Muskogee Creek Flute Maker Nelson Harjo keeps alive tribal traditions so musical heritage isn't lost

OKMULGEE, Okla. - Passing along traditions to future generations, that is how one grandfather is Making a Difference in the life of his grandson.

Nelson Harjo is also Making a Difference by preserving the culture of the Muskogee Creek Nation.

Nelson is a member of the Creek tribe. He's also a flute maker. Recently he sat on the grounds of the original Council House in Okmulgee to show his grandson, Jaice, how to make a traditional Native American flute.

Nelson has been making flutes for 20 years. His passion for making flutes started when he was a pastor and made his first one at a church camp. It took him two weeks to make that flute.

His older brother liked it so much, Nelson gave it to him. Now three thousand or more flutes later, he can make a simple bamboo flute in about an hour.

His handcrafted work can sell for as much as $400 depending on the wood he uses and how intricate he gets with inlaid work and animal carvings. But money is not what motivates Nelson to make them.

"When I came into being as a flute maker it was because I love music so much and I though it would be real neat to make my own instrument," Nelson said. He added that his other motivation has to do with continuing the tradition of the Creek Tribe.

"All of these artistic and cultural things are just a piece of what makes up our lives as Creek people and if we are to continue as a people we need to take as much as we can forward."  

Keeping the cultural and tribal heritage of the flute alive is not going to be easy.

Nelson is one of only three flute makers left in the Creek Tribe. However, there soon may be a fourth. His grandson Jaice. He came to Nelson to learn the craft because he was always interested in what his grandfather was doing in his workshop. He said Jaice has a natural ability to play the flute as well.  It's something they enjoy doing together, and it's another cultural tradition Nelson is passing down.

Nelson tunes most of his flutes by ear. Because they are made of wood, river cane or bamboo that comes from the earth itself, each one can have a distinctive sound.

"I always tell people remember that flute has seen a lot and heard a lot so when you play it, it has a particular song that it will play and that will be it's best song." 

For Nelson, the flute is as much a spiritual instrument as it is a musical instrument.

"That's why most people like the flute music, because there's that connection to that spiritualness that's in all of us."

Nelson is passing that spiritual connection of the flute down to his grandson, his family and the future members of the Muskogee Creek Nation.

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