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Stephanie Big Eagle on renewing sacred Indigenous handpoke, facial tattoos

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Posted at 4:24 PM, Mar 18, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS — The tattoos on Stephanie Big Eagle's face were channeled down by her ancestors.

She received her ceremonial markings while in New Zealand, learning from Māori spiritual experts, the Indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Māori believe the head is the most sacred part of the body, and facial tattoos are a rite of passage, according to NewZealand.com.

"I steeped myself in the tradition of their facial tattoo practice in order to learn and to bring some of that knowledge back to my people," Big Eagle said.

Face tattoos are an ancient tradition for many Indigenous peoples. However, the sacred practice of identity and heritage has lost its significance among Native American nations, including the Lakota and Dakota Sioux, Big Eagle's ancestry.

"It's telling our stories, telling our status, our identity, and strengthening our commitment — our responsibility — to our people, in our commitment to this earth and a certain way of living that is balanced in harmony and with all integrity and respect for our relationship with Earth," Big Eagle explained.

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Stephanie Big Eagle is the owner and tattoo artist at Thunderbird Rising Studios in Indianapolis.

After Big Eagle received her first markings, she says it changed her life forever.

"It set me on this path. The studio, everything that I have, the tattooing — everything came to me after that," Big Eagle said. "It's following that journey of our heart."

Although facial tattoos are a rite of passage among many Indigenous tribes, Big Eagle says the practice was persecuted in North America during colonization. At which point, the ancient tradition was lost among Indigenous people.

Big Eagle is helping renew and destigmatize the ancient tradition for Indigenous people in the West.

"When we lived in harmony and balance, our tattoos were an integral part of that process," Big Eagle said. "For me, it was about going and thinking about the way [my ancestors] saw things rather than the way people today see things. Because the way people see things today is not steeped in anything that's really going to be everlasting or sustainable for the future."

MORE: 'We are people of the present': AICI leader on Native American Heritage Month

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Author and handpoke tattoo artist Stephanie Big Eagle stands in front of a mural that depicts one of her ancestors, Chief Big Eagle (left), and prophet White Buffalo Woman (right) inside Thunderbird Rising Studios.

Handpoked tattoos at Thunderbird Rising

Traditionally, when you receive an ancestral marking, it's applied by handpoking. It's a method that Indigenous people have practiced for thousands of years.

Big Eagle is the traditional handpoke tattoo artist and founder of Thunderbird Rising Studios in Fountain Square. It is the first Native-owned handpoke tattoo studio and retail space in Indianapolis.

"Indianapolis, Indiana is named for how many Native people used to be here. It was the mecca for my people back in the day," Big Eagle explained. "When you fast forward to today, it's like where are we?"

Thunderbird Rising, located at 1339 Prospect St., exclusively features Indigenous art, photography, jewelry, and other products. Big Eagle also hopes her studio will be a place for Indigenous people to gather for events and have their voices heard.

"This is a place where Indigenous people are heard foremost," Big Eagle said.

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A mural inside Thunderbird Rising Studios depicts one of Stephanie Big Eagle's ancestors, Chief Big Eagle (left), and prophet White Buffalo Woman (right). Thunderbird Rising Studios is by appointment only and generally is booked three months out.

Big Eagle's process of handpoked tattoo art is about revitalizing the ancient method to incorporate modern tools while maintaining the ceremonial tradition.

"I'm revitalizing that as a way of helping, not only Indigenous people, but anyone who wants to have that experience to be able to have that opportunity," Big Eagle said.

An Indigenous artist creates each tattoo design with respect to the individual's identity—for instance, Viking, Celtic, Balkans, African, and other heritages.

"I will work with anybody, but I just make sure that the designs are appropriate to who they are," Big Eagle said.

Keeping with traditional form, Big Eagle asks each person looking to book a handpoked tattoo session with her what they're seeking — for example, protection, connection, direction, replenishment, etc. She uses cedar and sage to smudge the area before the session, as well.

Suppose you're seeking to get an Indigenous facial tattoo. In that case, Thunderbird Rising's website states it requires a minimum of three months of sobriety out of respect for the tradition and to prepare "for the red road ahead that you are choosing to embark upon."

Big Eagle says it's about "understanding how sacred" Indigenous handpoked tattooing is and the "ceremony that comes along with it."

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Renewal

As we find our way out of a two-year pandemic, some people may be struggling with their identity. It's almost apparent that our society faces the inner dilemmas of "who am I?" and "what do I stand for?"

"We're literally having to navigate a post-apocalyptic world for our people. And so now we see other people, other nations, going through this as well. And the root of that is a disconnection to our earth; disconnection to our purpose," Big Eagle said.

Big Eagle, 40, faced an identity crisis nearly 20 years ago, which she talks about more in her memoir, which is the eponymous name of her tattoo studio. She explained that part of her crisis with her being was the people around her and not feeling connected to the earth, which she sees much of soceity going through now.

"We are in a time of incredible transformation, and there's nothing that anybody can do to stop that, and it's meant to come," Big Eagle said.

She recommends getting out into nature, going on walks, spending time alone in the quiet. Reflection is key.

"Allowing your thoughts to come through and to process that and to strengthen your relationship with who we really are as humans, just in general, which is that everything that we have, everything that's provided to us comes from the sun, and comes from the earth, and from the air," Big Eagle explained further.

When Big Eagle received her ceremonial facial markings, she found harmony and balance. This, in her eyes, is the real power of the world. It's not money. It's not status.

She's proud, and most importantly, at peace with connection.

You can learn more about Big Eagle, purchase her book, and make an appointment at Thunderbird Studios, at stephbigeagle.com.

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WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at shakkira.harris@wrtv.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.