The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) commissioned Shayai Lucero to create a floral wreath to be placed at the the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to honor Native Warriors during Native American Heritage Month. Pictured: Lucero after the wreath laying ceremony on November 1, 2019. (Photo Courtesy FBI Office of Public Affairs)
Shayai Lucero, owner of Earth & Sky Floral Designs, reflects on operating a reservation-based business and bringing a healer’s touch and cultural perspective to floral design.
The journey of Shayai Lucero from the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna, to earning degrees in biology, chemistry and traditional healing, to winning the Miss Indian World title (1997), to eventually purchasing Earth & Sky Floral Designs in 2008, is anything but linear.
The entrepreneur and celebrated florist admittedly entered the industry “blind,” with little knowledge of how to care for much less assemble flowers. Now she is highly sought after within her community (Earth & Sky Floral Designs is based on the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico) and beyond. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) commissioned Lucero to create a floral wreath to honor Native Warriors in D.C. during Native American Heritage Month in November 2019.
Lucero recently spoke to Native Business about her life and entrepreneurial story. She sheds light on how she overcame challenges to acquire a loan for a reservation-based business, and also shares the healing and cultural touch she brings to her art (Lucero prays and speaks to her flowers, and honors Indigenous cultures in her designs).
Native Business recounts her full-circle journey below — from her childhood on the Pueblo, to owning a business on the Pueblo.
Motivated by Science and Healing
Born and raised on the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna, Lucero was somewhat of a child prodigy, who won several notable science fair awards. In her own words, she was a science nerd with dreams of becoming a doctor and a healer.
After high school, she accepted a nearly full scholarship to New Mexico Tech — her second choice to MIT, where she was also accepted. Her mother’s unstable health at the time factored into her decision to stay closer to home.
In addition to pre-med, she intensively studied the medicinal plants of Acoma and Laguna during her time at New Mexico Tech. She even compiled a small booklet featuring traditional medicinal plants, distributing it to Tribal members, libraries and schools. But an unexpected legal issue with Lucero’s scholarship interrupted her senior year of studies at Tech, deterring her graduation at the time (years later, she would earn several degrees).
Becoming Miss Indian World (1997)
Rather than let her (temporarily) stunted collegiate career derail her, Lucero followed her mother’s advice to audition for the Miss Indian World talent competition. With zero prior pageant experience, she took home the Miss Indian World title in 1997. That life-changing opportunity took her to Japan twice, and led to her performing at Lincoln Center in New York City, as well as at an awards program in Beverly Hills.
From an outside observer’s perspective, Lucero’s life often serendipitously twists and turns — her transition from science maven in the world of academia to Miss Indian World is merely one example.
After her reign as Miss Indian World, she started work for an Albuquerque-based media arts company, later transitioning to serve as a staff member for the All Indian Pueblo Council. Roughly seven years after Lucero had concluded her studies at New Mexico Tech, she received word that the legal situation that temporarily halted her scholarship had been remedied. While preparing to return to school, she found out she was pregnant with her first child. (Lucero and her husband, Aaron Fry, are currently raising their two children, a boy and a girl, on the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.)
“At that moment, I knew that my dreams of becoming a doctor were forever put aside, because I wasn’t going to raise a child while in medical school,” she told Native Business. “To me, I feel we only get a little bit of time with our children before we have to send them off into the world. I didn’t want to miss out on any of their moments.”
She did eventually earn her Bachelor of Science in biology with a minor in chemistry — from the University of New Mexico. She also received her Certificate in Traditional Mexican Healing, a multi-institutional program involving the University of New Mexico, La Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos (Mexico) and el Centro de Desarrollo Humano hacia la Comunidad (Mexico).
“The [traditional healing knowledge has] worked its way into my family life, the way we raise our children, and how we deal with our health issues. We use a lot of traditional Pueblo and Chinese medicine,” she shared.
Entertaining the Idea of Entrepreneurship
After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 2008, Lucero was unsure of her next move. She caught wind through her cousin of a woman selling a floral shop. “I thought, ‘I could do that for a little bit. How hard is it to be a small business owner?’ That was very naive of me to think it would be easy,” she says. “This is the most challenging thing I have ever done.”
Garnering capital to purchase the business was particularly daunting. “A lot of our possessions were here on the reservation. Traditional banks, traditional loan companies, all the different organizations that were around, had no idea how to help a reservation-based business. So it was very frustrating, and I spent the whole summer and into the fall of 2008 practically begging different companies, ‘Could you point me to a source? Could you point me to someone who might help?’”
Acquiring a Business Loan
“Finally, the New Mexico Development Community Loan Fund took a risk on me and gave me a loan. And they allowed me to put as collateral vehicles, jewelry, heirloom jewelry and furniture,” Lucero said.
Her initial loan was for $125,000, and it’s nearly paid off. “I’m under the five grand mark right now — and that’s from working really hard to pay it off. That’s a lot of money; that’s almost like buying a home and taking out a mortgage to purchase the business, the way I did it.”
