Meet the Artist Kaylene Big Knife

Chippewa Cree graphic designer and illustrator Kaylene Big Knife is the lighthearted, joyful personality behind the Rocky Boy Pop collars in Stunt Puppy’s Indigenous Design Series. Her designs use bold lines and vibrant colors to bring to life everything that inspires her: the Ojibwe woodlands style, her home on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, Cree language revitalization and all of the rez dogs in her life. Read the interview below, learn more about Kaylene’s art and background and tap the button to shop the Rocky Boy Pop collar collection.

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If you visit Chippewa Cree graphic designer and illustrator Kaylene Big Knife’s Instagram, you’ll see lots of bright colors and florals — and a declaration of her love for cats. So how did she end up designing a bunch of dog collars for Stunt Puppy’s Indigenous Design Series, you ask?

Rez dogs, a term of endearment for dogs living freely on reservations, have been important throughout Kaylene’s life. They kept an eye on her when she was a child growing up on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. And they were there to welcome her home after college — three times! Once for graphic design at the Institute of American Indian Arts, once for Native American Studies at the University of Montana, and finally, for a master’s in linguistics at the University of Arizona.

We sat down with Kaylene to talk about the rez dogs in her life, the history of Rocky Boy, her Cree language revitalization efforts — and how they all inspired her Rocky Boy Pop collar designs.

Can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from?

I grew up on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in Montana, which is sometimes just called Rocky Boy for short. It’s named after one of our founding chiefs, Chief Stone Child, whose name was mistranslated to “Rocky Boy.” The other founder was Chief Little Bear. They spearheaded the movement to get us the land and lobbied with powerful political figures after the treaty-making period. Eventually, the reservation was established in 1916 through a congressional act.

How would you describe your graphic design style?

I’d say I have two styles. One’s like contemporary Chippewa Cree pop art and the other one is more like a fusion of American and Japanese animation styles — I really love animation. But for most of my design projects, I do a lot of bold, clean line work and florals inspired by the Ojibwe — a.k.a. Chippewa — woodlands style.

Another thing that’s very distinctive of my style is drawn from the berries growing around Rocky Boy, like wild strawberries, juneberries, buffalo berries and chokecherries. It’s not something that’s historical or traditional — I just grew up berry-picking with my Grandma, and I tie berries to my family. In fact, my Grandma sent over a juneberry pie this morning!

You also use a lot of really bright, joyful colors in your designs. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I don’t really pull from an exact source. A lot of it is color theory — what looks good with what. I do like using a lot of sunset colors or fire colors — reds and oranges, maybe with some blues and greens — which you see a lot in Ojibwe beadwork. Mainly, I just really like bright colors. I like to keep my work lighthearted, visually.

Cookies Best Design
Rocky Boy Design
Ribbon Skirt Design

So, when did you decide to pursue linguistics?

After art school, I actually tried to leave the graphic design profession for a long time — I just wasn’t vibing with it. So I went back to school at the University of Montana–Missoula, where I decided to pursue Native American Studies and studio art. While I was there, I joined a student group called the Sacred Roots Language Society and started using digital art for Indigenous language activism. That led to my decision to pursue a master’s in linguistics, with a focus in Native American languages.

It’s been a very big blessing to be in both fields — art and language. Since coming back home to Rocky Boy, I’ve been helping with language revitalization efforts for the Cree language while working as a self-employed graphic designer.

What does language revitalization look like, exactly?

So, I’m all about making materials. I’ve created alphabet charts, erasable charts, worksheets and two workbooks, and distributed these materials to various levels — Pre-K up to college. Part of my mission is to distribute those materials for free to whoever may want them because I aim to inspire and provide easy-to-follow Cree language education to all who wish to learn.

I’m also in the process of applying for a grant to make audio and video resources with my grandma, Minnie, who’s a fluent Cree speaker. Audio is one of the most requested materials in the community, so I want to capture audio for a YouTube account called “Minnie and Kay’s Cree Library.” More than half our tribe population lives off the reservation, so they could really learn and benefit from this sort of open source material.

