October 2023 Creative and Visual Art
K e y r a A r r o y o
(Afro-Ecuadorian & Kañari)
Artist & Climate Advocate
What inspired you to become a climate justice activist?
I wouldn’t call myself an activist. I come from a family line of agriculturists, and artisans both from the coast and the Andes. Many people who come from Black, Indigenous, or rural communities grow up with the important values and knowledge that today fall under the title of “activist”. What my ancestors and communities have been doing for generations is simply living in their ancestral ways, respecting and nourishing reciprocity with the land, their home. Protecting our home for those who came before us, for those who are here in the present, and those to come in the future. Climate justice, advocating for our home, and for our people are embedded in our core values.
Why is climate activism important to you?
Advocating for climate is important to me because it is a matter that is important to everyone and everywhere. We are all currently facing the climate crisis. However, the places where the climate crisis devastates the most are in frontline communities, including my ancestral communities. That is, communities who face exploitation, extra activism, land violence from powerful wealthy companies/corporations; contamination, displacement, violence, and instability as the direct effects from the persistent land violence, and major changes such as unpredictable/accelerated weather patterns that cause major problems in the communities. Yet, these communities make up a small percentage of the world’s population and protect a great amount of the biodiversity worldwide.
For this reason, advocating for climate is important because it amplifies what happens in frontline communities, which is directly correlated with the climate crisis. Also, it interestingly shows the drastic difference between who and where those in position of powers are from, and where/what they are making decisions about. Addressing this power imbalance through advocacy is essential in order to make change.
"For this reason, advocating for climate is important because it amplifies what happens in frontline communities, which is directly correlated with the climate crisis. Also, it interestingly shows the drastic difference between who and where those in position of powers are from, and where/what they are making decisions about. Addressing this power imbalance through advocacy is essential in order to make change".
When did you first become interested in art?
Ever since I was a little girl, I was very interested in art through many different forms. Till this day, my mom still keeps all of my first drawings as a toddler, elementary school canvas paintings, and poems. Actually, I have a picture that was taken of me when I was about 5 years old, with a smile from ear to ear, receiving my first camera for Christmas as a present (It was a Hello Kitty camera). I used to play the violin for 2 years, made YouTube videos and travel video edits, made polymer clay charms, which in fact I still have in a collection box, painted more canvas and sketches.
Now that I am older with more responsibilities, like college and working, I did stray away from some of the many art I used to do. However, some of these artistic branches I still practice today, such as photography/video editing, poetry/storytelling, painting/drawing, and tapping into graphic design. Needless to say, I have always had an interest in art.
Tell us more about your mural unveiling.
Weaving Llaktas is the name of the mural that Adina Farinango and I created together in collaboration with Design and Instagram. This piece was created with the intention to show Indigenous sisterhood, holding each other and looking up to one another, our presence and existence a symbol of light and resistance navigating our two worlds both in territory and in the diaspora. This mural was unveiled on September 19th and was up for 1 month in Brooklyn, NYC.
"Weaving Llaktas is the name of the mural that Adina Farinango and I created together in collaboration with Design and Instagram. This piece was created with the intention to show Indigenous sisterhood, holding each other and looking up to one another, our presence and existence a symbol of light and resistance navigating our two worlds both in territory and in the diaspora".
For both of us, our hair is important and carries memories of past and present. We molded native plants and elements/sacred beings such as mountains (Andes) and the ocean (Pacific coast) into our hair as a symbol of memories that are tied with our existence and nurtures us anywhere we are. The mullu or spondylus (sacred shells in cultures in Ecuador, it has been exchanged since ancestral times in Abya Yala as a symbol of abundance and reciprocity between peoples) as earrings tie the theme back to our unity and the solidarity between our communities all the way from the Pacific coast to the Andes. Lastly, we added the NYC skyline in the background to symbolize our walk in 2 worlds as Kichwas in the diaspora. While we grew up in NYC, we are still walking with the memories and unity from our home. I still have no words for this beautiful project. So many indescribable emotions and heartfelt gratitude. Overwhelming joy to have Afro and Indigenous representation in the middle of NYC. To share our bond and unity. I also would have never thought that the first time sharing my art will be in the form of a mural.
How has your culture influenced both your art and activism?
