Blackbird Holistic founder connects to land and culture through lip balm

Applying lip balm can be a nourishing form of self care. Imagine for a moment removing the cap and bringing the tube close to your lips. Before applying the medicine, you take a long slow inhale through your nose.

You breathe in the aromatics from traditional medicines that were chosen and harvested with love and intention. The scent activates a memory of a favourite place, lowering your stress levels. That’s good medicine.

This is the type of experience that Blackbird Holistic founder Lise Gillies wants for her customers. A member of the English River First Nation and Métis Nation in Île-à-la-Crosse Saskatchewan, Gillies handicrafts and hand pours every tube without the use of mass production machinery.

Her business is located on the traditional territory of the Quw'utsun' People in Maple Bay on Vancouver Island. It’s here on the west coast where she gathers medicines from the earth along with her daughter.

Gillies shares with Shop First Nations how her journey of cultural reconnection has fuelled her art and business, as well as the challenges and successes of balancing family and entrepreneurship.

What is the reason you started your business? What did you do before starting this business?

After working with my medicine teacher, I made a special lip balm for my father-in-law who was undergoing heavy chemotherapy and experiencing dry mouth and dry lips. It turned out really well, and I began handing it out to friends and family. A few batches later I began getting requests for lip balm and with the support of my family, launched the business on the side. I've been working in Indigenous communities, schools and friendship centres for a number of years now and can't imagine doing anything else.

Who are the founders and cofounders of your business that you want named?

Just me. But my daughter Cammie who is 7-years-old and has complex special needs (Brain Injury and Autism) loves to help me harvest. I am holding space for her to contribute in whatever way she can, whenever she is ready.

Is your business online? Physical locations? Where can people buy your products? Please list all places customers can buy your products/services.

My business is online, but I have lip balm available at Ixchel on Galiano Island and Fish Hair Salon in Victoria. Additionally, my Every Child Matters fundraiser lip balm is available at A Kinder Cup coffee shop in Esquimalt.

Tell us a major win for your business/ big accomplishment.

In September I launched a lip balm called "Every Child Matters.” It is orange scented and the label design was used with permission from Kwakwaka'wakw artist Carey Newman. 100% of the sale of this lip balm is going toward bursary for an Indigenous student attending post secondary. The fundraiser will continue until October 2022 – at this time I've raised $2800 toward the bursary! I hope to get to $5000!

Tell us about some roadblocks or challenges you have encountered during establishing your business.

Being a wife and mother to Cammie plus working full time has made it difficult to dedicate the amount of time that I need to, to help Black Bird grow. There have been many times I've debated giving up, but then I'll get an order from somewhere really far away, like Moose Factory Ontario, or from someone who has fallen in love with the product and they really want to talk about the process and the ingredients and it reminds me that it's not a job, it's a labour of love.

The plant extractions can take anywhere from a week to a month depending on the season and method (stove top in the winter or in the Cowichan Valley Sunshine in the summer. When I get into making a batch of lip balm, it reconnects me to my culture, and it fills me up.

Tell us about some future dreams for your business.

I hope one day to share the gift of 'medicine making' with Indigenous youth, and specifically Indigenous youth with developmental disabilities and neuro diversity. To bring these youth together to learn, to share, and to make this amazing lip balm… everything from harvesting and processing the plants right up to the finished product, and then to gift.

To donate the proceeds to people, places, programs that create more access to education and experiences for our Indigenous youth and Indigenous youth with developmental disabilities and neuro-diversity, to further access programs and services that they may not otherwise be able to access like starting a Registered Disability Savings Plan or Registered Education Savings Plan and to support anything that celebrates their culture.

How do you advertise for your business?

I have Facebook and Instagram pages, but have little time to really advertise. I attempted to "boost" a post once, but it was connected to the Every Child Matters fundraiser and in the post I spoke about Truth and Reconciliation – the post was not approved for 'boosting' and even after an appeal, it was not approved.

Almost ALL of my sales come from word of mouth or through the Indigenous Women's Marketplace Facebook page.

Can you share a funny or touching story about your business? Could be about starting your business or about a customer.

Medicine making is not without its funny moments! And once you get into it, you become an opportunist! Everyone LOVES the Evergreen lip balm (Douglas Fir oil and peppermint). It was the first lip balm I ever learned to make with my teacher. I LOVE making it, but I HATE to cut trees! Living in the Cowichan Valley, I can always count on a good windstorm to do the harvest for me.

There's been so many times, a storm has recently happened and I'll be driving somewhere, or out walking and see the PERFECT branch of Doug Fir that has come down in the storm… I will stop the car, put the emergency brake on and grab the branch, wherever it is! There I am on the side of the road trying to get a massive branch into my tiny car, or coming home from a walk, packing a HUGE branch over my shoulder all the way home.

My husband says the neighbours probably think I'm a witch LOL!

What influence does Indigenous culture have on your business?

Everything. I began working with my Indigenous medicine teacher, a trained herbalist (Robynne Edgar @Wildaboutplants) in 2018 and through her and my own lifelong journey to reclaim my culture, connect to the land, give back to community, celebrate Indigenous culture through the making and selling this lip balm, it all connects back to culture.

Ethical and reciprocal and sustainable harvesting, time with my daughter, even sourcing the best ingredients like local beeswax and keeping it small batch, hand-poured and handmade, it is these little things that keep me grounded, and taking steps to be grounded connects me to my culture even further.

Is there a meaning behind your logo? Tell us about it.

YES! My 'cheeky bird' I call him! My Grandma Josie (Cree/Métis) always said that when she passed she would come back as a crow, a black bird. She said we would know it was her when we saw her. She said the women in our family had a choice, to come back as a black bird. My whole family knows this. Since her passing in 2002, we've all had really incredible encounters with black birds, experiences that there is NO question, it's her.

I honour her with my medicine making, my logo, and she is present in everything I do, when I'm making lip balm, because I too, choose to be the black bird and I am reclaiming our culture for our family. The culture that she wasn't able to share out loud, only behind closed doors when she made bannock, or used her medicines (root rat, different mushrooms), taught me our language when I was young, humming songs.

How has your family played a part in your business?

I couldn't do this without them! It's not easy to live with me when I'm in medicine making mode! There's jars of oils, bricks of beeswax, paraphernalia everywhere!! The stove-top can be off limits for days when I'm extracting more than one batch! There's lip balm labels everywhere! They take it all in stride and when I get to the point where I say, I can't! They reconnect me to the 'why' and then I have the encouragement to keep going!

Any of your website links, videos, social media posts, or marketing campaigns you’d like us to highlight (help draw attention/traffic to)?

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