SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — 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, sparking 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, the National Heritage Fellowship, which is awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Akipa, who will be recognized later this month during a ceremony in Washington, told The Associated Press that he had to read up about the award when he got the surprise 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 using a pocketknife, without knowing that 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 and 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, and he has since 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 he sometimes 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, who doesn't track 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, a historic preservation officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, 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, but that it has had a comeback over the past three decades.
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, which he had to 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, who broke the good news to Akipa, 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."
"With this honor, which has only been given to 404 individuals or groups since it was created more than 30 years ago, he'll receive the national recognition he deserves and join the ranks of past recipients like B.B. King and Bill Monroe, just to name a few," Thune said.