In Conversation: Interview of Elisa Harkins by Tamara Smithers

Published November 6th 2023

Elisa Harkins’ exhibition “Teach Me a Song,” New Gallery, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN: Photo courtesy of the author.

Tamara Smithers (TS): Thank you for meeting with me on Zoom today. Did you grow up on the Muskogee Reservation in Tulsa, Oklahoma?

Elisa Harkins (ES): No, I grew up around 70 miles north of here on the Miami Reservation in Miami, Oklahoma. It's the headquarters for 9 different tribes. It's the Seneca Cayuga, Miami, Shawnee—I'm trying to think of all the other ones…. Peoria is a really small town, super small. There's maybe 12,000 people there. My grandma lived here in Tulsa and my dad grew up here. Growing up, I didn't know the boundaries of the Muskogee Reservation. That wasn't until more recently, after the McGirt Decision when we were granted tribal sovereignty, that I really understood the boundaries of the Reservation, and that it spans from Tulsa all the way to Okmulgee.

TS: You moved around a lot for your education; you were in New York, Chicago, and LA. What out of all those experiences and all those places most impacted your education and your creative output, and how?

EH: Growing up in Miami, I studied dance. I also took voice lessons. As a youngster, I would travel around a lot and go to different different dance conferences and workshops and camps. I went to New York to study with Alvin Ailey and I didn't like it, and I quit and then I moved to Chicago and worked in advertising for a really long time. Chicago has such a vibrant art scene that I started curating, and then I had a really terrible bike accident, and I started making art and music after that. The bike accident had such an impact on my brain I had a brain bleed, 7 fractures in my face, my mouth was wired shut, and I lost a lot of memory. I was having problems holding down a 9 to 5 and going to work. I lost a lot of my skills from that brain injury, and I didn't know what to do. I moved to LA because my friends were all in LA. I was trying to work, I didn't have a car, and it was really difficult. I ended up applying to grad school, and I got into CALARTS. I would say that had the biggest impact on me. I think that out of all of my education that was the best school I've ever been to. They were really into performance and performance art, and they had an electronic music school within the Herb Albert School of Music. I had a lot of people encouraging me to do exactly what I wanted to do.

TS: Can you tell me more about when you returned to Oklahoma, and why you decided to live on the Muskogee Reservation? And how does the community there impact your work?

EH: I was adopted an on my adoption papers, I'm Japanese, Cherokee, and Muskogee, and so I wasn't enrolled. I had a closed adoption and it wasn't until I went to grad school, and my professors were saying you really need to be enrolled. You could get taken out of Indigenous art shows. People could contest that you're not indigenous and shut down your shows. cause. There's a law from the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act. It was passed while Bush was president and Jimmy Durham, who is not enrolled Cherokee, had a show in San Francisco, a solo show, and it was taken down because of this act. He would be in a group show, and he'd be taken out of it. The Cherokee Nation is really serious about it, and you can go to prison for saying you're indigenous, and making indigenous art [if you’re not].

My teachers told me about this, and I told my parents; my parents never really wanted me to be enrolled, and they really felt like well, you're our daughter, and that's how we see the situation. We had to go through this really long process of getting a lawyer and opening up the documents and trying to find my natural parents and it took a really long time. We kept asking the Cherokee Nation, where's the enrollment? And they're like, no. Finally, we talked to the Muskogee Nation. And they were like, there she is. For years and years this went on, and I just was like, oh, this is never going to happen. We started this process while I was living in LA, and then nothing happened. A friend of mine passed and I made an art piece about it. She passed in a way that was very traumatic for me and my friends. I ended up working for the NFL doing graphic design and I don't even know anything about football. I was really unhappy, so I ended up moving back home and trying to figure out what I was gonna [sic] do. I got a fellowship here in Tulsa, so I ended up moving to Tulsa for like 3 and a half years when I was in this fellowship.

