“When I looked at the mallard flute for the first time, I was so amazed. I could not imagine that we had red cedar flutes in our culture. I wanted to play it, I wanted to hear it, and then I wanted one.”
Growing up in the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Reservation of northeastern South Dakota, Bryan Akipa did not know that traditional flutes were to be found in Dakota culture. That changed when he was studying painting with famed Dakota artist Oscar Howe at the University of South Dakota (USD). While in Howe’s studio, he saw and became entranced with a wooden mallard-head flute, made by Lakota artist Richard Fool Bull. Akipa spent hours studying, measuring, drawing it, and puzzling out how it was made. Eventually he made one of his own, carved with a pocketknife from red cedar. Thus began a career in music and art that helped revive a long put-away tradition. Akipa sought out tribal elders who knew the flute tradition, remembered songs, and showed him old flutes. He absorbed every bit of that knowledge and used it to perfect his art.
The Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Native-American flute is unique in its construction, with a plug partway down the body of the instrument that forces air up through a hole above, and then back down, controlled by a tuning block or saddle tied over the opening with a leather thong. The block is usually carved in the shape of a bird or animal, and it faces the player. The far end of the instrument is also often carved as a bird or animal head, as was the mallard flute that drew Akipa in many years ago. Akipa is one of the few artists to play the ancestral flute using the indigenous musical scale. Additionally the age-old flute songs have melodies based on how they are sung. When a traditional flute player performs these songs, they play the melodies as the songs are sung, with additional bird imitations and sound techniques. As Akipa says, “When I play the flute, I can hear this melody in my mind.”
Akipa took a break from college to serve in the Army, but his mentor Howe passed away shortly after Akipa returned to USD, so he changed his studies from art to elementary education. While working his first teaching job at the Pierre Indian Learning Center, he would often play the flute for his class, the music echoing through the building. Soon his fellow teachers were asking him to come to their classes, and other schools were inviting him to perform. He began making and selling flutes, in addition to performing, to supplement his income. Audiences began asking for recordings of his music, and after he produced his first CD in 1993, he realized he could turn his craft and music into a career. He has taught, demonstrated, performed at workshops, museums, schools, colleges, and prestigious venues across the country, always generous in sharing his knowledge. He has won several Nammies (Native American Music Awards) and has been nominated for a Grammy. In addition to making and playing flutes, Akipa is also a traditional dancer, visual artist, and digital media artist.
The flute circle would not be complete without passing on the tradition. “For me, the red cedar flute and its aria are my cultural journey,” he said of the path that brought him where he is today. He has taught his son, friends, and relatives, most recently teaching two of his nephews through an apprenticeship grant from the South Dakota Arts Council.
Bio by Andrea Graham, South Dakota Arts Council
2016 Interview with Bryan Akipa by Josephine Reed
Edited by Kathryn Brough
NEA: How did your flute journey begin?
Bryan Akipa: In 1975, I was studying painting under the South Dakota artist laureate, the USD [University of South Dakota] artist emeritus professor Oscar Howe, and in his studio he had a mallard head flute sitting on his desk and that's when I found out about the flute. Most of the flutes, at the end they carve a bird’s head. This flute, made by Richard Fogel, had a mallard duck carved at the end of it. It just seemed so amazing and I was so attracted to it, and I wondered what it was and I wanted to play it. I wanted to have one, and the only thing I could do was to figure out how to make one.
NEA: You grew up on the reservation in Sisseton, South Dakota. Did you grow up with a traditional culture? Did you grow up hearing the language and music?
Akipa: I heard the language. My parents are first-language speakers and all my grandparents are all first-language speakers—Dakota language—so I heard it a lot, but it wasn’t taught to us because of the assimilation process and different things. Although it wasn’t illegal to learn the language, a lot of people felt it was better not to.
NEA: And what about music?
Akipa: The music was mostly the drum and the singing, so I had never heard a flute.
NEA: How did you go about learning how to make one, if you hadn’t even heard one?
Akipa: When I studied the flute, I measured it, I sketched it at every angle, I studied it, I looked into it, and I tried to figure out the best I could do because I was interested in making one. Just with a pocketknife and with what I was able to see in a piece of wood, that's how I made it.
NEA: Do you remember what kind of wood you used?
Akipa: It’s a cedar.
NEA: And how did you then learn to play?
Akipa: It took me a really long time just to get any sound. Sometimes it was discouraging, because it just wasn’t playing. The flutes are easy to play once you get them constructed the right way. You just blow into it, and it’s the fingering.
