By Jim Speirs, Executive Director, Arts South Dakota

South Dakota’s heritage is a unique combination of indigenous and immigrant cultures, and celebrating those elements helps make our state a leader in the recognition of its artistic creativity. Part of that recognition occurred during the 2022 legislative session, when House Bill 1196 formally named the traditional flute as the official indigenous musical instrument of South Dakota. 

At a legislative reception organized by Secretary David Flute and the Department of Tribal Relations, Kevin Locke, a hoop dancer and flute player from Wakpala in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, performed Lakota music. Locke, who began playing the indigenous flute in 1972, discussed formal recognition for the instrument with Secretary Flute and the idea caught on. Rep. Tamara St. John, who represents District 1 (Brown, Day, Marshall and Roberts Counties) and works as an archivist for the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, sponsored the bill which found widespread support in both the state Senate and the House.

The flute tradition is well established today in South Dakota, primarily through the efforts of Locke and Bryan Akipa, of Agency Village. Both artists have been awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s highest award in folk and traditional arts.

Locke and Akipa share their knowledge throughout the state and the world. Akipa creates traditional flutes from eastern red cedar branches gathered in Roberts County near his home. Locke travels widely to schools, where he demonstrates the hoop dance and plays the flute. Locke helps students make flutes and then teaches them basic breathing exercises, fingering and a few simple songs. Akipa believes he helped industrial arts students at Tiospa Zina Tribal School near Agency Village make 600 to 800 flutes. 

Together, South Dakota’s two most prominent traditional flute players are keeping a tradition alive and sharing a vital cultural touchstone—and now the state legislature has distinguished South Dakota as one of the few states with an official indigenous instrument. Congratulations to everyone who helped make this recognition possible!

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