Oklahoma Contemporary
Elisa Harkins for Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ
A person with black hair dressed in a dark long skirt against a dark red curtain backdrop is dancing with a gold rectangular cape that has the symbols/word ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ in large black text.

New Light

May 16, 2024

Preservation and Revitalization through Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ

“There’s a really strong message for Land Back”

A woman with long black braided hair sits against a dark backdrop. She is dressed in black and gold patterned attire, with a gold sash hanging on one shoulder.

Elisa Harkins

Over the last few decades, Native American languages have been experiencing a decline in preservation, including 65 languages already extinct and 75 near total extinction. This is in part due to the violent history of the United States’ treatment of Indigenous communities, eliminating generations through displacement and forced removal.

“When I introduce myself, I say my tribal town is Coweta,” Indigenous artist Elisa Harkins says. “We had our tribal towns set up in the south in the traditional Muscogee way, but when the forced migration happened, they rebuilt that clan system and township system. I’ve never been to the original Coweta; it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s just an empty field somewhere.”

Harkins, Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) and Bear Clan, aims to counteract this consequential loss of Indigenous languages through contemporary use. As a dancer, singer and composer, and the first person to write a contemporary song in the Cherokee language, the artist hones her creative practices as a means of preservation and revitalization.

“My work is really interested in language revitalization, Muscogee and Cherokee, and preserving Indigenous music and old songs, like Muscogee and Seminole hymns and hand drum songs,” Harkins says.

A woman with long dark black hair and wearing a white dress stands against a red backdrop. She is holding a microphone. The image is from an angle above.

Harkins at INDIGIPOPX - IPX 2023

The artist’s musical journey began at the young age of four and continued to develop through junior high and high school voice and dance lessons, in addition to studying under Moscelyne Larkin, a well-known Native American ballerina and one of the Five Moons. However, it wasn’t until a career change into advertising, and then an intense biking accident in 2010, that Harkins found her footing in Indigenous musicology.

“I broke seven bones in my face, and I had a brain bleed, and I had some memory loss to where I literally couldn’t remember how to do some of the [advertising] work I had done,” Harkins says. “It was really strange and really surreal. … My mouth was wired shut, and I had been taking piano lessons, and I just turned to music and started making music. I had been teaching myself Ableton Live, the software, and when I was at home, I found this Native American sheet music and put it into Ableton and started making music and beats, and then started making lyrics and singing on top of that.”

A woman with dark hair is sitting on a white platform surrounded by an audience. She is dressed in all-white attire with a large white feathered headdress. She is holding a microphone.

Harkins' Fake (2014)

This new-found combination of Harkins' interdisciplinary artistic practices led her to grad school in Los Angeles at Cal Arts, where the groundwork for Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ was born.

“I had a studio visit with Wendy Red Star, and she kind of pointed me in the right direction and pushed me into making my work more specific to the Cherokee nation or the Muscogee nation,” Harkins says. “And I really thought about it, and I thought, ‘Well our language and our language revitalization programs — we’re the first tribe to have a printed newspaper written in Cherokee syllabary. So I was thinking about this really rich history of language and this effort for language preservation.”

Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ, showing May 24 in the Te Ata Theater, is an ongoing project in which Harkins sings in a combination of Cherokee, English and Muscogee (Creek) to electronic dance music as an act of Indigenous Futurism.

Three people are performing on stage, lit by pink and purples lights. Two are in the background in crouched positions, one is in the foreground sitting on the floor holding a microphone.

Harkins' Radio III / ᎦᏬᏂᏍᎩ ᏦᎢ

“The idea for the performance is she/me/the person performing is a pop star,” Harkins says. “It’s in the future and everyone knows some Cherokee and everyone knows some Muscogee, so these songs are on the radio. She’s sort of this Indigenous pop star, and there’s a speculative history about her where she is a cyborg and sings in this robot voice. She has preserved the languages and lived through the Trail of Tears, so she knows these really old songs that traveled on the Trail of Tears and these hymns.”

“At first its dance music, and then it goes into this a cappella section, and sometimes I get really emotional when I’m singing these hymns, and then it goes back into sort of this dance music. It’s kind of a roller coaster!”

A person with dark hair dressed in a long dark skirt with gold embellishments is spinning against a dark red curtain

Harkins' for Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ

The message behind the performance celebrates contemporary Indigenous sounds and creations while simultaneously illuminating the history of Indigenous tribes in the States and drawing parallels to current humanitarian crises the world is experiencing today.

“I want people to have fun and enjoy the dance music, but to also sort of make a connection between what’s happening, and what’s happening in Palestine right now,” Harkins says. “The forced migration that’s happening there, and then the forced migration that happened here from the South to Oklahoma for the Indigenous people – those songs are still being sung today. There’s a really strong message for Land Back.”

Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ is referring to the wampum belts and Indigenous peacekeeping, as well as the Cherokee use of wampum beads as currency. ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ, pronounced a-de-la di-ga-gu-di, can be translated to “money on a string.” The intention of the performance is to create a metaphorical peacekeeping agreement, regardless of tribe or race.

A person with dark hair has their back turned against a red-lit backdrop. On their back they hold a large fringed white rectangular cape that reads LAND BACK in large dark text

“The Iroquois Confederacy had the wampum belts and those are what the U.S. Constitution is based off of,” Harkins says. “They’re these peace-making treaties, and one of the most famous ones was a peace treaty between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Dutch. When the Dutch came, they had these giant boats, and the Indigenous people had these little canoes. It’s sort of like we’re going down the river the same, but we don’t interfere with each other, and no one’s bigger than the other; there’s equality going on. Cherokee also have these wampum belts. Some of these were long and white, 16-feet long, and people would run across these belts for the peace treaty to be enacted or come to pass.”

A person with dark hair dressed in a long dark skirt with gold embellishments is holding one hand out in front of them while the other holds a microphone.
Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ

“I’m thinking about the metaphor for the wampum belts, and the audience. When they watch the performance, there’s a peacekeeping treaty happening with the audience, and together they’re weaving the wampum belt.”

Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ shows for one night only, May 24, beginning at 7 p.m., including a special opening performance of Future Ancestors 2124 Mixtape Sessions from local creators DJ Nymasis and El La Katrina. Ticket prices begin at $20 with a pay-what-you-can option. All are welcome and encouraged to attend this futuristic performance.


Elisa Harkins for Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ. Photo: Ian Byers Gambler.

Elisa Harkins. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Harkins performing at INDIGIPOPX - IPX 2023. Photo: Kristin Gentry.

Harkins performing Fake (2014). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Harkins performing Radio III / ᎦᏬᏂᏍᎩ ᏦᎢ. Photo: Mathieu Verreault.

Harkins for Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ. Photo: Ian Byers Gambler.

Harkins performing at INDIGIPOPX - IPX 2023. Photo: Kristin Gentry.

Harkins for Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ. Photo: Ian Byers Gambler.

Tags tags
performance performance art Indigenous artists music dance

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