Do linguistics and language activism influence your design work? Are they tied together in any way?

Absolutely. I think there’s language in both of them. I mentioned that Rocky Boy was founded by two chiefs — Chief Stone Child and Chief Little Bear. Chief Stone Child was Chippewa and Chief Little Bear was Cree. They brought their bands together to form my tribe, the Chippewa Cree Tribe, and as such, we have two languages: Cree and Ojibwe. But I don’t know a single fluent speaker of Ojibwe here in Rocky Boy. I say this jokingly — but you know, it has some truth to it — Cree kind of swallowed up all of the Ojibwe.

“My flowers in my design work is the one way I know how to ‘speak’ Ojibwe — the one way I know how to revitalize the language.”

Nowadays, most of our efforts are focused on revitalizing the Cree language. But my flowers in my design work is the one way I know how to “speak” Ojibwe — the one way I know how to revitalize the language. It’s also a language in itself, visually documenting the plants and flowers around Rocky Boy. Though sometimes I just make up the flowers because I want to keep my work very contemporary and imaginative.

Also, a lot of the materials I make for Cree language revitalization incorporate some sort of these design elements, because if you’re going to make language materials, you want them to be visually appealing. They’re both very interrelated.

Very cool! Moving on to the dog collars: what inspired your designs?

When the project first began, Dakota and I got together and we were just kind of throwing ideas around, and there were a few key phrases that we were thinking about in regards to rez dogs. For example, I was thinking guardians, protectors — and I jokingly put immortals because rez dogs roam and can get pretty beat up, but they’re really sturdy and always shake it off. They operate almost like wolves; they stay in packs and there are alphas. But one of the words I also used was gentle. They’re loyal to their people.

From there, I had a very distinct vision of what I wanted to do with berries and flowers, as well as some very specific imagery and colors in mind.

What was some of that imagery?

I knew I wanted to use bear paws and dedicate that collar both to Rocky Boy and all the rez dogs named Bear. There’s this meme that’s like, “How do you know you’re from the rez? You had a dog named Bear.” I just about died when I first saw it because I did have a big, fluffy dog named Bear! And Rocky Boy Indian Reservation is on a mountain range called the Bear Paw Mountains and our most sacred mountain’s Cree name translates to “The Bear’s Heart.” In Chippewa Cree cultural teachings, we consider bears our kin — we never hunt or consume bear.

I also knew I wanted to do something with a horse head. The Cree word for horse is mis ah Tim and the word for dog is ah Tim — there’s just that one syllable difference. And back in art school, I was really inspired by a Potawatomi artist named Woodrow Wilson Crumbo, or Woody Crumbo, who has a very distinct, bold, colorful way of depicting horses and other animals. I love his style and knew I wanted to emulate it for the horse motif.

Could you talk a little bit about what rez dogs mean to you and your community in Rocky Boy?

Rez dogs are integral to all reservations. They live very free lifestyles and come and go as they please. Our rez dogs were always strays that showed up and stuck around because the bond was strong enough. So they’re more than just companions — they come to you, they choose you. They’re some of the best, best dogs.

Who are some of the rez dogs in your life right now?

I live with my sister in a separate village from my mom, and we have a couple of “visitors” as we like to call them. We named them Janky and The Brown Dog.

But at my mom’s house, we have Red and Cookie. Red is such a goofy dog and has so much energy — I can’t even tell you. Cookie, she’s an old girl and a really good babysitter with a strong maternal instinct. I remember one time, I was going to check the mail, and my nieces went across the road to this little stream. As they were leaving, Cookie was between us. She looked at me. She looked at them. And then she made the executive decision that these little kids needed her more, so she took off toward them. It was really, really sweet.

Now that I think about it, there’s a lot of imagery in my collar designs that I associate with a matriarch, like sun dogs and ribbon skirts — and very bold, powerful, feminine colors that I envision a matriarch would wear. I must’ve been thinking about Cookie when I was designing them.

You can find more of Kaylene’s work at kaybigknifedesign.com and on Instagram @kaybigknife.