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More than a tattoo shop: An Indigenous activist’s journey to open up a space for reconnections

More than a tattoo shop: An Indigenous activist’s journey to open up a space for reconnections

Stephanie Big Eagle poses for a portrait in her shop Sept. 28, 2021, at her shop in Fountain Square. Big Eagle grew up in a military family, living all over the world before settling in Indianapolis during her high school years. (Photo by Jacob Musselman)

It was February 20, 2017, one day before the formal eviction of the Oceti Sakowin tribe at the Standing Rock Reservation after months of protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline that ran through the Standing Rock Reservation, potentially endangering an integral water source for the surrounding reservations.

Stephanie Big Eagle, an activist and descendent of the Oceti Sakowin tribe, or the Great Sioux Nation tribe, had been protesting for two months. She remembers that day vividly. She was standing near the edge of camp when around 20 law enforcement officers rushed into camp and started forcefully evicting camp, one day earlier than the agreed-upon day.

After being in the camp for a short period of time, a large thunderstorm came in behind them. Lightning was cracking, winds picked up and it started raining as the officers retreated back to their vehicles. 

Their prayers had been answered.

Big Eagle grew up in a military family and throughout her early years, living all over the world. Around high school, her family moved to Indianapolis where she attended North Central High School. 

For the first half of her life, she says she was disconnected from her ancestors. But after dreaming and having visions where her ancestors were coming to her and embracing her, it reignited her fire and spirit and drove her to reconnect with her ancestry and lineage.

After high school, she lived in Indiana for a while before going to college in California. She attended Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University, a mecca for indigenous activists.

“I went from knowing nothing [about her culture] to knowing too much and being really angry,” Big Eagle said. “I was really angry and I was young and I didn’t know how to control all that rage because it’s not taught. Our history isn’t taught even to some of us Natives. We aren’t taught, we are kept from it.”

Learning how to channel her anger into something positive led her into her activism work. In 2015, with a friend, she visited the Maori people in New Zealand where she received her facial tattoos from a Tā moko practitioner.

“They are markings of identification and belonging to a certain tribe or status and acknowledging who you were in that tribe and what accomplishments you made in your lifetime,” Big Eagle said. “In my nation, our markings were also able to help us pass over into the spirit world.”

In most indigenous cultures, facial tattoos are a form of protection in life and in the afterlife.

Big Eagle had to search and search to see if the women in her tribe had facial markings.

“I was being invited to receive my facial markings by the Tā moko practitioners but I didn’t want to take it on until I knew it was something the women from our tribe did,” she said.

Stephanie Big Eagle poses for a portrait in her shop Sept. 28, 2021, at her shop in Fountain Square. Big Eagle received her facial tattoos during a visit with the Māori tribe in New Zealand. (Photo by Jacob Musselman)

Coming back to the United States, Big Eagle spoke with the Tā moko practitioners about the strength she would need reentering a society where facial markings are still “taboo.”

After coming back to the United States, she put a story out about why she got her facial markings and what they mean to her. Through that, she was contacted by a tattoo artist in Los Angeles to start learning the traditional art of hand poke tattoos.

One of the bigger things Big Eagle is known for is the tattoo design she created for the protest at Standing Rock.

Her tattoo design was inked into the skin of thousands of people who wanted to show support for the fight for water. Big Eagle offered the tattoo for free to anyone who wanted to receive it. People who received the tattoo were asked to donate to Frontline Water Protectors, the people out at Standing Rock standing up for the water.

The tattoo is centered around the Thunderbird, the bringer of rain. In her culture, when they hear the first thunders of the year, it signals the beginning of a new year and a blessing. The Thunderbird also offers protection and values high integrity, honesty, respect and dignity.

“Without the Thunderbirds, we wouldn’t have the water,” she said.

Stephanie Big Eagle shows her tattoos creating a bigger design when connected Sept. 28, 2021, at her shop in Fountain Square. The Standing rock tattoo design was the first tattoo she ever designed. (Photo by Jacob Musselman)

Under the Thunderbird is a teepee, which represents the gathering place for the chiefs and honors the women, the bringers of life. Under the teepee is the river of life with seven dots inside, signifying the seven bands in the Great Sioux Nation.

“Being so disconnected from my ancestry for so much of my life and realizing the power of it through the way my ancestors came in my dreams and reawakened me,” Big Eagle explained. “Part of my role in my work now and what I intend to do with my studio here is to help people reconnect with their own ancestry and at the same time with Mother Earth.”

After reconnecting with her heritage, Big Eagle became an activist and water protector, which is what led her to being involved in the Standing Rock protests. She said being out on the reservation and standing up to protect their water brought her back to what life was like for her ancestors, living in a village and working together as a tribe.

“Everybody had their role and everybody was helping each other,” Big Eagle said. “It was very people oriented and community oriented.”

Stephanie Big Eagle poses for a portrait with her book “Thunderbird Rising” Sept. 28, 2021, at her shop in Fountain Square. Big Eagle released the book about her life. (Photo by Jacob Musselman)

Now, Big Eagle opened up a hand poke tattoo shop in Fountain Square. But her space is more than a place for somebody to come get a tattoo, it is a meeting space. In front of her shop there are items sold made by indigenous creators. In the future, Big Eagle hopes to open the shop as a meeting space for people who want to learn more about their culture.

Her shop is open by appointment only for now and is located at 1339 Prospect Street in Fountain Square.

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