Indigenous woman keeps culture alive in Indianapolis

Stephanie Big Eagle grew up ashamed of who she was. As a result, she felt no desire to learn more about her Aboriginal heritage.

Then Big Eagle began to dream of his ancestors, the Lakota and the Dakota Sioux.

“I had one [repetitive] dream in particular… where an elderly man with his headdress and in his full buckskin badges would come up to me and give me a hug, ”Big Eagle said. “It was one of the most welcoming and beautiful feelings I have ever had in my life.”

In his twenties, Big Eagle decided to connect with his culture. As part of this process, she received traditional facial tattoos and learned the practice herself. Today, Big Eagle has a traditional tattoo studio in Indianapolis.

The Big Eagle process begins with a conversation. Traditional handpoke tattoos have meaning, such as identity marks or messages to a person’s ancestors. Big Eagle will sit down with a client and discuss his ancestors as well as what he hopes the design will achieve. She then draws the design using this information.

When a client actually walks into the studio, she says a blessing to honor both her ancestors and those of her client. Then the tattoo begins.

“For me and for my people, tattooing is a very sacred process,” Big Eagle said. “When I call our ancestors like that, it keeps this space open for that and for the ceremony that it really is.”

Stephanie Big Eagle has a traditional hand tattoo on Erica Jaree's hands on Thursday, October 7, 2021 at Thunderbird Rising Studios in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis.  Jaree is indigenous, with roots in the Comanche people.  Jaree is a seed keeper and collector of seeds from the Americas.  She received hand tattoos to symbolize her work.

Hand tattooing isn’t the only way Big Eagle keeps its culture alive. She also sells products made by other indigenous peoples in her workshop. Additionally, Big Eagle often performs fancy shawl dances and activism.

Big Eagle also passes on its culture. One of his children, Jo Long, embarked on his own journey to reconnect with his native roots as he enters adulthood. Long said seeing their mother getting involved in the Indigenous community inspired them to learn more about their culture.

“She has knowledge that I don’t know, and I have knowledge that she doesn’t know,” Long said. “Being able to put this together is good.”

Long attends Indiana University at Bloomington and is vice president of the Native American Student Association. Outside of school, Long is an activist on both Indigenous issues and others that affect communities of color.

As part of their cultural reconnection, Long received traditional Big Eagle tattoos. Long said they received their tattoos, which symbolize protection and guidance, from their mother because they viewed her as one of their teachers to learn about their culture. Long plans to get more traditional handpoke tattoos in the future.

Jo Long helps paint a portrait of Jim Thorpe at an event sponsored by the First Nations Educational and Culture Center on Tuesday, November 8, 2021 at Indiana University Bloomington.  Thorpe is the first Native American to win Olympic gold for the United States.  Artist Steven Paul Judd asked students to help out the painting section as an interactive event.

“It’s intense, but I like it,” Long said. “Traditionally, getting a tattoo has always been a rite of passage. For example, if you can get through this tattoo then it is an accomplishment that you just got.

Big Eagle said watching Long embrace his native roots and know who they are is important.

“I didn’t have that when I was a kid,” Big Eagle said. “To be able to see my children … to have the choice to accept that or not, that’s all for me.”

James C. Tibbs