My identity and culture is what keeps me grounded. It is what I grew up knowing, and what I will carry with me forever despite being so far from my homeland. Of course, I don’t want to romanticize my communities and being Afro-Indigenous since the raw truth is that there is a lot of dark history, and even now there is much instability and harm in my communities. However, the mere fact that we are still here, and have resisted, and continue to resist against acts of erasure and injustice speaks volumes. With the force of our identity and culture we have continued and continue to pave the way for generations. This same force is reflected throughout my art and advocacy, the sharing of my history, communities, and experiences. It is a fire in me that warms me and illuminates inspiration to keep expressing myself in the form in which I’ve felt most comfortable since a young age: through art and vocalizing.
"With the force of our identity and culture we have continued and continue to pave the way for generations. This same force is reflected throughout my art and advocacy, the sharing of my history, communities, and experiences".
Can you speak more about how you raise awareness about racial issues in Ecuador?
Since high school, I have been working to raise awareness about anti-Blackness in Ecuador, especially in environmentalism. There are Afro-Ecuadorian communities in Ecuador where people still live in ancestral ways and are being impacted by extractive industries that invade their territories. Along with other Afro-Ecuadorian advocates, we started El Cambio en Ecuador, an anti-racist educational group. Another big motive for the creation of El Cambio EC was due to the murdering of George Floyd in the United States. We saw how much of the Ecuadorian society was quick to lament his death, and criticize the racism in the United States, all while turning a blind eye and denying the racism that exists in Ecuador.
From our own diverse passions and paths we brought more awareness about racial issues throughout different spectrums in our society. Also, I've done work with Roots & Routes IC, helping ancestral Afro-Indigenous communities fight for Rights of Nature. Most recently, I was working for Indigenous Intentions, a brand run by Dr. Tomasina Chupco, an Afro-Indigenous scholar who raises awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples. Through infographics and content creation in such a platform, I was able to also raise awareness about racial issues in Indigenous communities in Ecuador.
Are there any challenges you've had to overcome as an activist and artist?
There is this belief people hold that you can’t mix art with advocacy. People want you to either be purely artistic, without touching on political issues and current problems, or purely an activist who only goes to conferences and only shares critical analysis and information on issues. I am an intersectional being that comes from different paths of life, holds different passions, and considers many things part of my existence as a whole. It makes up who I am and how I express myself to others. It definitely takes a toll on you at first when you read too much into what people expect from you. Overcoming this was challenging, especially in a society that loves to dictate what is seen as successful or valuable. In spite of that, I just kept being true to myself, and communicating through the way I felt most comfortable.
What are some words of advice that you can give to future artists who want to integrate both art and activism together?
If you are a future artist, then I strongly urge you to stay authentic and true to yourself. There will be many times where you want to fit into a certain standard and will feel discouraged by society. When you start creating for the sole purpose of expressing your passion, your love, and yourself you will soon relight that fire inside of you.
"If you are a future artist, then I strongly urge you to stay authentic and true to yourself. There will be many times where you want to fit into a certain standard and will feel discouraged by society. When you start creating for the sole purpose of expressing your passion, your love, and yourself you will soon relight that fire inside of you".
Outside of your art, what are some other hobbies that you enjoy?
I really enjoy listening to music and dancing in my room. Much of the music I listen to isn’t commonly heard in my age group, which is why I get told I have an old soul, when in reality I just grew up listening to them second handedly from my elders. The great majority of what I listen to is pasillos, pasacalles, sanjuanitos, marimba, cumbia, and traditional music from the Andes. Also, I enjoy thrifting and have recently been tapping into the art of fashion. I love traveling, walking around new places, extreme sports, and floating in bodies of water.
Picture of Keyra's aunt Maria Arroyo taken by Glenn Arroyo
Picture of Keyra's uncle Jose Pincay resting after a long day working on their land taken by Keyra
Picture of ruins from Keyra's nation (Kañari) that she visited back in 2021. Keyra wrote a small story about (shared down here) taken by Keyra.
"and with each step, she felt the imprints of her footsteps align with the imprints of her ancestors".
S t e p h a n i e
B i g E a g l e
(Dakota & Lakota)
Indigenous Handpoke Tattooist,
Dancer, Model, Actress
What inspired you to start your journey as a creative artist?
I started out as a classical violinist. I even placed as second chair violinist for our high school symphony, which consistently won national competitions. After high school, I sold my instrument due to financial hardships. This severed my relationship with the violin forever. However, the classical training remained with me and I’ve kept a keen ear for music ever since. When I was a classical violinist, I could only read music and could not improvise by ear. I was also going through an incredibly difficult time at home – experiences that I kept to myself. The music I played with my symphony helped to keep my head above water while I endured these hardships at home.
