“My MOWA Choctaw roots are everything. Absolutely everything.”
Holly Nolan is the owner of Lillie Nell, a Minneapolis-based beadworks company that creates handwoven, Native-made earrings. We recently interviewed her about her business, her personal journey, and how she keeps purpose at the center of her work.Your background is intrinsically linked to your business. Can you tell me a little about your personal journey?
"My life changed with a Facebook profile. After fifteen years of searching, a co-worker finally helped me track down my biological father. When I looked at his Facebook picture, I could see my face in his face. In the background, there was a portrait of a Native American woman. At that point, the pieces began clicking together.
Like many Indigenous people, I grew up outside my culture. I didn’t know about my roots, but I had always felt different from the rest of my family. I remember looking at photographs of relatives and not seeing myself reflected in their faces. So, when I discovered that my biological father is MOWA Choctaw (a Native American Tribe located in southwestern Alabama), everything began making sense, and a part of me that had been missing my entire life began to slowly fill.
I began meeting long-lost relatives—sisters and aunts and nephews—and spent all of my free time searching for information about my culture. I was afraid, at first, that I wouldn’t be accepted or that I would be perceived as an outsider. That wasn’t the case at all. My Choctaw community embraced me with their whole hearts, and eagerly called me sister, niece, daughter, friend."How did you connect your background with your business?
"The connection happened naturally and unintentionally. I began practicing beadwork as a meditation, a time to learn about and understand this missing piece of my identity. I learned the teaching to never create when in bad spirits early on, and took that practice seriously. I use Choctaw patterns, storytelling, and Chahta anumpa (Choctaw language) to inspire and name my pieces. My designs may appear to be simple geometric patterns, but all have a story or concept that they represent (path, feather, snake, rainbow).
After beading for a time, I posted a pair of earrings I made on social media. A friend immediately asked if she could buy them, and that’s how I made my first sale. That sparked the idea to turn my hobby into a business. I was in between jobs at the time, and I saw beading as an opportunity to generate some income while I was figuring out my path. I had no idea my side hustle would become my full-time occupation!"Have you faced any challenges while growing your business?
"Overall, I’ve experienced nothing but love and support from fellow Indigenous makers and my MOWA Choctaw family. When I first started this endeavor, I worried about pushback and about not being accepted, but that has never been the case. All my relations understand that I am coming from a place of authenticity. In spite of finding connection to my community late in life, I was born MOWA Choctaw and always have been. Like many of our relations, it took a lot of searching to return home to our community.
Additionally, I had some trepidation around choosing the name Lillie Nell for my business. I knew immediately that I wanted to name my company to honor my Granny, but I questioned if she was truly mine to claim. But my MOWA family members have been my greatest cheerleaders and they often tell me how proud they are to see my business grow and to spread Granny’s name throughout the world. During my first conversation with my sister, she mentioned Granny’s name within the first few minutes. That’s how important she was, and still is. Lillie Nell was our family’s matriarch. She was a well-respected community member and proud to be MOWA Choctaw. Granny sewed and beaded Choctaw regalia and helped pass on that knowledge to other community members.
Other challenges I’ve faced have to do with the nuts and bolts of starting and running a business. There’s so much to track and coordinate! Fortunately, I have a supportive partner who has been my cheerleader every step of the way (he also happens to be extremely tech savvy, which is a bonus!)."Have you thought about scaling up your business?
"I have considered hiring other Indigenous artists to help me grow Lillie Nell, but have ultimately decided to stay small. My personal journey is at the core of what I make, and each piece of jewelry carries a small piece of that story. Even if I trained another beadworker to create an identical piece, I don’t think the work would have the same feel. The world is full of talented Indigenous artists, and I am happy to refer work I can’t take on to other community members."How do you keep purpose at the center of your business?
"Discovering my heritage gave me purpose—my Choctaw roots are everything to me. The purpose behind everything that I do is to honor my ancestors and tell the story of my people, the MOWA Choctaw. Right now, our tribe is not recognized on a federal level, which is essential for the sovereignty of my people and the protection of our homelands.
I also want to increase visibility of Indigenous peoples. There is this perception that Native American culture is something that “once was” and no longer exists, but we are still here, and we are part of a living culture! My family has kept our stories and traditions alive, passing them down through the generations, and I am continuing that legacy with my children. My eldest child recently joined the American Indian Youth Council, which is a vital organization within public education for creating future leaders and equity for Native students."
What advice do you have for those hoping to start their own business?
"Go for it! At a certain point, you just have to do what feels right, even if there are some risks involved. In my experience, if you are motivated and your heart is in the right place, you will find success. I also believe in goal-setting and speaking your intentions. If you have a vision for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to achieve, articulate that vision. State your intentions out loud, and believe in what you say. Your intentions are crucial.
Beyond that, my other piece of advice is to not shy away from hard work. You’re going to put in a lot of hours (even when I take a break, I’m constantly thinking about and planning for my business), but if you love what you do, it will be worth it."