane.  These people don’t really understand the plant’s properties.  Make your musical instrument from the river cane IMMEDIATELY after harvesting it.  Reaming out the walls that divide the stalk of the river cane is very east when it is green. Wait a few days and the task becomes very tedious.    Carving out the “acoustical slit” or finger holes is also very easy when the stalk is green.  Cuts and drill holes made with the stalk is green become very smooth when the river cane is fully cured.  They will be much rougher, if you wait until the wooden hardens.

So . . . we known from firsthand observations in the 1500s that the ancestors of the Creeks made both flutes (quena) and panpipes (zampoña) from river cane.  As you will hear below, the two instruments sound beautiful, when played together.  However,  our ancestors also played a wide variety of percussion instruments, plus wind instruments, which varied in pitch from a piccolo to a bassoon. 

The drums played a syncopated beat like music of Tabasco State, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Basin.  Creek ancestral music must have sounded something like playing “El Condor Pasa” to a ragtime beat.  LOL   This is an entirely different form of music than what one hears at Southeastern pow wow’s these days.   I know for a fact that Creek dances originally had very similar syncopated beats to Mesoamerican dances.  The current Stomp Dance is a slowed down version of syncopation.  I strongly suspect that the Cherokees in the 1700s performed dances that were similar in character.  Nowadays, both tribes dance to a boom-boom-boom beat similar to Western Plains dances.  Who knows?  Maybe the Western Plains Indians also originally danced to a different beat.

The first video is an excellent example of the zampoña and quena performing together.  The second video features super-sized versions of these instruments in a beautiful indigenous version of Scottish music, features in the movie, The Last of the Mohicans.  The final video contains instructions on how you can make a beautiful musical instrument from the river cane growing in your neighborhood.




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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Thank you Richard for this musical post. I think the film “the Last of the Mochicans” the first one many years ago, was that which stirred my interest in Native Americans. I was interested in the difference between the wood as opposed to the bamboo. I think we only have bamboo here in Crete which is a pity because I would like to have a go at making one of the instruments. I shall go and view the video and enjoy the dances. Enjoy your weekend.

    • Many of the most dramatic scenes in the movie, Last of the Mohicans, were filmed on the upper pasture of my former farm in the North Carolina Mountains. The opening “chase of the deer” scene was just above my house. The “pioneer village” was constructed there. The massacre scene of the survivors of Fort William Henry was there. The burned pioneer cabin was a real historic cabin, which was on the farm immediately east of ours. It was weird to know every tree in several scenes of the movie.


        Was that in the original film which I mentioned ? if so can you remember the year. I know I was only a young girl then. I can’t say I enjoyed the remake of this film as much as the original even though it was black and white.

        • It was the color version from 1992, which was filmed around Asheville,NC. Many of the scenes in this trailer were filmed in the woods and pastures above our farmhouse.


            Thanks for the date Richard.


    Richard, is there any chance that you might develop an itsy shop or website or something similar to sell your hand-made instruments?

    • Hey Duann, I am doing nothing except getting moved in and rehabbing this house. I should have all the rotten wood replaced and leaks stopped by early fall. Maybe we can have a river cane workshop during the Early or mid-Fall, when the weather is usually very pleasant. The river cane is endemic in this valley because there are so many old village sites. I am certain that I can find a property owner willing to let us harvest some.


    I’ve been interested in Native Music, especially finding recordings of those who are maintaining these traditions. One mystery is what North American panpipes were used for, they are found in many of the burial sites(which had to be disturbed unfortunately). However, there are records of Shawnee playing panpipes. The artifacts are kind of peculiar in that they are three or four pipes, as opposed to the Inca flutes.

    What prompted me to make this post is that I found a video of the Kuna from Panama, playing panpipes they looked like the South American panpipes at first, but then I noticed they played them in pairs with each one having three or four pipes.

    I wonder if there is any evidence of the Shawnee or ancesters playing them in this manner? I suspect the North American pan pipe music was truly like the Inca music:

    • I can’t speak for the Shawnee, but the Swift Creek Cultural phase of the Creek’s ancestry involved immigrants from eastern Peru. Copper pan pipes start showing up in Proto-Creek town sites around 0 AD. However, by the time of the De Soto Expedition, a Kusa-Creek orchestra was described as playing at least 32 different percussion and wind instruments – including the large Zampanas, typical of eastern Peru (pan pipes with 20-40 tubes). The Spanish said that the orchestra had wind instruments that were similar to a full range – from piccalo’s to bassoons . . . and they play real music.


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