NEA: So you did it by ear. Did you speak to elders about the music and the way the music should sound?
Akipa: Once I got that far, my aunt is the one who noticed. She said that I should go talk to my grandmother’s cousin and his cousin, David Marks and Norman Blue, and from them I learned he made and played flutes when he was younger. David Marks received his flute from his grandfather in 1918, but all these years, he just hid it away. Not too many people really knew about it, so I had to work up the courage to ask him to see it. It turned out really good, because it just brought back so many memories for Norman and David when they were little and their grandfather was alive, and they told me a lot of stories from when they were kids. I learned all the oral history from them about the flute and the songs and the way they’re played, and he played for me. I had a chance to really know how the traditional flute sounds.
NEA: And that gave you enough to be able to learn more and master it yourself?
Akipa: Yeah, and as I went on, it was a journey for me, a cultural journey, because I would meet different people and I would learn more oral history, more songs. I would see other flutes that people had in their family that were old flutes handed down, and that's how it just kept going like that. Even today, I still meet people and talk about the oral history.
NEA: The animal head aside, what makes this flute unique?
Akipa: There are different pieces to it, the way it whistles and make the sound. All cultures have flutes. This is the only one that uses this method to make it whistle. The air goes in—it’s like a hollow tube—and then there’s a solid piece that blocks it. The air comes back out of the flute and then is channeled across the top using a birch bark and cutting a slot, like a spacer. A tuner is put on that, and another hole on the other side of the solid block is carved in. A block sits on top of that and holds all the air in, so the air is channeled across the top and splits evenly on the edge of the birch bark.
NEA: You play using an indigenous musical scale. Can you explain what that is and how it differs from the European scale?
Akipa: It’s based on the way they sing, because when they sing the songs, it seems like they start really high and then kind of drop down quite a ways. They sing some notes in there, then they drop quite a ways again and sing down in one low note and back up. So you try to imitate that with the flute.
NEA: Do you also take the songs and translate them through the flute? In other words, something that is a song without a music, do you listen to it sometimes and make it a flute song?
Akipa: Yes, the traditional songs, you could sing them, and they have a melody and they have words and that's one whole other process of making the song, but you take the melody of that song and play it on the flute. There are different techniques that they use to add in accents, like bird imitations, and they imitate the meadowlark or the chickadee and different birds like that, songbirds, and they put that into the song wherever they fit. This is what brings it to life and becomes a flute song. And so as I’m playing the flute, I can hear the singing in my mind and so that's what gives me my rhythm and balance and accompaniments and I know where to accent the song. If it needs an overblown note or if I need to put something in, it’s all done the right way.
NEA: You have a song called “Eagle Dreams”. Does that have a story attached to it?
Akipa: This is a song that I made when we were traveling one time and we saw an eagle and it was winter. There was a light snow and up above us was a ridge, and it was early in the morning and the eagle was sitting there. We stopped to look at it and we could see that it was sleeping. We watched it wake up and it started ruffling its feathers and looking around, and just with one leap it spread its wings and started to fly. It was one of the most beautiful eagles that I seen. It looked like it just disappeared into the air because of the snow and the mist and the sky. It just flew off and disappeared, and it was so inspiring to me, it kind of made me think about my life and what am I doing. The song’s melody is talking about that eagle.
NEA: I’ve seen a picture of your horse stick and I would love to have you describe that and talk about its importance to your family, because it is stunning.
Akipa: All these things I did, making flutes and carving, I also had different items in my family too: a cane that my great grandfather made, and my uncle’s—who’s one of the three full-blood Native Americans that received the Medal of Honor—victory dance stick.
I was still in school at the Pierre Indian Learning Center, and this is about 1984, and I went down to the museum they had a horse staff. Just like the flute, I was just amazed and attracted to it. I looked at it and I wanted to make one, and immediately I knew it was for dancing. I knew it had something to do with those horns. I read a little bit about the maker, who was Noel Two Horns, and eventually I made one and I started dancing with it, and a lot of people didn't know what that was, because it looks different. It doesn’t look like a regular horse. A lot of the images and the style of carving that you do on flutes, they’re not necessarily realistic. I started carving a lot of things, and lot of people didn't know what it was or what to call it, until I met George Horse Capture and he co-wrote a book with John Ewers called Northern Plains Indian Sculpture, and finally my artwork had a name. And it’s a particular style for the northern plains—it’s stylized and sometimes it’s abstracted, so you kind of have to get used to looking at it.
NEA: Can you describe the horse stick?