When I was in grad school, I had this life-changing studio visit with Wendy Red Star, whose Crow. She was like, okay, how do you make your work more tribally specific to to who you are? And so I was like, oh, well, the Cherokee Nation is very serious about language revitalization, and we have our own alphabet [syllabary]. That was created post-colonization by Sequoia [during the early 19th century], which then, we had, I think, the first newspaper, and so I was like, okay, our language is what makes us unique. Then I started teaching myself Cherokee on my own while I was in LA, and then, coming back to Oklahoma, I started taking online Cherokee lessons and in-person Muskogee lessons. That's how I reconnected with my tribe, and being invited to ceremonies and different things. I sing, so the first Muskogee language class that I went to, my teacher, Don Tiger, who passed during the pandemic, said, “Oh, hey, Hoktie, go learn this song “Hesaketv Meset Likes” and and come back next week and sing it for class. And so I went online and I learned it. Then came back to class and sang it. I know different hymns, so I sing those. People ask me to come to things and sing sometimes.

TS: You mentioned earlier about the granting back of the land? Can you talk more about that?

EH: I think it was in 2020, July 2020, when there was a court case. A citizen of the Muskogee Nation had committed a crime, and his defending lawyer said, well, the State of Oklahoma doesn't have jurisdiction over this case, so he can't be imprisoned in an Oklahoma state jail. He said the reason is because of this treaty [signed in 1866]. We were removed from the Southeast, forcibly removed [during the 19th century]. Thousands of our population died, more than half of our population died during this forced removal. And we signed a treaty. So you're forcibly removed, you go to Indian Territory, you start your new life there, and you have sovereignty over your tribal lands. Anyway, the case goes to the Supreme Court [in 2020] and the Supreme Court says, yes, the treaty is still good. This set a precedent for all the other tribes in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation said, is our treaty still good? Yes, granted tribal sovereignty. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, is our treaty still good? Yes, and then on and on and on. Almost all the tribes in Oklahoma got tribal sovereignty back. That means a lot of things. The governor is fighting it still. The governor and the mayor of Tulsa are fighting [it]. They're trying to overturn the McGirt Decision because of money. Basically we are owed taxes. I think 200 years of back taxes. Being granted tribal sovereignty means that we have jurisdiction over our land. But they are cross deputizing with the city of Tulsa, so that Tulsa police can also police tribal citizens.

A lot of really big changes have been made, and a lot of money, is going into healthcare and healthcare for veterans and behavioral health, domestic abuse, and elder housing, and just so many really amazing things. During the Covid pandemic, the State of Oklahoma wasn't vaccinating everyone and the Muskogee Nation  set up vaccination centers. Basically, anyone, any tribal citizen, any non tribal citizen, anyone who wanted to get vaccinated, they would vaccinate them. Just watching this happen is has just been really amazing

TS: Your interest in community and your interest in the preservation of histories and traditions, and also sharing those. A big part of your work is that teaching or sharing aspect. As an Indigenous artist and composer, what do you believe is the most important part about exhibiting and performing for non-Native artists? What do you want them to receive from your from your work?

EH: I mean, there's a lot of things. I think I want people to grapple with the fact that Native people aren't all the same, and that there's such a wide variety, that it's not a monolith. And that there's not one genre of music and that there's no universality about Indigenous culture. It's very tribally specific, and even within that, there's so much diversity. I think that there's so many stereotypes and so many cartoons and that sort of thing. Those things are slowly being challenged and broken down. I think that through sharing songs, it really shows that Native people are making electronic music—it's the future and the present and the past all together.

TS: You mentioned the future--your work is described as “Indigenous Futurism.” What does that mean to you and how does your work fit into that genre?

EH: Well, I think Indigenous Futurism is sort of imagining what an Indigenous future looks like. Sometimes collectively. And for me, a lot of it is about language preservation. In the future, of course there's Indigenous languages are on the radio, or they're on the TV or there's a pop star who's Indigenous. The regalia in the future is made out of satin and rhinestones, and really sparkly synthetic materials and is designed from a dress that's from the 1800s. [It’s] just just sort of speculative fiction about what an Indigenous future looks like.

Installation of Elisa Harkins exhibition “Teach me a Song” with video of Louis Gray playing the AIM song and artworks such as AIM Song in the background, New Gallery, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN: Photo courtesy of the author.

TS: Your current exhibit “Teach Me a Song” has been traveling around the American South. It was at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL. And then it's gonna [sic] be on view here at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN October 13 through December 8 [2023], and then in the spring [2024], it goes with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Arts at College at Charleston in Charleston, SC April 5 through July 20. And you're also going to be performing at the Spoleto Festival there. What is that body of work about?

