As a lifelong performer, singer and guitar player, Ogee family descendant Elexa Dawson sees music as her life’s mission. She formed a female folk band named Weda Skirts (formerly The Skirts) in Kansas in 2008. While they considered performing together as a hobby, the band became more serious in the last few years and released two albums.
“That’s just kind of where I’m living in right now is a realization that what I’m doing is, it’s important. It allows people to connect to emotion, which is important for healing,” she said. “As I write a song, as I get a song out, I can really experience the healing that takes place within my own soul and my own spirit to get those words and those sounds out.”
Releasing a solo record became the next step in Dawson’s musical career. As the idea solidified, she discovered the nonprofit First Peoples Fund, which supports Indigenous artists and their capacity to spread their culture. In late 2018, she applied for the nonprofit’s Artists in Business Leadership Fellowship grant and was one of the 25 candidates awarded $7,500.
“I felt really nervous but also very confident going through the application process because it seemed like they were offering it right to me because of what I had already made a decision in my life to do,” she said.
She began the year with the intention of developing her individual artistry and promoting herself as an act separate from her band. Dawson has written enough music to accommodate both.
“Weda Skirts have two albums of original music that we’ve released, and the entire first album and most of the second album is songs that I’ve written,” she said.
Dawson set another goal for 2019 of immersing herself in communities with other Nishnabe people and connecting with Potawatomi culture.
“I didn’t really know how those things went together, and I just kind of finally realized, ‘Hey, wait. These do go together, and this is who I am as a person, and I don’t need to hide that. And I need to be honest about where I am with my life and the culture,’” she said.
The application process built up Dawson’s confidence and made her form a plan on a timeline as well as budget the grant money in advance — something she had never done when considering artistic goals.
“It kind of made me resolve,” she said. “Like even if I don’t get this grant, I have to do this project because I had gone through the process of the planning to that point, and it seemed like it could really be a reality.”
Her plan includes traveling to the Potawatomi homelands in the Great Lakes region to learn traditional sugar bush syrup harvesting, fishing, Indigenous gardening, wild ricing and more to get inspiration for songs. She also budgeted for recording, the production of CDs or vinyl, and promotion.
“I really thought that the way forward was to be a whole person and to treat this as a holistic project,” Dawson said. “And so, creating music to further my community as a solo artist but then also just being vulnerable about this area of my life where I feel like so much of our culture is lost, and I feel the need to rediscover it, to experience it and hopefully, to reconnect the generations.”
“The art that I’m creating right now is based on a concept of retracing the steps of the ancestors and collecting those things that were left along the path,” she said. “Because that’s part of our Seven Fires prophecy that in that time that we are in right now that we have lost our way in a lot of ways, and that we’ll retrace the steps.”
For Dawson, that means participating in Potawatomi traditions in physical or distinguishable ways as a means of preservation.
“My focus for this project is that it’s all about the connection to the land. If we don’t have that connection, if we’re exploiting resources, if we’re not learning the language, if we’re not doing the work, then what makes us Native?” she said.
She believes engaging becomes effortless over time as it becomes habitual, which includes gardening and the importance of Indigenous food sovereignty. Dawson has written songs about water, honoring food and the Earth as a mother.
“I’m just trying to wake us all up to the fact that we are dependent on this earth, and as humans, we’re even lower than the plants, because the plants don’t need us. We depend on them,” she said. “We’re like their children. We can’t live without them, but they would do fine without us.”
Her creative process also covered an aspect of Tribal history that impacted Potawatomi women that is not covered in many history books.
“There’s one song that’s about kind of the loss of identity through names and relationships, and then also the idea that so many people just were taken from their families and given a new name in residential schools,” Dawson said.
Many Potawatomi women’s land ownership in the Great Lakes region transferred to French fur traders when they married and changed their names.
“That’s about the connection to the land and going back to a place where we’re working with it and having respect for it and not just the exploitation, not just logging for fur trading until all the animals are gone,” she said.
Dawson’s Potawatomi name is Amo (Bee). It fits given her desire to develop reciprocal relationships with other Tribal members, learn from nature, and then teach those practices and philosophies through her craft.
“I see that functioning in my life in a lot of ways, whether it is that idea of pollination, that I’m connecting things that maybe exist in two different friend circles, but I’m bringing those people together, or ideas or concepts that are in my life that I sort of am able to put together,” she said.
First Peoples Fund brought all recipients together in Phoenix, Arizona, at the end of February to allow them to meet and discuss their projects. The other artists inspired Dawson and strengthened her resolve to continue her album.
“It let me know that I wasn’t the only one out there kind of doing this weird thing where I’m trying to be really respectful of my heritage and really careful about not exploiting it, but also understanding that the work that I have to offer this world is valuable and accepting that as work that I have to do,” she said.
She plans to work with the harvesting seasons and complete her collection sometime this fall.
“My whole mantra for this year is, ‘Music is medicine,’” she said.
Find out more about First Peoples Fund and their opportunities by visiting firstpeoplesfund.org.