Akipa: Some of the students just thought it was a giraffe. Some maybe thought it was a dragon, but it has a real elongated neck, and it’s mostly because you’re working with a branch on a tree. The body’s elongated and then the legs. The tail is real horsehair applied to it, the mane is real horsehair applied to it, and then it’s painted and decorated.
NEA: And you use it as part of your dance ritual?
Akipa: Yes. Actually, I started dancing when I was younger. My dad would take us to powwows, and Sisseton had one of the oldest, longest-running powwows in the United States. It was a big powwow when I was little. They had little powwows too out by the lake out by Enemy Swim and different places like that, so we always had a chance to dance. Back then the regalia wasn’t real expensive. Just mostly, you just got out there and danced for enjoyment, and so that's how it started. When I was about 12, my grandmother could see my interest in that, so she made an outfit for me and again, when I was 16, I had a full regalia outfit by then.
NEA: Can you explain the significance of the Eagle Dance?
Akipa: It’s a ceremony to show respect for the eagle. The Eagle Nation we’re related to, and there’s a story how that came about. Oscar Howe describes some of that relationship in one of his paintings, and that's the one I used for the Eagle Dreams album. I put that on there—it’s the origin of the rebirth of the Dakota Nation. And so it’s mostly to show respect, to sing the correct song, to be able to do it the right way in the four directions.
NEA: What is the relationship between the eagle and the Sioux?
Akipa: It goes back to a flood story, a time when a great flood completely covered the entire world and all the bad people were killed, and one young girl made it to a hill, and an eagle came to her and befriended her, and he took care of her. He went out and hunted for her, brought her food, and she could talk to him and she asked him, “Are there other people anywhere?” And he said no, there are no other people that he could see. He said, “You are the last of your kind.” And this friendship became so close, the eagle asked to become a human, a young man, because he wanted the humans to continue on and he could see the good in her. He changed into a young man and they were married and they had twin children. And so this eagle man became her husband, her friend, and the father of her children, and this was the rebirth, not the origin, but the rebirth of the Dakota Nation.
NEA: I would imagine there are challenges, as well as great rewards from reclaiming the culture and reinvigorating it again.
Akipa: One of the things I did as an elementary teacher, I met the shop teacher and he had a woodshop class, and he was really interested in making flutes. He tried it and he just couldn’t do it, so I helped him. I made lesson plans, I drew it out, and this is about 1987. And he started a flute-making class, a two-week class once every year since then (and he just retired from teaching this year). Every year, he would teach that class and every year I would go into his class and make sure they were adjusting and sounding it. Now, years later, I haven’t been full-time teaching, but I substitute teach. Several students over the years would give me their flute and it would just build the relationship between us, and I still have those flutes that they made and they gave me, and I still see them. This is traditional flute, traditional music, traditional instrument, and if there is no more traditional music and flutes, the youth are going to lose that cultural journey. It’s going to be a different type of experience and they won’t be able to have that cultural connection that I did.
NEA: Since you started, you talked to elders, discovered their stories, and recreated music. Was it because this art was in danger of being lost?
Akipa: I don't know if it would be endangered as long as there is someone who has interest in it. Even if there is just one person, because it can grow from there. At the time I learned the flute, there were several elders already that I started to learn about.
NEA: And when you're teaching younger people these art forms, these traditions, what’s a really important aspect of that for you? What do you want them to get?
Akipa: Just the culture. This is what ties you to your culture. Probably the most important is the language. It’s really trying to come back and we’re having immersion programs in Dakota language, but also it’s the art and the dance that ties you and makes you the Dakota person you are.
NEA: And receiving a National Heritage Fellowship, what does that mean for you and what do you think it says about the significance of your art and the work that you’re doing?
Akipa: Where I live is in a rural area. I got a call from the South Dakota Senator John Thune—it really surprised me, and he was the first one to announce that I received [the fellowship] and he said I’d receive more phone calls. And then it just exploded once they had the press release, and I was getting phone calls. They asked me about interviews, and I got invited just last week to flute play for a 50-foot sculpture in South Dakota called Dignity. That was a big event for South Dakota, and all the South Dakota dignitaries were there. That’s because of the award. It’s been really fun especially when I read it. It said, “The highest honor for traditional arts,” and this is our nation’s highest honor, and I would tell that to someone, and it’s really amazing to say that. And it’s been really fun telling family and friends and even the tribe. They had a general council meeting and they acknowledged it there and I played flute there and so I could see how much recognition it already got. On Facebook, someone from Idaho sent me a newspaper article with my picture and the award on there. It’s really amazing.