aside 50 Artists to Watch: Bryan Akipa

Take note of Bryan Akipa, the next on our list of 50 artists to watch – because you’ll have the chance to watch him on a national stage next Friday when he takes part in the NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship Concert in Washington, D.C. The concert will be live-streamed at Viewers can share comments and photos on Twitter using the hashtag #NEAHeritage16.

Bryan was recognized as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the arts earlier this year. It’s the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, and was given to just 9 artists in 2016.

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.

“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.”

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.


PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Wolforth, Rapid City, SD



50 Artists to Watch is a special project we’re embarking on in celebration of our 50th anniversary at the South Dakota Arts Council. This series of short artist features is intended to share the work of South Dakota artists on a wide platform. It is not intended as a list of top or best artists. It is not presented in any particular order. Featured artists are being selected from nominations sent to us. You can nominate an artist by emailing We can’t include them all, but we’ll keep all nominations on a list for future features and blogs.

We welcome your continued suggestions for 50 Artists to Watch and your (constructive) comments about the work of those being featured.


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