Master Dakota Flute Maker Bryan Akipa Never Stops Exploring His Art Form

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

As a young artist studying under Oscar Howe, Bryan Akipa was launched on a new trajectory in life by a conversation about mallards. Akipa, who was born and raised on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate where he still resides, was studying painting under the master Dakota artist at the University of South Dakota.

akipaFB.jpgBryan Akipa.

“He used to do research on his paintings, and he was working on something to do with mallards," says Akipa. "He asked me if I went duck hunting and I said 'yes,' and he asked me about how [mallards] take off from the water.” As they were talking about flight patterns of waterfowl, Howe brought out a mallard-head flute crafted by the late Lakota flute maker Richard Fool Bull.

“I had never seen flutes in our culture before. I didn’t realize we had flutes.” The instruments sparked his interest. He began making sketches of traditional flutes, empowered by his high school drafting classes and inspired by the work of Fool Bull, who he met once briefly at the Howe studio. From those sketches, he went on to create his own prototype with a pocket knife.

akipa11.JPGA mallard flute by Lakota artist Richard Fool Bull inspired Akipa to research Native flute making.

At the time, Native American flutes were an endangered art form. If it weren't for a handful of artists like Richard Fool Bull — a tribal member at the Rosebud Indian Reservation — who bridged the gap between the days when much of Dakota/Lakota/Nakota language and heritage was llegal and today, the art may have been lost. 

“People started noticing that I was interested and talking about it, and finally someone said, ‘One of my grandmother’s cousins knows about flutes.’” He was introduced to elder Norman Blue and then to another elder, David Marks, who continued his education in flute-making.

akipa3.JPGA table in Akipa's workshop with hole pattern diagrams, flutes.

“David Marks had made and played flutes when he was younger. He had received a flute in 1918 from his grandfather. [Blue and Marks] taught me a lot of oral history. They taught me the songs. I started learning the flute as a cultural journey.”

Akipa has never studied music. His interest in creating the instruments led him to learn to play.

As his knowledge grew and he mastered the craft he became part a generation of young Native flute players — along with Carlos Nakai, Kevin Locke [Cheyenne River Reservation] and others — from different tribes, who revived the tradition in different ways.

akipa9.JPGAkipa has a large collection of found and self-made traditional wind instruments, including these eagle-bone whistles.

His career took another Howe-like detour after only a couple semesters at USD. Coming from a family with a proud history of military service — his uncle Woodrow Wilson Keeble was a legendary hero of the Korean War and one of three Native Americans awarded the Medal of Honor — he enlisted and spent a few years in the Army. While he was away, he corresponded with his mentor. “We kept in contact. I’d come back on leave and go visit him. Then when I got out of the Army I studied under him again.”

Soon after Akipa returned from his time in service though, Howe passed away.

Feeling unanchored, he followed in the footsteps of his mentor yet again, completing an internship as a teacher at the Pierre Indian Learning Center (PILC). There he perfected the craft and started again to find his own path, building a reputation as a flute maker.

The basement of his home on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is a woodwind workshop bursting with flutes of all sizes, adorned with the heads of eagles, bear, elk. He carves most of his flutes from eastern red-cedar, but experiments with other mediums.

He’s begun working with the stalks of sweet corn, inspired by reading about the Hidatsa oral historian Buffalo Bird Woman (Maxi'diwiac). He’s also working with giant sunflower stalks. He has a small collection (some self-made) of whistles made from the bones of eagle wings. He keeps reams of meticulously drawn hole pattern maps that determine the scale and range of different instruments.

akipa4.JPGThe ċan aaki, or saddle, seen tied with leather cord to these instruments, is unique to Native American flutes.

A unique component of flutes from various Native American cultures is the incorporation of what some Dakota traditionally called the ċan aaki, also called a saddle or tuning block, a somtimes-ornate, sometimes utilitarian wooden piece that enters the tube from a notch on the top of the instrument. Instead of a sharper-edged embouchure-hole at one end, Dakota flutes have round openings on both sides, and no reed. Two air channels are created by a vertical bridge in the interior part of the saddle. This manipulates the air jet produced by the player, creating sound. The saddle is usually affixed with leather cord and can be adjusted to fine tune the sound of the instrument.

