Bryan Akipa

2016 National Heritage Fellow and Dakota flute player and maker
Headshot of a man playing a flute.
Photo by Mike Wolforth

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Music Credits: All songs written and performed by Bryan Akipa. “Eagle Dreams” and “Buffalo Nation” from the cd Eagle Dreams; “First Song” from the cd The Flute Player.

Jo Reed: You’re listening to the music of 2016 National Heritage Fellow, Dakota flute player, and maker, Bryan Akipa. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed.

Although Bryan Akipa grew up on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate reservation in South Dakota—he knew nothing about traditional flutes. But then he came across a wooden flute in the studio of his mentor. And his world changed. He began to learn to make and play the distinctive Dakota flutes. Akipa sought out tribal elders who knew the flute tradition, remembered songs, and showed him old flutes. He’d soon excel at both which led to a career in music and art that helped revive an almost forgotten tradition. He became a teacher and began playing the flute for his students, as well as in different venues during the summer. He produced his first CD in 1993 and has since earned a Grammy nomination and won several Native American Music Awards. Meanwhile, He was also making and selling Dakota flutes, carving them by hand in the traditional way. And in the traditional way, Bryan Akipa also passes his knowledge on to the next generations teaching, demonstrating and performing at workshops, museums, schools, and colleges across the country. As well as taking on apprentices who work with him closely. I spoke with Bryan Akipa when he was in Washington DC to receive his National Heritage Fellowship and asked him to tell me more about the beginning of his journey with the flute.

Bryan Akipa: In 1975, I was studying painting under the artist, South Dakota artist laureate, the USD 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 flutes.

Jo Reed: Can you explain what you mean when you say “a mallard head flute?’

Bryan Akipa: Most of the flutes - at the end of the flute, they carve a bird’s head and on this flute (and it was made by Richard Fogel) had a mallard duck carved at the end of it.

Jo Reed: Beautiful, and you were just taken with it?

Bryan Akipa: Yes, yeah, it just seemed so amazing, and I was so attracted to it, and I wondered what it was, and I wanted to play it, and I wanted to have one, and the only thing I could do was to figure out how to make one.

Jo Reed: You grew up on the reservation in South Dakota?

Bryan Akipa: Sisseton, South Dakota.

Jo Reed: Did you grow up with a traditional culture? Did you grow up hearing the language and hearing the music?

Bryan Akipa: I heard the language. My parents are first language speakers, and all my grandparents are all first language speakers. Dakota language as their first language, so I heard it a lot, but it wasn’t taught to us because the assimilation process and although it wasn’t illegal to learn the language, a lot of people felt it was better not to.

Jo Reed: And what about music?

Bryan Akipa: The music was mostly the drum and the singing, so I have never heard a flute.

Jo Reed: You’d never heard one...

Bryan Akipa: No.

Jo Reed: ...before you saw that mallard flute?

Bryan Akipa: Yes.

Jo Reed: How did you go about learning how to make one, if you hadn’t even heard one?

Bryan Akipa: Oscar Howe kept old things in his classroom, and I got really interested in. Flutes wasn’t the only thing because he had some traditional games too. I asked him if I could sketch them and 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 and just with a pocketknife and with what I was able to see in a piece of wood. That's how I made it.

Jo Reed: Do you remember what kind of wood you used?

Bryan Akipa: It’s a cedar. And I did know that the flutes were made from cedar, so I paid attention to that and I did get a piece of cedar.

Jo Reed: And how did you then learn to play?

Bryan Akipa: It took me a really long time just to get any sound, and it was-- sometimes it was discouraging ‘cause it just wasn’t playing, but finally, it did. Basically, the flutes are easy to play once you get them constructed the right way and you just blow into it, and it’s the fingering.

Jo Reed: So you did it by ear. Did you speak to elders about the music and the way the music should sound?

Bryan Akipa: Once I got that far, my aunt said that I should go talk to my grandmother’s cousin and his cousin, David Marks, and Norman Blue. He made and played flutes when he was younger and David Marks received his flute from his grandfather in 1918, but all these years, he just put it away, and he hid it away, and so not too many people really knew about it. I had to work up the courage to ask him to see it, his old flute, and 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 when they were kids. So 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. He played some songs for me. So I had a chance to really know how the traditional flute sounds.

Jo Reed: And that gave you enough to be able to learn more and master it yourself?

Bryan 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 that were handed down, and that's how it just kept going like that, and even today, I still meet people and talk about the oral history.

Jo Reed: The animal head aside, sonically, what makes this flute unique?

Bryan Akipa: It’s like a hollow tube, and then there’s a solid piece that blocks it that the air comes back out of the flute. And then channeled across the top using a birch bark and cutting a slot, like a spacer and a tuner is put on that and another hole on the other side of the solid block is carved in there. And then 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. All cultures have flutes, and this is the only one that uses this method to make it whistle or to make it sound.

Jo Reed: I would love to hear an example.

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Jo Reed: Beautiful. Beautiful. What’s the name of that song?

Bryan Akipa: That's called “Eagle Dreams.”

Jo Reed: And does that have a story attached to it?

Bryan Akipa: Yes, and this is a song that I made, and we were traveling one time and we seen an eagle, and it was winter. There’s a light snow, and up above our-- us was a ridge, and it was early in the morning, and the eagle was sitting there, and so we stopped to look at it, and we could see that it was sleeping. We could watch 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. And it was one of the most beautiful eagles that I seen, and 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 made me think about my life, and the song’s melody is talking about that eagle and what happened that day.

Jo Reed: You play using an indigenous musical scale. Can you explain what that is?

Bryan Akipa: It’s also based on the way they sing because when they sing the songs, it seems like they start really high and then kinda drop down quite a ways. And 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 too.

