I will always remember Alice Harkness.
Granted, not as well as some of the costumed interpreters who preceded me or even as well as some of the many long-time visitors who took comfort around Alice’s campfire and fed themselves with her unparalleled fried bannock.
I only worked with Alice briefly and towards the end of her long career. Alice was hired at Fort Edmonton Park in 1987 when I was just a boy. It’s possible I met her then, or her sisters, Olive and Maria, in their tipi camp near the Fort.
Former Park interpreter Allison Perry wrote once of Alice and her sister’s warm sense of humour and the way they engaged generations of curious visitors over the years.
“Unsuspecting visitors and staff are often captivated by the good-natured jousting and sarcasm between Alice and the others. Adult visitors respond enthusiastically to this kind of humour, especially the type of remarks that appeal to the shared experiences of the interpreter and the visitors. Remarks relating to husband-wife relations, in particular, bring much laughter and delight to adult visitors. People could obviously identify in a humorous way when Alice complained of her husband’s inability to provide enough meat for the pot and Olive or Maria would respond that if Alice were a better wife, her husband would bring home more meat.”
Over the years, Alice’s daughters, Ida and Olive, joined the Park staff and eventually, so did her granddaughter, Sharon – making the Cree Camp home to three generations of Harkness women. Alice Harkness’ family have ensured that Edmontonians, their guests, and visitors have had a smiling Cree face to introduce them to the area’s First Nations heritage at Fort Edmonton Park consistently for over twenty years.
Bannock, beading, migkawahps (tipis), smiles and, if they are lucky, Alice’s quiet Cree language are the memories many will have formed. She was the first person I heard speak Cree aloud. She was also the first one who tried to teach me how to put up a migkawahp.
Nowadays, Fort Edmonton Park has over fifteen First Nations and Métis staff, and more will be hired as the Park’s Indigenous Peoples’ Experience is built. All of them will have learned something from Alice, whether they know it or not. She acted as a mentor to generations of interpreters, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and set a standard for all to adhere to. Her daughter and granddaughter have brought their own incomparable styles to the job as well.
We’re far from the only ones to honour her work. Last year, the Edmonton Historical Board presented Alice with an award of recognition for her long service in preserving, exhibiting, and promoting the history of Edmonton. Last week, shortly after her passing, the Elders’ committee of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations said a prayer and sang a song for her.
Alice will be remembered by family, colleagues, grateful visitors, and by those who have never met her because she has left behind a wonderful legacy. That legacy includes a bannock recipe that feeds thousands of guests a year, a tipi camp that holds a strong place in people’s hearts, and a daughter and granddaughter who reflect her smile.