Editor’s note: Ashley Balasko is the writer’s roommate. This story also appeared in Vol. 9, Issue 2 of Backdrop magazine.
Photos provided by Joseph Whitefeather
A cool autumn breeze rustles the tops of the trees and nudges the current of Lake Snowden, producing a gentle hush on the mountainside of Albany, Ohio. It’s Sept. 11, the first day of the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival and the atmosphere is serene. Artists are scattered among a sea of green, prepared to show off their craftsmanship to people from all over Southeastern Ohio. But one vendor comes to events such as these with an entirely different incentive.
Joseph Whitefeather stands proudly with his vast collection of intricate, handcrafted wooden flutes and plays a tune for those who pass by. He plays not to persuade, but rather to heal, because the sweet sound of the flute healed him and ultimately saved his life.
“I was actually in a depression. My mother and grandmother raised me and when they crossed over, it sent me into a spiraling depression, something like I never even knew existed,” Whitefeather says.
Ten years ago, he was introduced to those Native American– inspired flutes after a friend urged him to reconnect with happiness. Whitefeather had quit his salary-paying job at an engineering company because getting up and leaving the house became too laborious. Between grasping a hold of extra vacation time and taking days off too frequently, Whitefeather lost all motivation and confidence. To him, life looked bleak and unworthy of pursuing anything great without the two women who mentored him.
“I went home and I locked the doors; I locked myself in the house. This lasted for five years,” Whitefeather says. “I knew I was in trouble, I just didn’t know how to come out of it.”
The only friend who came to visit him during that ominous time was Tatanka, which means buffalo in Cherokee, who set Whitefeather free from his prolonged depressive state. As a third-generation rocking chair maker, Tatanka grew up mastering the art of woodworking. So when Tatanka constructed his very own version of the Native American flute, Whitefeather knew he was going to witness something beautiful. What he didn’t know was how powerful of an impact it would have on his own life. Once Tatanka pursed his lips and let his fingers fly across the keyholes, Whitefeather was left speechless.
“I was humbled,” Whitefeather says. “He let me hold it. First thing I did was sit up in my chair, and I could feel the energy coming into me. ‘This is my salvation,’ I thought. ‘This is what is going to bring me out of this.’ ”
The very next day, Whitefeather stepped foot outside for the first time in five years. He jumped in his truck, drove the 10 miles to Tatanka’s house and enthusiastically asked Tatanka to show him how to make his own. Moved and inspired, Whitefeather left restored with empowerment.
“I knew the change was coming; I could feel it,” Whitefeather says.
For three months, he sat in front of a computer screen at the library, conducting research on the flute and watching countless tutorials until he felt comfortable making his own. He brought his first creation to Tatanka, distressed because it was not working properly. Tatanka peeped through the mouthpiece and said, “You can see right through it!”
Whitefeather was missing an essential block that needed to be inserted in the heart of the flute. Additionally, the keyholes were carved a bit too large. Improvement was needed, but instead of letting the setback discourage him, his desire to construct a functioning flute strengthened. After five more months of diligently learning this tedious process, he mastered it. He actually began tuning Tatanka’s own flutes. To Whitefeather’s own astonishment, he successfully surpassed Tatanka’s skills in less than one year. The driving force was Whitefeather’s desire to heal people the same way the flute healed him.
“I didn’t just want to make flutes, I wanted to spread this [happiness]. I always say by healing one, you are healing two, because you are healing yourself just as well,” Whitefeather says.
Still in utter disbelief of the impact this instrument had on his own mentality, Whitefeather felt an impulse to share the instrument’s healing powers with those who also felt like their lives were slipping out of their reach. One of these people happened to be his father. After spending years in a nursing home, his father’s age caught up with him and he was transferred to a hospice where Whitefeather went every other day for the last two weeks of his father’s life. He played the melodic notes to him until he passed.
“I used to go to hospice to play to my dad. I called him the Last Eagle,” Whitefeather says.
He wrote a song for his father and dedicated it to his departure from the physical world. He titled it “The Cry of the Last Eagle.” As he played in the hospice, the soft meditative tune circulated throughout the confines of the building and shortly after his first visit, all of the elders were wheeled into the same room to enjoy the sweet sound up close.
The person who was most notably influenced by the flute was a 90-year-old man who hung his head low and struggled to move a muscle. Whitefeather wanted him to actually feel the vibrations from the music, so he propped his base flute on the top of the man’s frail shoulder and played “Amazing Grace.” The result was astounding — the man shakily began to wag his index finger up and down.
“I was in his heart where I needed to be,” Whitefeather says. “That’s the message the Native American flute delivers. It delivers a calm, healing sound that doesn’t lead your mind by words. It doesn’t tell your mind where to go; rather, it lets you drift off to where you need to be.”
