Dakota flutist earns nation's highest folk honor 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
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There was a time when Bryan Akipa knew nothing of flutes. But that was long ago, 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.
 
Now Akipa, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, is a recipient of the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. It is the National Heritage Fellowship, which 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, 59, 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, as well as in different venues during the summer as a way to supplement his income. He produced his first CD in 1993. Since then, he has earned a Grammy nomination and 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


COMMENTS (28)
  • allisons-kul
    10/18/2016 - 12:23 p.m.

    This is really cool! I also play the flute so I think this is really cool. I think that this is awesome that he makes them by hand. I honestly have no idea why he makes them out of wood instead of metal. Based on historical reasons, most Native American instrument's are made of natural products. For example, the head of a drum is made from animal skin. This is so awesome.

    • luisa-kul
      10/18/2016 - 12:26 p.m.

      i have never play the flute, i think its boring but i think is interesting what Allison said about the flute, he made it of wood and not of metal.

    • kayleeb-kul
      10/19/2016 - 11:33 a.m.

      I bet he isn't as good as you at playing flute though. I agree that this is cool! It shows that some of the tribe isn't straying from their traditions, but embracing them and spreading them to the rest of the nation.

    • sydney-kul
      10/21/2016 - 11:04 a.m.

      I agree! We are so used to seeing things made of man-made products that when we see something different it is weird to us. I think it is so cool that he makes every flute by hand. Also, it is cool that they make them out of natural products. The flutes probably sound a lot different than what we are used to as well.

    • brookeg-kul
      10/21/2016 - 12:34 p.m.

      I also think it’s cool that he makes them out of wood and it staying traditional. I never played the flute but it sounds cool.

  • eduardov-kul
    10/18/2016 - 12:27 p.m.

    The first flutes were made of wood and I think that the flutes that are made of wood sound different than the flutes that are made of steel or whatever. I think there is a lots of things that we don’t know about Native-Americans and they have a lots of talents.

  • aleahs-kul
    10/18/2016 - 12:28 p.m.

    That’s cool how people still use the flute and the tradition is still alive. The flute will always be a tradition for Native Americans I feel like, but will become more complex in adding to the technology of it. Native Americans aren’t usually heard for being famous singers but this is cool because it makes them have a voice too. (60 words)

    • charmaynes-kul
      10/18/2016 - 12:56 p.m.

      I also think it is cool that they are keeping the tradition alive. Since it is a big part of the Native American tradition. I think it is cool that he is getting recognized for what he has been doing with the flutes.

    • allisons-kul
      10/18/2016 - 03:59 p.m.

      I agree this is super awesome! Now that you mention it, you never hear about famous singers being Native American. I hope the tradition continues because that is super interesting.

  • charmaynes-kul
    10/18/2016 - 12:49 p.m.

    I think it interesting how he can make his flutes by hand. I think its cool how he makes them out of wood instead out of metal.It is really cool that he has classes to teach people how to make the flute, and keep the tradition alive. It's so cool that the first flute he made he used a pocket knife to make it.

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