In a quiet Salem, Oregon neighborhood, a small monthly flute circle gathers in the living room of Native American flute performer and recording artist, Jan Michael Looking Wolf. A member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Looking Wolf is deeply committed to sharing the healing power of the Native American flute.
“In my own tribal tradition,” Looking Wolf explained, “the music is really percussion-based and vocal-based. Drum, shaker and other percussion instruments is our background.”
Having grown up in a percussion-based culture, Looking Wolf would discover his love for the flute through a life-altering event in his late twenties.
In 1994, Looking Wolf suffered a debilitating stroke, the result of a rare genetic condition that can afflict Native Americans. He became paraplegic for a year of his life.
“The prognosis out of my strokes was that I would never walk again. They were wrong – I’m so happy. I was doing a lot of ceremony with my uncle and surrounded by my tribe, and it was through that that I learned how to play the Native American flute.”
The experience of recuperating in the care of his tribe bonded him closer with his late uncle, Michael Standing Elk, who was instrumental in mentoring Looking Wolf with his early interest in music.
“When I recorded my first album on the reservation, my uncle, Michael Standing Elk, was with me and he walked me through the whole process of writing songs.”
Looking Wolf’s music career took off with the release of his independent album, Native Blues, his first foray taking the Native American style flute into a contemporary context. The album’s unique fusion of blues music with native American flute caught the attention of the music industry, receiving nominations for 2004 Blues Album of the Year at the Native American Music Awards, and Best Blues Recording at the Indian Summer Music Awards. Throughout the next two decades, he became internationally recognized as one of the innovators of Native American flute. Called "a modern master of the Native American flute" by Billboard, Looking Wolf is now an award-winning musician and performer, with over 23 albums in genres ranging from blues, rock, hip-hop and new age.
In the mid-2000s, Looking Wolf, inspired to share his acquired knowledge and experience, created a series of workshops to teach and mentor students in the Native American flute.
“I started doing workshops to introduce people to the instrument and to try to support the genre.”
It wasn’t long before a professor at Oregon State University heard about the workshops and invited Looking Wolf to do some guest lecturing. His passion for the instrument and enthusiasm to share it with others resonated quickly with the students and faculty.
“Helping people connect with musical self-expression is the most rewarding experience that I could ever have.”
Now a regular instructor at OSU, his Native American flute course is a favorite among students and was recently voted Best Bacc Core Class in the University Daily Barometer's "Best of Campus" poll.
Each year OSU hosts one of the largest Native American style flute circles in the country, led by Looking Wolf. Students, past and present, bring their flutes and come together to connect and perform in this unique social gathering, celebrating cultural diversity and a shared sense of community.
“One of the most important things is that circle really represents that everyone's voice is important. Everyone's feelings are important," Looking Wolf reflects. “My journey with the flute has been one of helping people connect. The Native American style flute has really become an instrument for musical self-expression, for personal musical self-expression.”
OSU's annual flute circle has grown larger with each year as the tradition builds. Its fifth year recently broke its attendance record with a turnout of over 600 participants.
“The healing connection that this instrument is bringing the world will continue to grow and evolve and be passed down from generation to generation.”
Looking Wolf continues to record and perform. His latest album is Rising Moon, a two-disc album of 28 songs that Looking Wolf describes as his ultimate collection for the Native American flute enthusiast and music lovers. In 2019, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from One World Music Radio.
Looking Wolf recently founded the Native American Style Flute Awards, the world's first global music initiative dedicated to players, teachers and makers of the Native American style flute.
For more information on Jan Michael Looking Wolf you can visit his website.
If you’d like to see Looking Wolf perform live, watch for him at these upcoming Oregon events.