After selling my instrument, which coincided with me leaving the environment I was raised in, my creative relationship with music began to flourish, and I started creating music with any instrument that I could get my hands on. Now, I create music for healing, and for personal expression that transmutes the challenging experiences and trauma of my past into positive and inspiring art that speaks to love, and to the resilience and empowerment of my people – the Lakota and Dakota – and to all those who have survived against all odds.
How would you describe your musical style?
I like to dabble in multiple genres such as reggae, EDM, world folk, spoken word, and dance. Almost all my tracks feature Native American style chanting in the chorus or background that honors my culture and heritage. I include themes that speak to our experience as Indigenous people and to our prophesied healing and empowerment despite the challenges we have been forced to endure. Also, I love to sing love songs that can inspire healing in anyone and remind them that they are never alone no matter how difficult their journey may seem.
Are there any musicians who have influenced your musical journey?
Damian Marley, Bob Marley, and many influential reggae artists have hugely inspired me by their ability to create music that was not only beautiful to listen to, but which also made powerful statements that inspired humanity to rise to higher states of consciousness, to make change in their environments, and which also spoke to future changes, like prophesy. I was also deeply inspired by John Trudell and similar Native American artists that used music as a tool to raise awareness, to honor our traditions, culture, and history, and to inspire all people to keep on rising no matter what.
Can you give us a brief synopsis of your memoir Thunderbird Rising?
Thunderbird Rising is my memoir of Reconnection, Resilience, & Empowerment. It is a poignant survival story that intends to serve as a guide for others to navigate the chaos and confusion that all people as a collective will now face. My story can be compared to the rise of the Phoenix – or in my case, the Thunderbird – where despite enduring extreme abuse, and being the underdog for most of my life, I still found a way to rise from the ashes and to release my bright inner fire after being reborn from my own destruction. I think of this destruction as shadow work, and the massive healing I had to accomplish in order to become who I am today. I hope that others who may be going through what I did will know that they are not alone, and that anyone who reads it will realize that what our people had to endure is still ongoing. However, as prophecy foretells, we will rise from the ashes and lead the way for all of humanity to reconnect with our sacred Mother Earth and all our relations.
"My story can be compared to the rise of the Phoenix – or in my case, the Thunderbird – where despite enduring extreme abuse, and being the underdog for most of my life, I still found a way to rise from the ashes and to release my bright inner fire after being reborn from my own destruction".
Why do you think it is important for activism to be an important component of art?
Like Damian Marley and Bob Marley demonstrate, activism combined with art can carry a message that can be heard around the world, planting seeds in hearts and souls that otherwise might be turned off to the message alone. Music can raise the frequency of anyone who listens to it; therefore, it is important and powerful to use this method to spread a message. Activism alone can often be ignored.
How has your culture influenced how you integrate art and activism?
Every movement that I have participated in with my people are, at their core, integrations of art and activism. We sing, dance, drum, and protest all at the same time. It is my understanding that our songs combined with the drum (which represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth) are what carry our prayers to the Creator and result in miracles. Dancing raises our energy and honors Mother Earth and our place upon her. All of these aspects of our culture honor that we are a part of Mother Earth, and are not above her.
They also honor our connection to all our relations, of the plant, animal, elemental, and spirit nations. These influences can be seen and heard in my art and activism. I fully understand that all art creates a frequency and vibration, and the highest comes from our songs. Therefore, the greatest chance of making a change in activism comes, in my perspective, from combining these aspects, and honoring our relationship with Mother Earth as caretakers.
"Dancing raises our energy and honors Mother Earth and our place upon her. All of these aspects of our culture honor that we are a part of Mother Earth, and are not above her".
You are also a handpoked tattoo artist! How would you describe your tattoo artistry style?
My tattoo artistry style is at its core, Traditional, in an Indigenous sense, meaning that it is an ancient artform that is steeped in ceremonial protocol, cultural knowledge, and spiritual influence. Each tattoo that I place has deep meaning and is intended to tell a person’s unique story. In my culture, traditional tattoos also serve as passports into the afterlife and help our ancestors in the Spirit World to find us. In our way, a tattooist has to carry the gift from Wakan Tanka, or the Creator, in order to be able to tattoo people with tattoos that can be seen by the spirits and that tell one’s story. It therefore takes years of training combined with a “Gift from God” to become a traditional tattooist. For this reason, I no longer tattoo out of a studio (I once had a traditional tattoo studio called Thunderbird Rising Studios). I tattoo only ceremonially, and only certain people, in order to protect and preserve the integrity of this ancient custom.
