Growing up in Oklahoma, Kristy Phillips has held close ties to her Nishnabé roots since youth. Today she serves as a secondary educator at the Hannahville Indian School — Nah Tah Wahsh (Soaring Eagle). There she teaches Neshnabémwen (Potawatomi language) and Indigenous kenomagewen (science), incorporating tribal traditions and lifeways into her lessons. Outside of work, Phillips creates beautiful pieces of artwork, jewelry and more using traditional materials and methods through Neshnabkwewek run by her and her sister Kateri Phillips, who currently serves as the 2019 Miss Potawatomi. A limited number of Neshnabkwewek creations are on sale now at Potawatomi Gifts.
“The gift we have as Nishnabé people is to create, and I think that anybody is capable of doing, especially Nishnabé people. It’s just practice,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ interest in Potawatomi art forms began at an early age. She learned a variety of skills and methods while making powwow regalia with her grandmother. This experience inspired her to create a beading business for a high school project, helping spur her entrepreneurial spirit.
“My business was beaded keychains, and my group made a lot of money that year because my grandma donated beads,” she said. “I just got some dowel rods. I beaded so many keychains. When that was a success, my sister and I put our heads together, and we were like, ‘Man, we should really see if we can sell these to the gift shop.’ So, I have had things in the gift shop since I was a younger child.”
Before obtaining her degree in cellular and molecular biology, Phillips studied and taught Potawatomi under the CPN Language Department as a language aid. Then in 2011, Hannahville Indian Community extended a job opportunity to her.
Phillips’ move to Michigan connects her and her children to Potawatomi ancestral homelands, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
“I kind of made up my mind at a young age that if I was ever given the opportunity to move back north and be back home where we were before the Trail of Death, I would take that opportunity and try to bring back a lot of knowledge to my people in Oklahoma and Kansas,” she said.
As a teacher, she has an opportunity to integrate the Potawatomi language and traditions into the classroom. One way she does this is through world language inquiry by giving students Potawatomi language to investigate and incorporate into assignments.
“It’s basically them researching and inquiring about their language and how to take what they’re given and put into these projects,” she said.
Her hand-crafted items, like winnowing baskets and wild rice knockers, also supplement lessons.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to help them understand that, you know, we are living on this land of the Great Lakes and how much traditional ecological knowledge is built into our language,” she said.
Phillips entwines mindfulness into every step of her creative process, including her favorite part: hand-harvesting supplies.
“Beadwork is fun, but you go to the store and you buy a lot of that stuff,” she explained. “Then, it’s like a whole other level when you can actually go out and harvest that by hand and put those things together. And they’re all things you found out there.”
To learn the proper ways to collect natural materials, she relies on other’s guidance.
“I never go out unless I know specifically what I’m doing and how I ought to do it. That’s always kind of a drawback because it’s challenging sometimes to find people who are willing to teach us. But if you really want to know, then you’ll find that person,” she said. “Put your tobacco down, and ask that person to come to you.”
When learning, she watches others, then tries herself and asks for constructive criticism. Although one instructor may teach a certain method, she remains open to other approaches as well.
“We can’t assume that when somebody tells us something different that they’re wrong. It’s probably a larger piece of the puzzle that we didn’t see,” she explained. “I always say to be open minded about it when you’re learning from people, and take what you can and keep adding on to it and just be really respectful of the plants and their purpose.”
In the past few years, Phillips has learned various techniques to create art and jewelry through peeling birch bark, including PopSocket-style holders that fit on the back of cellphones and medallion necklaces. Regardless of what project she works on, she strives to conserve and utilize every part of the supplies.
“What we recently learned is like the edge shavings, after we peel and make pictures with the birch, the stuff that we’re edging off, we can actually put that into our tea as medicine,” she said. “We’ve been using them because our people are really susceptible to diabetes, different things, and that’s supposed to help with that.”
Learning about these benefits, Phillips’ younger sister Kateri and co-operator of Neshnabkwewek, realized that Nishnabé ancestors may have created this art form as a way to harvest the medicinal benefits of birch.
“My sister was like, ‘It’s really interesting that we knew that this was a difficult medicine to get. So to put a picture in this and get the medicine is way better than just doing it to do it.’ We’re learning that everything we do has a purpose and a reason,” Phillips explained. “It kind of goes full circle, so it’s pretty interesting as we keep progressing.”
Symptoms of colonization such as development, environmental stress and invasive species have negatively impacted traditional ecological knowledge as well as animal populations that the Potawatomi and other Great Lakes tribes have relied on for thousands of years. Understanding this decline, Phillips employs conservative efforts to help ensure future generations also have access to culturally-relevant plants and animals.
“Our trees are really susceptible right now to so many different things that we can’t really take as much as we probably used to as Nishnabé people,” she said. “I know people want to use everything as capital, right, because we’re capitalists, but I don’t think this stuff was ever meant to help us become millionaires. This stuff was just supposed to help us.”
After mindful harvesting, she enjoys using the supplies to create cohesive pieces as well as the chance to introduce the next generation to traditions.
“I’ve got them etching winnowing baskets right now, and they don’t see it; they don’t see the pieces yet. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just a piece of wood.’ So, I am excited to see them when they put it all together because it’s just going to blow their minds,” she said.
Overall, she is thankful that her work connects herself and others to Mother Earth.
“I think that’s what the joy is for me is that there are more people showing that we have traditional ecological knowledge, and we are wearing to show and prove that we know exactly where this comes from,” she said. “And we’re not trying to form it and change it into something that’s disconnected from the earth.”