OUTSIDE BUSBY — With his paint horse Good Eagle Woman peering curiously from a nearby ridge, Jay Old Mouse stood on a hillside near Busby on Wednesday coaxing bird-like sounds from a flute he carved from cedar.
Old Mouse, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and designated keeper and maker of the Cheyenne courting flute, is being honored on Friday in Helena along with nine other Montanans. They will be named to Montana’s Circle of American Masters in a ceremony at 3 p.m. Friday in the old Supreme Court Chambers of the State Capitol. Birdie Real Bird, a Crow beader from Garryowen, will also be honored.
Old Mouse’s connection to the Northern Cheyenne courting flute began when he was in his early 20s in the late 1980s and early '90s. His maternal grandfather, Black Bear, took Old Mouse aside and told him he wanted the young man to carry on the tradition of flute maker for his tribe. He could have chosen anyone in the tribe, but he picked Old Mouse, who said he was into fixing cars, hunting and playing softball at the time, and was surprised by the honor.
“Out of the blue he approached me and asked if I wanted to know about the flute,” Old Mouse said. “The more I thought about it over the years, I believe it was meant to be that way.”
Old Mouse, 47, said his music comes from his heart. He calls it “chasing a tune” and plays to set a mood, heal others or to bring them joy. Old Mouse will perform at the ceremony Friday in Helena.
Making his first flute took almost a year. The process began when Black Bear took Old Mouse into the hills in search of cedar wood. Black Bear told him to look for stumps or limbs without knots and that had a straight grain. Black Bear showed Old Mouse how to size the flute, five hands long, and to place the holes to fit his fingers. The flutes are carved in two pieces and then glued together.
A portrait of Old Mouse with his first flute and Black Bear with one of his flutes hung on a wall at St. Labre Indian School for more than two decades and was recently given to Old Mouse.
Old Mouse no longer has that flute because it was given to the photographer who took the portrait, John Warner. He has other historic flutes at his house, though, including one of Black Bear’s and another that was carved by the man who taught Black Bear, Grover Wolf Voice. Old Mouse later discovered a photograph taken of the man who passed down the flute tradition to Wolf Voice, Turkey Legs. The photo, taken in the late 1880s, shows Turkey Legs standing next to a structure at Fort Keogh, holding a flute.
“This isn’t something I do for money,” Old Mouse said.” My grandfather said, ‘Jay, whenever you are called upon to play or to help, you go. In return, you will get blessings.’ I honestly feel I’ve been given blessings.”
On Wednesday, Old Mouse spent 10 minutes finishing up a phone conversation with a member of the Ute tribe who had a flute that was in need a repairs.
“The flute does not belong to me, it belongs to the Cheyenne people,” Old Mouse said. “There is no diploma, there is no certificate. I like to say word travels by moccasin telegram. I’ve made 90-some flutes. I attempted to keep track of where they went but I lost track.”
He remembers asking Black Bear once if he could give a flute to a woman because the flute is traditionally played by a man.
“She was in need of healing and my grandfather said it was OK,” Old Mouse said.
During the day, Old Mouse works for Colstrip Public Schools as a home school liaison. At night, he sets up a workstation on the back porch or on the kitchen table, using a hand carving tool and sandpaper to get the shape of a flute just right.
Old Mouse plays at weddings, graduations, birthday parties and funerals. He has presented the history of the Cheyenne courting flute at the National Folk Festival in Butte, the American Indian Housing Initiative event at Penn State and for 20 years he has played for international guests of the Cheyenne Trailriders.
Old Mouse always adds a carved elk to the top of his flutes, a tradition that was passed down from Black Bear. The elk has the strongest love medicine in the animal world, Old Mouse said. A sun is carved into one side and the moon in the other.
Wolf Voice’s flute is carved with a snake’s head. Old Mouse said the connection to the snake is that one Cheyenne story has young men playing the flute to woo the women they love. The snake hears the music and finds the young woman to bite her, injecting her with a love potion.
Old Mouse prefers another story, where the young men played their flutes and thought of the woman they loved. The young woman hears the special music from the young man’s flute and comes to him.
The Cheyenne legend of how the flute came to be involves a woodpecker. A young man had little luck at accomplishing what other Cheyenne men did to attract young women. He was not a good hunter and not good at stealing horses. One day, he was hunting a big bull elk and he wounded the elk, but did not kill it.
He tracked it throughout the day and when night fell, he built a campfire and lamented how unsuccessful he was at life. He heard music in his dreams and when he woke, he walked up to the ridge and the elk lay dead. He carved it up and took the elk meat back to camp and was cheered by the old members of the tribe and for once, the young women winked at him.
He returned to the camp to try and discover the magic there. After fasting, a woodpecker came to him and said he felt that way, not able to sing like the other birds. The woodpecker took him to a cedar branch he had poked holes in, creating a flute, which he gave to the man who became the tribe’s first flute maker.