Bryan Akipa in Washington, DC, for the 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellowship events. (Tom Pich/National Endowment for the Arts)
Dakota flutist earns nation's highest folk honor
October 11, 2016
There was a time when Bryan Akipa knew nothing of flutes. But that was long ago. It was before the budding artist stumbled across a wooden mallard-head flute in the studio of his mentor. It sparked a fascination that led to a career in both making and playing the distinctive Dakota flutes.
Akipa is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe. Now he is a recipient of the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. It is the National Heritage Fellowship. It is awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Akipa was recognized during a ceremony in Washington. He told The Associated Press that he had to read up about the award when he got the call notifying him he had earned it.
"On Facebook, my daughter put it on her page. And I think she got the most likes. I put it on mine, but I got a few likes," Akipa said. "Everyone congratulating me is really special. Especially since it's for the traditional flute."
Akipa is 59 years old. He carved his first flute in 1975 from red cedar. He used a pocketknife. It would lead to a career in music. After taking a break to serve in the Army and to finish college, Akipa became a teacher. He began playing the flute for his students. He would also play in different venues during the summer. It was a way to supplement his income. He produced his first CD in 1993. Since then, Akipa has earned a Grammy nomination. He has also won several Native American Music Awards.
Akipa stressed that every flute he sells is made entirely by hand. He said sometimes he even travels from his northeastern South Dakota community of Sisseton to northern Minnesota in search of wood.
"I've never mass-produced them," said Akipa. He hasn't tracked the number of flutes he has carved. "There are flute-makers that could make 2,000 flutes a year. They have laser technology (and) computers. They don't even touch the wood."
Russell Eagle Bear is an historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He said the flutes were traditionally used in courting and social gatherings. He said the art of flute-making was kept alive by only a few people for several years. It has had a comeback over the past three decades, he said.
Akipa has taught flute-making classes in an effort to keep the tradition alive. He said he plans to use the $25,000 that comes with the fellowship to boost his career. He has had to put it on pause to care for relatives. He wants to buy recording software and a new microphone to release a couple more albums.
South Dakota's U.S. Sen. John Thune broke the good news to Akipa. The senator said the artist's talent and dedication to his work, as well as the historical and cultural significance it represents, "gives South Dakotans, especially members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, a lot for which we can be proud."
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why does Bryan make his flutes from wood instead of metal, like most flutes?
Write your answers in the comments section below