Two Potawatomi artists contributed their talents to a new song and music video. In Speak Again, Elexa Dawson and Nicole Emmons envision a hopeful future for generations of Potawatomi.
The stop-motion animated music video had its Oklahoma premiere on Nov. 26, 2022, in Oklahoma City. Dawson and Emmons also traveled to Hollywood, California, when the video had its world premiere on Nov. 19 during the LA Skins Fest, an Indigenous film festival. Speak Again is now available at cpn.news/speakagain.
According to Dawson’s website, the song and music video tell the story of three generations of Potawatomi who share knowledge across time and space, redefining what it means to truly speak again. Inspired by Potawatomi author Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 best-selling book, Braiding Sweetgrass, the lyrics and video envision a future where Bodéwadmimwen is brought back to Potawatomi communities in a meaningful way.
Speak Again marks Dawson and Emmons’ first collaboration together. They co-produced it with grant support from First Peoples Fund. The video was animated and directed by Emmons.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer wrote about the endangered nature of the Potawatomi language, with only nine first-language speakers remaining at the time. Inspired, former Delaware governor Jack Markell wrote a poem called Nine Remain. He later contacted Dr. Kimmerer to see if she could connect him with a Potawatomi musician to collaborate on a song. Kimmerer put Markell in contact with Dawson.
“It took me a long time to take the poem and think about which direction I wanted to go because I felt that it was past tense,” Dawson said. “I really wanted to take it in a different and more hopeful direction.”
As she wrote, Dawson said she was thinking about Native people in the present and future tense. When she completed the song, she contacted Emmons in 2021 to find out if she would be willing to produce the video. Emmons was thrilled to learn they received a grant from the First Peoples Fund to support the production.
Emmons received the song and produced a storyboard with visuals.
“We collaborated the whole way, but (Dawson) gave me a lot of creative freedom to express things how I saw fit, which was great. It’s always amazing when you work with an artist that allows you a lot of freedom to come with your own visual ideas,” Emmons said. “Then it’s just a matter of making all the puppets, making the sets.”
Dawson helped paint parts of the set but was particularly excited to see Emmons’ attention to detail.
“It was really awesome to be a part of that, because there is so much time that goes into stop motion. I had no idea how much time it took, with building the set, making sure everything looks good on camera, finding the right props to make the environment look esthetically like you want it to look,” Dawson said.
A previous music video Emmons worked on took a year to complete, but Speak Again was completed in about eight months.
“I’m really glad (Emmons) wanted to work on this project because I can’t imagine going through all the discussions that we had about how things should be without it being somebody who understands the desire to (reclaim language). I wouldn’t have been able to have it come out this way with any other artist,” Dawson said.
Emmons agreed it was inspiring to work with another Tribal member.
“I’ve never worked with a Citizen Potawatomi person before at this level. It was really exciting and definitely kind of sets the tone for where I want my career to go. I want to keep working on Native material and content and keep producing Native content,” Emmons said.
Outfits reveal details
They were both grateful for the help of Jayne Fleishfresser and Leslie Deer, who created the intricately detailed outfits worn by the puppets. Fleishfresser made the outfits for the elder and adult, while Deer crafted the outfit for the child.
Emmons said she enjoyed discussing ideas for the outfits and then seeing Fleishfresser and Deer translate the ideas into clothes. One of her favorite details was the visor that the child wears.
“The visor was sort of futuristic looking. And (Deer) decided to put little beads around it. Some people ask about it, but it’s just to keep in line with the futuristic concept,” Emmons said.
Dawson said she appreciated the contrast between the elder and the child because every generation plays a vital role in the community.
“That’s why we need elders in our lives and around kids because we need to get broken out of our structured ideas. I think that’s something that the younger generation really brings to the community that is so vital — that outlandish fun,” she said.
The two Potawatomi words in the video, Nkekyananek and Npenojenanek, were chosen to be inspiring. Nkekyananek means “our elders.” Npenojenanek means “our children.”
“These words carry so much meaning. Hopefully, even if it’s just two new words that somebody learned, that will inspire them to learn others,” Dawson said. “I hope this is another push, whether you’re beginner or advanced, to keep learning language. I watch my daughter know the word for deer and blurt that word out when we see them … when I know that it’s been seven generations since that’s happened in my family. It’s something that I want to inspire other people to do.”
“We’re learning from our elders, we’re getting gifts from our elders,” Emmons said. “Our children are giving us gifts of inspiration. It’s our responsibility to learn language, to learn culture and practice and to pass it on. Because we’ll be the next elders.”
Project for community
As they traveled across the country for both Speak Again premieres, they also received positive feedback from Tribal members across the United States.
Dawson said they want to encourage everyone to view and share the video with friends, family and their social media contacts.
“Share with the community so we can let it be seen by the people that it was meant to be seen by,” she said.
Dawson said she relished the creative freedom to make cultural changes to Markell’s original poem.
“He understood I had to say, ‘Hey, this is what a Native person looks like.’ I see other people reflecting this truth in their own ways through their art. And I’m really glad that we are able to add this to a collection of art that’s coming out in Native publications and mainstream publications that’s looking at Native people as present tense people that have a future,” she said.
Emmons said she was surprised by how the project affected her emotionally.
“I knew the concept was really important, but I didn’t know how much it would end up meaning to me,” she said. “We got to present it at the Potawatomi Gathering, and it was so powerful to be able to do that and to be able to show our message about speaking again and reclaiming the language. It made me take stock of everything I was doing and think about where I want to go. I took it to heart, and it’s had a profound influence on me.”
Dawson hopes their experience with the First Peoples Fund will encourage other artists to seek funding for producing their own art. With support from the First Peoples Fund, Dawson previously released her album Music is Medicine.
“That would be bringing it full circle,” she said. “I think it’s important that as Native people, we work together and lift each other up. There are people who can get Native artists in contact with resources that really make a difference in an artist’s life.”
As a professional filmmaker and stop-motion animation specialist, Emmons has served as director, animator, digital layout artist, set/lighting technician and puppeteer. She has also taught animation, video production, art and puppetry. Her commissioned work has been featured twice on the Netflix series Waffles and Mochi. Most recently, she won Best Music Video at Oklahoma City’s deadCenter Film Festival for A Prayer, which she directed for Andy Artus. Learn more about her work at nicoleemmons.com.
Dawson’s work has been described as sultry soul meets rural roots. With sounds that are accessible yet transcendent, her captivating red-dirt-honey vocals lay on the listener like a blanket of good feelings, giving the gift of healing through sound. Music is Medicine is her original, debut album and describes the motivation behind sharing story and song. Learn more about her work at elexadawson.com.