The Pettigrew brothers, Wendell, left, and Jack, right, watch activity from their booth at the Southeastern Art Show and Market during the final days of the 2019 Chickasaw Nation Annual Meeting and Festival.
Published November 24, 2019
ADA, Okla. — Chickasaw flute and pipe makers Jack and Wendell Pettigrew “previewed” a matching hand-made flute and pipe set to Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby during the Chickasaw Nation Annual Meeting and Festival. The set will be donated to the tribe in the near future.
Jack said he has worked on the set for three years. The flute is made of cedar and the pipe is poplar with Minnesota pipestone. Both are adorned with green and white soap stone, porcupine quills and feature carved wolf heads.
Jack, 77, and his brother, Wendell, 79, both learned to make flutes as children and have been showing their work the past seven years at the Southeastern Art Show and Market (SEASAM) during the week of Annual Meeting and Festival.
The Pettigrew duo have been making music for a living since 1956. They played music together in several groups that performed locally and across Oklahoma.
“The first place we played (as teenagers) we made $14 each. That was more than my father was making. He was earning $1.50 an hour as a carpenter and bricklayer. We made $14 for just two hours and we thought ‘hey, this is a way to make a living,’” Wendell said.
In the 1970s, Wendell relocated to California where he was in demand as a session bassist for recording artists in addition to having his own band. Jack moved to Texas to work for the federal government’s civil rights division.
“He left Oklahoma to entertain the world and I left to save the world,” a smiling Jack noted.
It was the first time the Pettigrew brothers had been separated.
“We were called ‘Heckle and Jeckle’ by family and friends. We were never apart. We did everything together,” Jack said, while manning the JW Custom Flutes booth at SEASAM.
Wendell was born in July 1940. Jack arrived two years later in August 1942.
Polio – a viral scourge that afflicted millions worldwide – resulted in a healthy Jack watching over a stricken Wendell because their parents both worked outside the home.
“I was a sickly child,” Wendell said. “I was in an iron lung for a little while. I don’t think the family thought I was going to make it. So they brought me home and a Chickasaw medicine man came to the house and prayed for me. After a week or so, I started feeling better. Breathing was easier and it wasn’t long before I was out of bed and recovering,” he said. “It would be accurate to say I was the one who got us into the most trouble,” Wendell said while flashing a wide smile.
Flutes and More
Flute-making has been a part of their lives since childhood. A neighbor taught them how to build a basic flute and “even taught us how to make a boom-a-rang that wouldn’t come back,” Wendell recalled laughing out loud.
As modern music took hold in their lives, modern instruments and amplifiers became a part of life as well. It wasn’t until the brothers retired and returned to Ada they started making flutes and Native pipes.
“Jack’s son purchased a flute for him and it split in half,” Wendell said. “It was a flute from a well-known maker that cost about $500. The maker would not accept a return, so we said ‘we can do that. We know how to make flutes.’”
“We make what we call ‘fancy flutes.’ We do carvings; Jack does sculpture work on them and all kinds of different designs. I do painting on them. We give you something that can become a family heirloom at a reasonable price,” Wendell said. “If something goes wrong, we’ll either fix it or give you another one free.”
Jack said the team is “adding to the culture and not letting it die out. We let people know who we are, what we stand for and we leave something behind so they will know we were here. When you build a flute, there is a lot of yourself that goes into that process. A lot of that is because we played music for so long. It has meaning to us. We feel a total kinship in making flutes because we played music so many years. Treating something that can make music as a piece of art, you have the best of both worlds right there.”
“I still get chills when I finish a flute because it came from my head and out of my heart,” Wendell explained. “Music is about what is inside you,” he added. “It’s a love that you put into it and it’s love you get out of it, too.”