By Lethbridge Herald on October 18, 2023.
LOCAL JOURNALISM INITIATIVE REPORTER
Elisa Harkins has a song to teach visitors to the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG). Or rather, she has five.
In the latest exhibition that opened at SAAG on Saturday, Harkins, a Cherokee/Muscogee artist from Tulsa, Oklahoma showcases a collection of five Indigenous songs and the fancy shawls they inspired her to create.
“I want people to see that Native American culture is alive and thriving,” says Harkins. “These songs are still being sung and they’re still being passed down, but also that there’s such a diverse and wide range of Native songs.”
In the upper-level gallery, a television the plays five performances from five different Indigenous (or Native American) activists, musicians, and artists. It begins with a drum song called the ‘American Indian Movement Song’ or ‘AIM song’ performed by Louis Gray who wants to teach the whole world the song. Gray is an Osage man who hitchhiked to the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee with his sister. Harkins explains that the song is sung to lift spirits both in times of good news and bad. Nearby on the wall is a photograph of Gray and the sheet music for the song, accompanied by a shawl Harkins created that she imagines someone would have worn at Wounded Knee, an American flag turned upside down, adorned with fringe and a patch for the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee.
Among the other four displays of songs, portraits and shawls are two with ties to Lethbridge. Marilyn Contois, of Cowessesss First Nation in Saskatchewan lives in Lethbridge and in the video playing in the gallery performs an original song called ‘Hold Her Pillow Tight.’ Like Gray, her portrait and sheet music are displayed with the personalized shawl made by Harkins.
Contois’ fancy shawl features jingles to honour her jingle dancing career and is made of fabric that reminded the artist of satin pillowcases. The performance of the song was filmed by Harkins in August of 2023.
In the same trip that Harkins filmed Contois, she filmed a performance by local Blackfoot group, The White Buffalo Singers, singing ‘The Grandmother’s Song.’ The group is made of three members, Jerome Blood, Keira Fox, and Brooke Provost. Their accompanying shawl features over 3,000 bedazzled rhinestones on what Harkins refers to as a kokum scarf. The brightly coloured, floral scarf is framed by a glittering fringe that includes the colours of the transgender flag to represent one of the musicians.
Each of the featured artists within Harkins’ exhibit comes from a different background, a different nation with a different history. But each of the songs is linked to a culture with threads that tie them to one another and experiences that have demanded resilience of the people. “It’s not a monolith, it’s multi-genre,” says Harkins when describing the variety in the music. She continues that hopes “We can all look past the concept of genre and lift each other up for our different songs and cultures.”
‘Teach Me a Song’ by Elisa Harkins will be featured at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery until Jan. 13.