"In my culture, traditional tattoos also serve as passports into the afterlife and help our ancestors in the Spirit World to find us. In our way, a tattooist has to carry the gift from Wakan Tanka, or the Creator, in order to be able to tattoo people with tattoos that can be seen by the spirits and that tell one’s story".
When did you begin dancing?
I began Fancy Shawl dancing, a traditional Native American style of dance, in my twenties. I still dance to this day, to honor Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth, and all our relations. This dance emulates the butterfly or the hummingbird, and attests to a woman’s beauty, agility, and grace.
Where are some events and locations where you've been able to do dance performances?
I danced during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Reggae Rising Festival in Humboldt County, California. I was thrilled to share the stage with world-renowned reggae artists who were huge influences on my creative artistry. I’ve also danced during the Traditional World Tattoo & Culture Festival in Mallorca, Spain. Other locations include beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Strawberry Moon Festival in Lewiston, New York!
Are there any challenges you've had to overcome as a creative artist?
Although creating music is my deepest passion, I’ve spent so many years being an activist and fighting for my family, that creating music had to be placed on the backburner. Now that I’ve completed what I see as “my responsibility” in terms of healing massive amounts of intergenerational trauma in my family, I can again focus on my passion – creating music. Furthermore, I can take the wisdom and teachings gained through this and submerge it into my music. Honestly, it's a win win!
What are some words of advice that you can give to future creatives who want to build their portfolio and get booking gigs?
Anything that you create from your heart will surely lead you onto the path of success, even if it takes years to see the results of it. Do not give up, follow your heart, and believe in yourself. This alchemist state of mind and heart will help you move mountains.
"Anything that you create from your heart will surely lead you onto the path of success, even if it takes years to see the results of it. Do not give up, follow your heart, and believe in yourself. This alchemist state of mind and heart will help you move mountains".
Outside of being a creative and artist, what are some other hobbies that you enjoy?
I am an avid cultural horsewoman, meaning that I love to ride, care for, and keep horses in accordance with Dakota, Lakota, and similar Native American cultural constructs. We think of our horses as our relatives, healers, and best friends. Therefore, we do not “break” our horses, but instead work with them. Although the Western world claims to have introduced horses to our people, ancient Indigenous oral history and modern archaeological evidence tell a different story – that our horses have always been here in Great Turtle Island, or the “Americas.” I am an Indigenous horse advocate, and when I am not being a creative or artist, I am usually with the horses!
Cover of Stephanie's memoir, Thunderbird Rising. Image taken at her studio, Thunderbird Rising Studios....copyright Stephanie Big Eagle.
Stephanie in geometric print dress and buffalo necklace, Copyright Stephanie Big Eagle
Sitting on the steps at the Louve Museum, Paris, France during International Indigenous Fashion Week, 2022
Photo Credit: IG @thefarmhousestudiosia
Hair and Makeup: Jenni Machir
Skirt: Sky-Eagle Collection
Jewelry: Genevieve Salamone
Dancing during the Roberts and Canon Camera sponsored Indigenous People’s Day Event,
October 15, 2022, Indianapolis, IN
Photo Credit: Hartongs IG @thehartongs
Ribbon Skirt by Tomecina Escarcega
Posing for photographers during the Roberts and Cannon Camera sponsored Indigenous
People’s Day Event, October 15, 2022, Indianapolis, IN
Photo Credit: Jennifer Sarles Eisberg
Skirt by Tomecina Escarcega
Shirt features Stephanie's Thunderbird Rising Studios logo
Posing during Paris Indigenous Fashion Week 2022
Photo Credit: Yvette Webster
Skirt: Sky-Eagle Collection
Jewelry: Genevieve Salamone
Modeling a Ribbon Skirt (a traditional Dakota/Lakota style skirt)
Photo Credit: Stephanie Big Eagle.
Skirt: Tomecina Escarcega, these skirts honor Stephanie's ancestors and their history.
Stephanie Big Eagle now fancy shawl dances in this skirt
Jewelry: Genevieve Salamone