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World Music Features

Mary Youngblood

By Sule Greg Wilson
Published September 9, 2005

Mary Youngblood's instrument, the Native American flute, traditionally thought of as a man's purview, is being changed, as she and other women make it their own.

Native American

When I asked Native American flutist Mary Youngblood if her growing-up  years in Tucson, Arizona, had affected her music, I was—unknowingly—invoking her own time of change and coming to personal power. Talking to me from her Orangedale, California home, she chuckled "Oh, my God, yeah" into the telephone, then grew silent for a moment. "I was a very brown girl, and those were some real painful years, 'cause I really got picked on, because of my color.  The little place that I lived in happened to be primarily white, and it was a culture shock to me, because I'd been raised with this white family, but I didn't see any color. . .That became the pivoting point to finding out who I was.  I was brown!  Why was I brown?  What made me brown?"

Since those fourth- and fifth-grade experiences, the Seminole-Aleut woman has gone on to a profession of her own: a musician, a female known for playing what, up to then, had been pretty much a male-only instrument: the Native American flute. Yes, she took some flak early on, but Mary Youngblood has been the recipient of numerous accolades, including a 2000 "Indie" award for Best Native American Recording, Nammies for Best Flutist and Best Female Artist, and more.  Youngblood is grateful, understanding that notoriety is a two-edged sword, ("Awards can be coyotes and ravens", she explains).  So, for the past eight years Mary Youngblood has sat on the board of the Sacramento Urban Indian Health Project, Inc. ("My tenure on the board has been priceless—a great vehicle to be able to give back, and do something for my community that's out of the limelight"), and continues to lobby in the halls of Congress on Native American health-care issues.

Mary Youngblood knows the world is changing every day, that people's actions change everything around them.  Her instrument, the Native American flute, traditionally thought of as a man's purview, is being changed, as she and other women make it their own. The Native flute, a pentatonic, end-blown, wooden, handmade instrument is also changing as it moves from one world to another. The Plains flute was a courting flute, and women were not encouraged to play [it].  There are 550 Nations, and when people would go into a Cherokee village, they would be greeted by a hundred flute players: men, women, and children.  So it really depends on your tribe.  You can't really break it up into categories like that.  I play a variety of flutes, most of them not traditional Native flutes.   Does that answer that question?"

"Because more musicians are playing this instrument, the way the tuning is going is more of a ki