As a member of the Lakota tribe, Whitefeather honors his culture and accredits certain aspects of it to the creation of the flute. Before he can even begin cracking the wood, he must burn sage in his workshop because doing so asks the bad spirits floating around to leave. He then proceeds to light sweet grass in order to invite the good spirits back in. The most important part of this ritual, however, is making a conscious effort to create a positive environment. Negativity is forbidden during this process because of its destructive nature; the flute will simply not produce a sincere, harmonious sound without the presence of positive thoughts. To ensure the flute will be assembled properly, Whitefeather relies on someone greater than himself to guide him through the motions of that careful process.
“We ask the Creator to come in and guide us. We work under that pretense, and we give credit to the Creator,” Whitefeather says. It takes anywhere from 16–18 hours to piece together and polish just one flute, and if at any time something does not feel right, the process must come to a halt. Whitefeather says he may resume once confidence and positivity have been restored in the heart. Because the flutes take so long to make, the long hours give him time to truly think about what’s going into the flute in regard to energy and thought. “It’s a process, you just cannot rush it,” Whitefeather says.
“You learn from your ancestors, and then you pass it down to your children. After 10 years of flute making, there is still opportunity to learn.”
Whitefeather created his business with the intention of passing the flute-making legacy down to the next generation, which is why he named the flutes after his eldest grandson, Dancing Bird. His real name is Dylan Joseph, but Whitefeather calls all of his grandsons by their Native American names. The 17 year old is currently studying at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, but Whitefeather is training him to one day take his place in the business. However, there is another person who is an integral part of Dancing Bird Flutes: Sage Mato, Whitefeather’s wife of almost 40 years.
“She is my driving horse; she puts the spirit into the flute,” Whitefeather says. According to Tatanka, it’s Mato’s contribution that separates their flutes from any other traditional Native American ones. Mato gives the flute life through her art and burnings. She not only executes all of the sanding, polishing and retouching of the flutes, but she also inscribes authentic illustrations that wrap along the sides. She does not trace a single sketch; rather, she depicts scenes from her memory as a child, immersed in the mountainous terrains of California.
“I am from the mountains in the Sierra. A lot of the places [where I was raised] are still in my head,” Mato says.
Beautiful landscapes are engraved onto the sides of the flute, most of them portray a body of sparkling water in the midst of a deep green valley with teepees scattered across the region. When Mato receives the flute it is raw wood, so all of her tasks require eight to 10 hours to complete. Her job is quite thorough; she burns the wood, carves the drawings, colors them in with acrylic paint and applies a glaze on top to give the instrument a glossy shine. Although no two flutes are identical, each one will always display two insignias: a “W” for Whitefeather and the symbol for Dancing Bird. Her hand in the process is vital to the flute’s image. Similar to Whitefeather, Mato also integrates the Native American culture into her work and looks to “the Creator” for guidance as she watches her visions come alive on the wood. As a descendant of the Cherokee tribe, she and Whitefeather share the same beliefs in “the Creator.”
“The Creator is a vessel coming through me, telling me what to put on these flutes. I ask the Creator to guide me through this work because it is very intense,” Mato says.
“It’s our labor of love,” Whitefeather adds.
The relentless teamwork the couple demonstrates would not be as copacetic if it were not for the genuine bond they share; their innate friendship is what makes the business operate smoothly. Whitefeather met Mato in her home state of California nearly four decades ago when he was exploring out West.
“I ran into Sage and it was like an instant friendship,” Whitefeather says, recalling the day he met her in Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Mountains. Both of them incorporate their passion for their Native American heritage into the production of the Dancing Bird Flutes, but they stress that one does not need to be of that descent to receive the benefits the flute naturally provides.
“You don’t have to be Native American. It’s not in the blood; it’s in the heart. We believe it’s the color of the heart that matters,” Whitefeather says. “We try to make our flutes the best we can, and I have never had one come back.”
For the past 10 years, Mato and Whitefeather’s business grew from the comforts of their in-home workshop in Eaton, Ohio. They have maintained an eclectic business selling roughly 50 flutes each year at 12 Native American events. Dancing Bird Flutes debuted at the Pawpaw Festival just five years ago after members of the Shawnee Adobe Nation adopted Mato and Whitefeather into their tribe, enabling the couple to participate in their events.
This year at the Pawpaw Festival, junior Ashley Balasko was overwhelmed by the restorative powers she experienced while listening to Whitefeather play.
“Listening to him play the flute and [hearing] his story, I just really connected with him,” Balasko says. “He mentioned that he had depression, and I have actually had a past with depression, so hearing that really touched me. After hearing him play the flute, I felt relaxed and soothed; it made me feel calm and better about everything.”
Not long ago, Whitefeather was entrapped in a limitless pit of despair. Now, he shares his experience and wisdom with everyone he encounters. His goal is to put two flutes in every household; that way, the opportunity to heal will always be accessible.
“You are the master of your own universe, so everything starts with you and your world,” Whitefeather says. “They say if they find you are in a happy place, then there you are. Some people spend their lives searching for it.”
Whitefeather most certainly found his happiness within Dancing Bird Flutes.