“Every culture has flutes, but [Native American] flutes are the only flutes in the world that use this method.”

akipa15.JPGBryan Akipa with an eagle whistle.

Despite not having a formal musical education, having taught himself to recreate what had almost become a lost art, Akipa also began receiving attention for his playing skills, first at the PILC and local museums, then internationally. He released his first album, The Flute Player, in 1993. He has released five more since, receiving several “Nammy” nominations and traveling around the world. Beyond flute making and music, Akipa is also exploring digital arts. 

In the past few years, with elder family members to care for, he hasn’t traveled so far from the Oyate to play, though he did perform last year with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra as part of the Lakota Music Project.  

While his work as a performer has made him an international ambassador for the music of the Native American flute, one or more of the instruments he is creating now in his workshop may become draft cards of sorts for the next generation to carry forward the art form, like a mallard-head flute made by Richard Fool Bull was for him. 

subscribe to sdpb email updates food blog link image learning blog link image living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

In The Moment ... The Hob Menace With Angela Swedberg

In The Moment ... September 18, 2017 Show 179 Hour 2 When you visit a museum you expect authenticity from the exhibitions, art, and artifacts. Angela Swedberg is a...

In The Moment ... On The Other Hand With Kevin Woster

In The Moment ... September 14, 2017 Show 177 Hour 1 Arthur C. Jones is a professor in the department of musicology,...

In The Moment ... The Future – And Past – Of Racing In Huron

In The Moment ... September 1, 2017 Show 169 Hour 1 Sioux Falls based singer/songwriter Meriweather Raindelay is...

In The Moment ... Law School Debate: Vermillion Or Sioux Falls?

In The Moment ... August 8, 2017 Show 151 Hour 1 Where should we put the state's only law school? Declining...

Books

In The Moment ... South Dakota Festival Of Books

In The Moment ... August 14, 2017 Show 155 Hour 2 Get ready to head for the Hills. In the Moment is in Deadwood for...

In The Moment ... Lifting The Alzheimer’s Stigma

In The Moment ... August 10, 2017 Show 153 Hour 1 The death of musician Glen Campbell this week has many South...

In The Moment ... A Conversation With Garrison Keillor

In the Moment ... August 8, 2017 Show 151 Hour 2 Garrison Keillor brings the Prairie Home Love and Comedy Tour to...

In The Moment ... A Fresh Look At The Atomic Age

In The Moment ... August 2, 2017 Show 147 Hour 1 As international experts predict North Korea could develop a...

Music

In The Moment ... Moment In Sound With Jami Lynn

In The Moment ... September 15, 2017 Show 178 Hour 1 Jami Lynn is essential listening in South Dakota and beyond...

In The Moment ... Dakota Political Junkies On Division In State GOP

In The Moment ... September 13, 2017 Show 176 Hour 2 Do divisions within a state political party impact you? What's...

In The Moment ... Moment In Sound With Chad Konrad

In The Moment ... September 8, 2017 Show 173 Hour 1 We begin the program with this week's Moment in Sound. You can...

In The Moment ... USD Law School Update

In The Moment ... September 7, 2017 Show 172 Hour 1 Should the Law School at the University of South Dakota relocate...

Theater

In The Moment ... Alex Meyer's Scenic Design

In The Moment ... May 10, 2017 Show 090 Hour 2 Alex Meyer. He's a junior art and theater major at Augustana College...

In The Moment ... Remembering Vietnam On Horseback

In The Moment ... May 9, 2017 Show 089 Hour 2 Colt Romberger’s father served in Vietnam, and it changed his life...

Dakota Midday: S.F. Washington's "Wizard Of Oz"

South Dakota high schools produce a variety of plays each year. This week the Washington High School drama...

Dakota Midday: Lisa McNulty On Female Artists

The Off-Broadway Women's Project Theater is the oldest and largest theater company that promotes women artists in...