Jo Reed: And you also take the songs that have been traditionally sung and you play them on the flute.

Bryan Akipa: Um yes. The traditional songs was mostly the drum and the singing. You could sing them, and they have a melody, and they have a word, but you take the melody of that song and play it on the flute, and there’s different techniques that you used 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, and 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. I know where to-- if it needs an overblown note or if I need to put something in, it’s all done the right way.

Jo Reed: How old were you when you started playing?

Bryan Akipa: In 1975, I was 18, so it took me a while. It took me-- so maybe I was 19 by that time I-- and I don't know if you could really call it playing back then, so I think I started more playing once I met Norman Blue and David Marks.

Jo Reed: You’re also well known as a traditional dancer. Was it your flute playing that got you involved with dancing?

Bryan Akipa: Actually, it started when I was younger. My...

Jo Reed: So that came first?

Bryan Akipa: ... dad would take us to powwows and Sisseton had one of the oldest, longest-running powwows there is in the United States, and I think it’s maybe the hundred and fiftieth anniversary. So it was a big powwow when I was little. We used to go and then they had little powwows too out by the lake out by Enemy Swim. So we always had a chance to dance, and 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, like, a full regalia outfit by then.

Jo Reed: Can you explain the significance of the “Eagle Dance?”

Bryan Akipa: It’s a ceremony to show respect for the eagle. Dakota people are related to the eagle, the Eagle Nation, and there’s a story how that came about. 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.

Jo Reed: Tell me the story of the “Dakota and the Eagle?”

Bryan Akipa: It goes back to a flood story, a time when a great flood completely covered 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, “Is there other people anywhere?” and she said no, there’s no other people that he could see, and 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, ‘cause 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.

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Jo Reed: I would imagine there’s challenges, as well as great rewards from reclaiming the culture and reinvigorating it again.

Bryan Akipa: One of the things I did as a elementary teacher, I met the shop teacher, and he had a woodshop class, and he was really interested in making flutes, and he just tried it, and he just couldn’t do it, so I helped him. I made lesson plans, I drew it out, and this is in about 1987. And he started a flute making, a two-week class once every year since then and he just retired from teaching this year. So 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 and some of those kids back then are playing flutes. So that to me, that’s one of the recognitions.

Jo Reed: When you're teaching younger people these art forms, these traditions, what’s a really important aspect of that for you? Just the culture. This is what ties you to your culture. Probably the most important is the language. Also, it’s the art and the dance that ties you and makes you the Dakota person you are. This is traditional flute, traditional music, traditional instrument, and if there’s no more traditional music and flutes, the youth are gonna lose that cultural journey. And they won’t be able to have that cultural connection that I did.

Jo Reed: It’s almost like a conversation with people who came before you.

Bryan Akipa: Yeah.

Jo Reed: And to people who come after. Yeah.

Bryan Akipa: And early on in my flute playing, I used to go to powwows and play the flute. Early in the morning at, like, flag raising. I was playing for the campers, cause people camp all night at powwows. And they’re around, and I used to get compliments from campers saying, “I was waking up, and I could hear the music, and I liked that.” And one time, I was in one of the most traditional communities. It’s kinda like Red Scaffold and Cherry Creek area, some of the-- and the Green Grass area’s where the sacred white buffalo calf pipe is kept. For all the Dakota Nation, that's where it’s at, so this powwow was right in the middle of that, and so these are some of the most traditional people. And I was playing early morning at the powwow, and all a sudden, seven old men, elders, really elders, really old elders, and they just came, and they sat all around me, and I didn't know what to do. I was kinda getting nervous. I said, “The only thing I do is just play all the songs I know,” and so I just kept playing and these old men were sitting there, and when I was done, they all shook my hand. And here, that one said, “That's the way the flute’s supposed to sound.” Said, “You played it the right way.” And so that was one of my biggest accomplishments. That was the first biggest one that happened to me, this elder, these elder men sitting around and they approved it, so that was really special.

Jo Reed: Oh yeah, I can see why it would be. Of course. You know, it’s an interesting thing because it’s a tradition but it’s a living tradition, it’s a living art that has to have its roots in tradition, but at the same time it needs to breathe now.

Bryan Akipa: Yeah, so a lot of people hear my style of playing, and they say, “Oh, that's different. What does that sound like?” That’s ‘cause nobody plays traditional flutes anymore. Nobody plays traditional songs. They mix them with guitar and piano and all kind of electronics and everything, so it’s different for them to hear the traditional song, ‘cause there’s just not very many.

Jo Reed: And the sound is so distinctive. And receiving a National Heritage Award, 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?

Bryan Akipa: Where I live is in a rural area. It’s called Agency Village. And I get a call from the South Dakota senator John Thune, really surprised me, and he’s the first one to announce that I received that and he said I’d receive more phone calls. The director and all the people involved, I started-- I talked to, and then it just exploded once they had the press release. And I was getting phone calls and asked me about interviews, and I got invited to flute play for a 50-foot sculpture in South Dakota called Dignity, and that was a big event for South Dakota. And all the South Dakota dignitaries were there, and that’s because of the award, and 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-- it seemed amazing to say that. And it’s been really fun telling family and friends and even at the tribe. They had a general council meeting, and they acknowledged it there, and I played flute there. I could see how much recognition it already got. On Facebook, someone from Idaho sent me a newspaper article with my picture and the NEA award on there, so it sounds-- looks like it’s going all over the place. And so it’s really amazing.

Jo Reed: It’s such a well-deserved award. Thank you for giving me your time.

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That’s 2016 National Heritage Fellow Dakota Flute maker and player Bryan Akipa.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And the Art Works podcast is now available on iTunes—please subscribe and if you like us—leave us a rating—it helps people to find us.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Reinvigorating a traditional First Nation art.