When an elder asks you for a favor, it’s tribal custom to follow through. But what happens when that favor is valued at thousands of dollars?
For Brian Phillips of Omak, you do it because they said to, despite being “out of the ordinary,” he says. That’s what happened when his uncle “Bud” — tribal member William Clark, of Tacoma — asked him to create a touring, nearly life-size Saint Kateri sculpture for their local church.
“They were trying to get a sculpture and they had a little amount of dollars so my uncle told ‘em I could carve it,” Phillips says, laughing. “So I took the challenge up, presented a clay figure and said, ‘yeah.’”
“I was respecting my elder,” Phillips added. “How we were raised, our elder says something you usually do it.”
Phillips, who’s been carving projects since his youth, cited the loss of his 13-year-old daughter Tawnya to cancer in 2010 as another reason he took on the project. “She was pushing me from her grave. She loved religion. She didn’t care if it was Catholic or another faith, if somebody said let’s go to church, we’re going.”
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who lived from 1656 to 1680, contracted small pox and but survived with bad scars. At 19, she decided to join the Roman Catholic church, accepting the name Kateri. She took a vow of perpetual virginity and upon her death, witnesses said her scars vanished and she appeared as her former self.
Creating a sculpture of Kateri, Phillips says, had its challenges.
He found a piece of old growth fur at the Seattle Art Foundation, selecting it because it looked black. “After I got the piece out, I started carving that lady, which was a task. Fir’s like the hardest wood you can carve. You gotta carve with the grain or it splinters.”
Since the wood was laminated, Phillips found himself working in all sorts of angles. “One section would be in an upward carve. The next might be a downward carve. That made it a really serious task.”
Much of his time was spent sanding the face, he says, “because the lines were so minute.” He ended with a 4-foot-6 sculpture in a white buckskin dress. He used tung oil, lenseed oil and rotten stone mixture on the sculpture, a crafting technique that allows it to appear white from a distance but dark upon moving closer, he says.
Upon completion, Father Pat Twohy and Father Jake Morton came to Phillips’ residence to bless the sculpture. Twohy escorted it back to western Washington.
Through the experience, Phillips also felt blessed.
Next time a tribal elder asks you for a favor, how far will you go?
Cary Rosenbaum is a staff columnist for Tribal Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org!