Flute Ceremony

Flute Ceremony

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hopi)
Date of Observation: Mid-August for nine days
Where Celebrated: Arizona
Symbols and Customs: Flute Altar, Sun Emblem, Tiponi
Related Holidays: Hopi Snake Dance


The Flute Ceremony is part of the Hopi religious belief system. The historical development of this and other religious belief systems among Native Americans is largely unknown. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

Native American cultures date back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The Hopi observe a ceremonial calendar in which the year is divided into two parts. According to tradition, during one half of the year the kachinas (nature, ancestral, and guardian spirits) live in the village and reveal themselves to the people through ceremonial dances. During the other half of the year, the kachinas separate themselves from the village and return to live in their homes in the mountains. The Kachina season begins around the time of WINTER SOLSTICE, as people begin to prepare the ground for planting, and it closes in late July with the bringing in of the first harvest.

Like the HOPI SNAKE DANCE, the Flute Ceremony takes place over a nine-day period in the summer on the mesas of northeastern Arizona, where the Hopi Indians live. Although the Snake Dance attracts bigger crowds, the Flute Ceremony is just as central to the Hopi system of religion. Its purpose is to encourage rainfall and promote the growth of corn, the primary food of the Hopi nation. Unlike other Hopi ceremonies, which are performed in the kiva or underground ceremonial room, this ceremony takes place in the ancestral rooms of the Flute clan. It begins with a procession into the pueblo led by the clan's chief, who is followed by the Flute boy, with a Flute girl on either side. Other members of the procession include men wrapped in white blankets, men carrying cornstalks, a warrior carrying a bullroarer (which makes a whizzing sound when swung in circles overhead), a man wearing a SUN EMBLEM on his back, a man carrying a rectangular "moisture tablet," and a number of small naked boys. The Flute girls each wear a feather in their hair and two white blankets, one of which serves as a skirt. The Flute boys wear white ceremonial kilts.

Once the procession has arrived at the pueblo, additional rites-which include ceremonial prayers for rain and corn, singing, and smoking-are conducted in the ancestral Flute room. Many of the rites involved in the Flute Ceremony are actually pantomimes of what the Hopis want their gods to do. For example, the priest may scatter meal on the ground or around the FLUTE ALTAR to imitate the falling rain. Pouring water into the medicine bowl that sits in front of the altar from the six cardinal directions of the world (north, south, east, west, up, down) shows the gods that he wants them to send rain from six different directions. Blowing clouds of smoke on the altar shows that he wants rain clouds to appear. And the bullroarer imitates the sound of thunder that often accompanies rain.


Flute Altar

A special altar is constructed in the ancestral room for the Flute Ceremony. It includes a flat wooden arch, the upright members of which are carved or painted to represent rain clouds and falling rain. Ears of corn may be stacked up behind the altar. Other elements include rectangular tiles decorated with rain clouds and other symbols, and figurines representing the Flute Youth and the Flute Maid, the legendary ancestors of the Flute clan. These armless effigies are painted with symbolic representations of rain clouds and ears of corn. In front of them are short, thick, upright sticks rounded at the top and pierced with holes from which small wooden rods project like pins from a pincushion. These sticks, which are sometimes replaced by mounds of sand covered with cornmeal, symbolize the ancestral mounds of the underworld, and the wooden objects inserted in them represent flowers. There are also zigzag sticks (symbolic of lightning), cornstalks, and other symbolic objects arranged around the altar.

There is a zone of sand on the floor in front of the altar on which meal has been sprinkled. In the sand are placed roughly carved bird effigies and a medicine bowl from which one of the birds appears to be drinking. Other ceremonial items include rattles, a basket-tray of sacred meal, gourds of water, and a honey pot. Every element of the Flute altar symbolizes some aspect of the agricultural process, particularly the weather needed for corn to grow.

Sun Emblem

A man bearing a large feathered disk impersonates the sun during the procession into the pueblo that precedes the ceremonies in the ancestral rooms of the Flute clan. The central part of the sun emblem is about a foot in diameter and made of buckskin stretched over a hoop, with a border of braided corn husks. Eagle feathers and red-stained horsehair are inserted into the border of the disk to represent the sun's rays. The sun shield is attached to the back of the bearer by a cord tied across his shoulders. He carries a flute, which he plays to entice the Corn maids (Flute maids) into the pueblo, just as the Sun, or father of the gods, is said to have drawn the maids toward him in Hopi legend.


An important part of the Flute Ceremony is the unwrapping of the tiponi, which usually takes place on the sixth day. The tiponi is a wooden cup-shaped object in which an ear of corn has been inserted. The cup itself is divided into quadrants, each of which is decorated with symbols of corn and rain clouds. The corn that is safeguarded in the tiponi-either in the form of loose grains or on the ear-is a symbol of the seed that the early nomadic tribes carried with them during their migrations, when the danger of losing it might have meant starvation.

The tiponi, as well as the corn it holds, is called the "mother." It is unwrapped very carefully by the Flute priest in a ceremony that takes about an hour. After a new ear of corn is placed in the cup, the entire thing is rewrapped in cotton string and feathers and put away until the next year's ceremony. The old grains of corn are planted later.


Fewkes, Jesse Walter. Tusayan Katcinas and Hopi Altars. Albuquerque: Avanyu Pub., 1990.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009