While they have migrated throughout North America for thousands of years, the Hopi people have predominantly resided in northeastern Arizona since around 500 B.C. Despite numerous attempts at suppression over the years, from various outsiders, the Hopi are known today as one of most long-standing Native American tribes in the United States. While many aspects of their culture survived these changing times, others have fallen between the cracks and become lost to time. One item that found itself on the brink of extinction was the Hopi long flute, also known by the Hopi people as leena.
That was until 1931, when archaeologist Earl Halstead Morris led an excavation that unearthed six original Hopi flutes from a cave in the Prayer Rock Valley, Arizona.
Native American flutes were often built using materials such as elderberry, pine, boxwood and cedar; these flutes were made from box elder wood and decorated with colorful bird feathers. Native Americans have been playing many different flutes for hundreds of years, so the find seemed interesting at first but not necessarily earth-shaking. However, when the archaeological records assigned the flutes, and associated artifacts, to the Basketmaker III Era, it was revealed that they were last played between AD 620 and 670, and that these instruments pre-dated most other wooden flutes by over 1,000 years. They still weren’t the oldest flutes ever found, but they did provide an important link between the oldest bone whistles and modern cedar flutes that many refer to as a ‘Native American flute.’
In 1957, these treasured Hopi long flutes were moved to the Arizona State Museum, in Tucson, where they still reside today. It was here, 38 years later, that a flute maker came to visit them with the intention of creating playable replicas for other flute aficionados. Eventually, one of these replica flutes ended up in the hands of the contemporary flutist Gary Stroutsos.
Gary had spent decades exploring Native American flute traditions, playing with local masters in breath-taking locations such as Canyon de Chelly, the Bitterroot Valley, and a Mandan Earth Lodge. Yet, upon hearing the captivating and haunting tones of the leena for the first time, he was no longer content to just play the flute. Intrigued by its history, Gary wanted to learn the stories, the songs, and the context in which the flute was used 1,400 years ago.
Gary decided the best way to discover the history of the Hopi long flute was with the help of Matthew Nelson – an ethnomusicologist, southwestern archaeologist and a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. Having spent some time on the Hopi Nation over the years, and knowing some community members from Second and Third Mesas, Matthew felt the best person to introduce Gary to would be another musician. So, Matthew and Gary drove across the Colorado Plateau to meet a renowned Hopi musician and now Vice Chairman of the Hopi Nation – Clark Tenakhongva.
They met Clark at his place of work, where Gary gave him a personal performance on his replica flute. As Gary filled the room with the earthy, intense tones, Clark was awestruck and asked where he’d got the flutes from.
After Gary explained the replica’s story, Clark replied, “They’re definitely Hopi… We used to have flutes like that – long flutes – but they haven’t been played here for a very long time.” Clark later consulted with members of the Hopi Flute Clan about the leena, and confirmed that they did indeed used to play that kind of instrument. According to them, the long flute was very important and was used to call upon the cloud spirits to bring rain. That night Gary had a dream that he was playing the flute in an old village high on a mesa. As he played the clouds raced toward the mesa from all directions, bringing gentle rain.
This dream was the start of an enchanting musical journey that took Gary, Matthew and Clark to Walpi – a Hopi village on First Mesa that has been continuously inhabited for over 1,100 years. Inside an ancient adobe home, with views so vast you can almost see the curvature of the Earth, they gathered as Gary created a tapestry of ancient sounds. It turned out this was the first time the Hopi long flute had been heard in Walpi in over 500 years. As Gary played, Clark revealed that he too had recently had a dream. He said, “In the dream I am standing on the Hopi Mesas and clouds are gathering from all directions. When I wake up, I try to sing the song I hear in the dream, but I can’t sing exactly what I hear. I know now that it’s because the sound I hear in the dream isn’t my voice, it’s your flute. That’s the sound I’ve been hearing.”
Just a few weeks later Clark invited Gary to perform with him inside the Desert View Watchtower as part of the Grand Canyon Music Festival. Together, they brought the oldest Hopi sounds to a structure whose architecture is inspired by Ancestral Puebloan ruins and whose interior is intricately decorated with traditional Hopi symbols. As they played, clouds gathered, lightning flashed across the sky, and raindrops fell on the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Wanting to create an album dedicated to Hopi culture and honouring the cultural significance of Grand Canyon as the Hopi place of emergence, they gathered again at the Watchtower to record Clark’s songs with accompaniment from rim flute and clay drums. Without any rehearsal, Gary and Matthew followed Clark’s powerful vocals, guided by the spirit of the place. In just a few hours they created Öngtupqa, released on the ARC Music label in 2019. Nine songs were recorded, all of them on the first-take, with no studio enhancements necessary since the Watchtower’s acoustically superior walls provided the perfect amount of reverberation. Shortly before recording Öngtupqa, Gary visited the Dawa Cliffs – an incredible petroglyph panel on the Hopi Nation. Walking around in appreciation of the thousands of years of history preserved in the sandstone, Gary was captivated by the glyphs on the walls – individual flute players, groups of flute players, seated and standing flute players. What Gary found most striking about these images was the length of the flutes. Unlike the Hopi flutes heard on the mesas today, these stories preserved in stone depicted much longer instruments… just like the replicas he had been playing.
With these drawings still etched in Gary’s memory, he realized that although Öngtupqa honoured an authentic representation of Hopi culture, more could still be done to revive their use within the Hopi culture today. This inspired Songs for Leena, a new exploration, leading on from Öngtupqa, that delves into the plaintive ranges of the Hopi long flute via solo improvisations alone. Like Öngtupqa, these tracks are still inspired by the landscapes and the natural rhythms of the American Southwest and the people who have lived there since time immemorial. They are also one-take studio recordings, played within the moment, with no overdubs or added instrumentation.
Gary explains, “I am proud to represent the sound of the Hopi long flute in a solo natural setting, without the aid of Western musical instruments or using Western music themes for compositions. For my inspiration I like to follow cloud patterns. I am bringing back a lost sound from my abilities and perspective. Unlike Öngtupqa, I am not trying to play traditional Hopi music on this album. I’m a contemporary flute artist at heart and that is what Hopis like about me – I’m not trying to be one of them, I’m just honouring who they are. I simply use my skills as a jazz flute improviser on the leena as a contribution to Hopi. “I believe that as a musician, one must play up to the music – always looking for new sounds to explore – to challenge yourself – to remain at a high artistic level. This, and honouring the Hopi’s sacred leena, is what this album is about.”
Due to Gary’s continuing dedication to the leena, via Öngtupqa and Songs for Leena, plus of course his long-time friendships with cultural practitioners of the tribe, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office have recently invited Gary to join their ‘Hopi Long Flute Preservation Project.’ This was an offer never extended to a non-native before – a true honour. The project’s mission is simple – to keep the sounds of the original leena flowing across the landscape, and to inspire future generations of Hopi musicians to continue this important cultural tradition.
The focus on the leena itself is even more important today, as interestingly most Native American flutes that echo through gift shops and resort lobbies are actually adaptations of the Lakota courting love flute, with a minor pentatonic scale borrowed from the Japanese shakuhachi tradition. They are far from an accurate representation of authentic flute music of American Indians. Gary and the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office hope to reintroduce the leena by creating study guides and videos so that Hopi individuals selected for the project can learn how to play in the comfort of their own homes. This project brings new hope for the leena and the future generations of Hopi people.
A portion of the proceeds from this album is being donated to The Hopi Long Flute Preservation Project.
Photo Credits: (1) "Songs for Leena - Improvisations on the Hopi Long Flute", (2) Gary Stroutsos, (3) Clark Tenakhongva (unknown/website).