On December 3, 2008, Lucero paid her down payment for the business. With the purchase of the business came the (initial) building and phone number, equipment, supplies, wholesaler contacts and the client list — as well as a full-time floral designer (who has since become a seasonal floral designer due to her family commitments), LaDeen, who is also from the Pueblo of Laguna. “She had gone to floral school; New Mexico used to have a floral school,” Lucero said.
“Her expertise was very helpful, because I had no clue about anything related to flowers—care, prep, purchasing, even flower names. I knew rose and carnation. I went into the business completely blind,” Lucero admitted.
Leveraging Marketing & Learning Floral Design
Lucero immediately put her marketing skills to work to give the brand a facelift. “ I was able to turn the business around and make it look more successful,” she said.
When LaDeen took maternity leave, Lucero had to step up and learn floral arrangements. And she did — guided by the good graces of LaDeen, who offered plenty of phone instruction to assist with her learning curve.
Today the entrepreneur who entered the floral industry “blind” is an exceptional florist, recognized by the international floral industry. Lucero adheres to a culturally respectful and “quirky” floral style. For example, she honors the sacredness of even numbers among Pueblo cultures (contrary to the prevailing rule of thumb to create floral arrangements employing odd numbers).
“The floral work that I do is also a form of art,” she told Native Business. “There’s also a lot of meaning behind what I do.”
Rooting on the Pueblo of Laguna
After a few location changes for various reasons, Lucero built a home-based studio. “I converted my garage into a design space. I have a cooler in here, table space and design space. My seasonal employees each have an area that they can work,” Lucero shared.
“It’s actually been the best business decision I’ve made. I would love to have a storefront, but there’s no retail space on the reservation. I’ve had people ask me to move to Albuquerque, but that means I would be limited in my services to the community that I do serve now. In 11 years, you become part of a community, a staple, and then people rely on your services,” said Lucero, adding that it took a decade to “finally make a mark in Indian Country.”
Receiving a Floral Request From the FBI
Last summer, Lucero came across a very unexpected email in her inbox. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was commissioning her to create a floral wreath to be placed at the the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to honor Native Warriors during Native American Heritage Month. The wreath laying ceremony took place on November 1, 2019.
“When I was asked by the FBI committee to create a design for a floral wreath, my immediate thoughts went to the diversity of Turtle Island,” said Lucero, who divided the wreath into four quadrants to represent the four regions of Turtle Island:
- The upper left quadrant featured moss from the forest floor and tundra of the Northwest and Alaska.
- The upper right quadrant, representing the Northeast, included various pines and evergreens, accented with pine cones and cranberries.
- The lower right quadrant represented the Southeast, incorporating magnolia leaves and flowers such as thistle and asters.
- The lower left quadrant represented the Southwest with corn husk flowers, accentuated by miniature colored corn and succulents.
The heart of the wreath contained a clockwise spiral of sweet grass and her very own arrowhead.
“The spiral has a multitude of meanings to many Tribes,” Lucero told Native Business. “Some see it as a symbol of water, wind, the galaxies of the night skies. Others like the O’odham show it as the life cycle. The Midwest Indigenous people’s created ceremonial spiral mounds. The ancestors of the Pueblo people used the spiral as solstice markers. I see the spiral as the connection of all the quadrants… all the people… as a symbol of unity.”
In the heart of the spiral, she placed her arrowhead. “I gave the Warriors my own personal arrowhead, which is our protection for Pueblo people,” said Lucero adding, “I pray a lot before, during and after the creation of a floral design.”
Designing a wreath to honor Native Warriors was very sentimental for Lucero. “I come from a family who has had many relatives in the military, including my father who was a United States Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran. The wreath is filled with blessings and prayers from my family,” she said.
Honoring the Earth With Sustainable Creations
In Pueblo culture, once something enters a cemetery, it cannot come back out, Lucero told Native Business. So she only uses biodegradable containers, like floral foam, which breaks down after three months. “With the flowers, we don’t add any sprays or wax fixtures, and we try to limit our use of plastic and metal, especially for a sympathy arrangement,” she said.
Generally speaking, Earth & Sky Floral Designs composts all remaining greens from flower arrangements, and dried flower petals, such as dried roses, are distributed to Pueblo hunters for free.
Designing Floral Arrangements With Cultural Reverence
As a healer, Lucero prays and talks to her flowers. “I tell them, ‘Welcome to Laguna.’ If it’s a sympathy piece, I will talk to the spirit of the person, and ask, ‘How do you want me to create it, your tribute in flowers?’ I always feel that the spirit of the person is there to help.”
As previously mentioned, she designs in even numbers, whereas odd-number floral arrangements are not only standard but expected in the industry, particularly in competitions.
And whereas evergreen is generally reserved for Christmastime in the industry, Lucero uses it frequently. “For Pueblo people, evergreens are very sacred plants, because they never go to sleep,” Lucero said. “They’re always awake.”