Each year at Potawatomi Gathering, women 13 to 19 years old from across the Potawatomi tribes in North America compete for the title of Miss Potawatomi. They answer interview questions, display their traditional dance skills and show off one of their many talents. The Wasauksing First Nation at Parry Sound in Ontario, Canada, held this year’s contest at the end of July.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation member and Rhodd and Vieux family descendant Kateri Phillips won the 2019 crown. At 18 years old, she competed a couple of months after graduating from Bethel High School in Bethel, Oklahoma.
“I get to represent our people, which is so amazing to me because that’s always such a strong part of my identity is being Potawatomi. I’m many other tribes, but I was always raised with Potawatomi ideals and the language, and so there’s nothing else that I really resonate with but with Potawatomi,” she said. “To be able to represent our people, it’s surreal and such an honor.”
The honor runs in the family; judges named Kateri’s older sister, Kristy, Miss Potawatomi during Gathering 1999. She pushed Kateri to compete while they watched it at Gathering a couple of years ago.
“I never thought I’d be able to have the confidence to go out there and dance in front of people and show a talent or anything like that. But I wanted that, and so I decided that I was going to push myself and do more things,” Kateri said.
Kristy also told her about the sense of pride and accomplishment she felt from their family. Kateri became more involved in school activities and their community, eventually feeling bold enough to enter Miss Potawatomi.
“They really pushed me to be more confident and outgoing, and talk to more people. I’m really appreciative for that,” Kateri said.
Kateri became friends with the other contestants while they worked toward the same goal. During an interview with the Hownikan, she said it was neat to meet others her age who work with birch bark, bead earrings and make baskets.
“It’s really cool to hear … they do the same things that I’m doing,” she said. “Another girl, she was talking about doing language classes and how she’s the only person her age sometimes in some of these language classes, and I go through that too.”
Kateri started playing and writing music at 12 years old, and it quickly became a passion of hers. For the talent portion of the competition, she played and sang an original song, Indigo Skies. She said it flowed out of her one day.
“I just felt a heavy inspiration, so I just picked up my guitar did a few chords, and the lyrics just started coming. And I was writing them down, and then I had a song before I knew it,” she said. “I realized that I wrote my story, and I wanted to share it with other people.”
After watching everyone’s talents, the judges deliberated. Kateri wore a bright yellow dress with her hair in two long black braids as they announced her Miss Potawatomi and placed the crown on her head.
“I was so happy when I won. I was just crying. I was such a wreck,” Kateri said and laughed. “I didn’t think I was ever going to win, really.”
The 2019 design features the year’s Gathering logo in the center — a green-shelled turtle with a fire on its back representative of the Nishnabé people. Beaded pink flowers and green vines cover the bottom and sides on a background of tan hide leather. Kateri and her family decided its uniqueness fits her.
“I think it looks like me. I honestly thought, ‘I see myself in it,’” she said. “I love (the flowers) so much. I actually have done little designs similar to how it looks, and so I resonate really high with this crown.”
And with it comes responsibilities. Kateri plans to continue learning the language and participating in cultural practices and classes. She calls it all “a way of life.” Besides public appearances at powwows and representing Potawatomi people every day, she is also working with Native Justice Coalition Founder and Executive Director Cecelia LaPointe.
“We’re planning on me talking at schools and stuff like that and doing little workshops and stuff to raise awareness for racial justice,” Kateri said. “And I want to incorporate the crown into that too, as Miss Potawatomi. We’re really excited about that. And we’re making some plans right now, and I’m really stoked.”
As Kateri steps foot into adulthood as Miss Potawatomi, she remembers not many people can claim the honor.
“I’m really happy and proud that they chose me to represent our people for this year.”
Find the latest information on Potawatomi Gathering at cpn.news/gathering.