EH: My language, teacher, Don Tiger, who taught me the Muskogee hymns, said if you know one indigenous song you can go anywhere in the world, any indigenous community, and you will, you know, have something to share with that community. It’s sort of a old tradition, this Indigenous song sharing and trading. That's really kind of what inspired the project. And Loius Gray. He's an Osage elder. His ancestors are depicted in the new movie Killers of the Flower Moon. He said he wanted to teach me the AIM Song, the American Indian Movement Song, so I shot some video of that. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do and then I realized that I was just really interested in sharing Indigenous songs. And, preserving languages, just showing the unique, embodied sort of knowledge that Indigenous people have. I also wanted to show that we're living, breathing people because a lot of the times artwork is shown like artifacts, or it feels like it’s dead, or it’s from people who have already passed, or it's sort of presented in a way where we don't exist in the present or the future. I just really wanted to present the work in a way where it was celebrating people who are alive now, and people of all ages. [It’s] an investigation into Indigenous music and indigenous musicology.

Elisa Harkins, AIM Song, New Gallery, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN: Photo courtesy of the author.

Elisa Harkins, American Indian Movement Song and portrait of Louis Gray, New Gallery, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN: Photo courtesy of the author.

TS: The performance connected with this exhibition is called “Wampum.” For somebody who doesn't know the background, what is wampum? Why is it important to Native American cultures? And then maybe specifically, why is this performance called “Wampum”?

EH: In Cherokee culture, and actually other Indigenous cultures here in Oklahoma, and I think most notably, the Iroquoi Confederacy, there are wampum belts for different peacekeeping agreements between tribes, but also treaties between non-Native people. The Iroquois Confederacy has a 2-row wampum [belt], which is white with 2 purple rows. The Dutch arrived on their lands, in a giant boat, and they said, well, we don't have a giant boat, we just have these little canoes. But we have this belt that looks like an equal sign: we're in one row and you're in the other row. Even though your boat is bigger than ours, they're still the same size and so we're going to kind of stay in our rows but still respect each other but not really interfere with each other, and live in peace this way. The Cherokees had a white wampum belt that was really huge. It was really long. And then after the peacekeeping ceremony, people would run across it. I was thinking about this, the wampum belts, and the metaphor for the performance, that it's a peacekeeping agreement with the members of the audience. While they're watching the performance, they're weaving this wampum belt together, a peacekeeping agreement to respect each other. The performance is really centered around language, revitalization, and language preservation of the Cherokee and Muskogee languages.

Elisa Harkins performing Wampum. Photo courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Ian Byers Gamber.

TS: I can't wait for the performance and the exhibition in November—thank you again for for being interviewed today.

HS: Thank you so much.

Elisa Harkins, “Teach Me a Song” October 13–December 8, 2023, New Gallery, Austin Peay State University; Wampum/ ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ, November 15, 6pm Trahern Black Box Theater

Tamara Smithers is Professor of Art History at Austin Peay State University where she was recently awarded the National Alumni Association Distinguished Professor Award. She received her PhD at Temple University in 2012 in Italian Renaissance art history. Select publications include a monograph book entitled The Cults of Michelangelo and Raphael: Artistic Sainthood and Memorials as a Second Life (Routledge Publishing, 2022), an edited volume called Michelangelo in the New Millennium: Conversations about Artistic Practice, Patronage, and Christianity (Brill Publishing, 2016), and essays on Michelangelo’s Capitoline Hill in Rome, his working practices, and Raphael’s style. She also teaches a Native American Visual Culture course and publishes on contemporary Native artists.

Elisa Harkins (Cherokee/ Muscogee) is a multi-media artist, composer, and performer who resides on the Muscogee (Creek) Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She received her bachelor’s degree from Columbia College, Chicago, and a Master of Fine Art from the California Institute of the Arts. She has since continued her education at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Harkins has exhibited her work at Crystal Bridges, documenta 14, The Hammer Museum, The Heard Museum, and Vancouver Art Gallery. She integrates Indigenous language into her creative endeavors as an act of reclamation, as an effort to decolonizing Indigenous musical traditions, and as challenge to alter the fate of endangered languages. This mission is through active use, preservation on pressed vinyl, and radio play.