Native American designer finds home


The definition of home is different for everyone. Some people consider home a place where family lives; others view home as where one feel the most at peace. For many, a simple definition of home is hard to construct.

Cal Nez, a successful Native American graphic designer, has struggled with the idea of home for as long as he can remember.

“Is home a physical location or inside me or Sandy, Utah?” Nez wondered during an  interview at the University of Utah.

As is tradition in the Navajo Nation, Nez was given to his grandparents to be raised at a young age. However, instead of being raised by his mother’s clan, which is considered to be dominant, Nez was raised by his father’s side. He never knew his mother and hardly knew his father. When he was about 5 years old he was forced, like so many Native Americans, by the federal government to attend boarding school.

Nez remembers his experience at boarding school as nothing short of hell and likens his time there to prison.

“I understand every aspect of confinement, abuse, of mental manipulation,” Nez said.

According to Amnesty International USA Magazine, beginning in 1869 with President Grant’s Peace Policy, more than 100,000 Native American children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools in an attempt to “Americanize” the Native American population.

A scene he plays back in his head is one of a long, dark hallway at the boarding school in New Mexico. He is standing at one end and his grandmother is walking slowly down the hallway toward a tiny door, barely visible. Nez said he would never forget that image and the feeling he had of loneliness when his grandmother left him.

When Nez was a sophomore in high school he enrolled in the Latter-day Saints Indian Placement Program. The program placed Native American students with LDS families and Nez moved to Salt Lake City to attend South High School.

“I came to Salt Lake to learn what a normal family was,” Nez explained. But before he began his journey he had to deal with leaving his grandmother and the need to find himself. Nez vividly remembers leaving his family but telling them that he would remember who he was. He promised to come back for his grandmother.

This parallel in his life, first his grandmother leaving him and then leaving his grandmother would shape the ideas he has about family and belonging.

Nez moved to Salt Lake and attended Sough High School. While attending South, Nez felt the drive to succeed. He excelled in art and design and was the first Sterling Scholar in Art from South High. He remembers seeing the seniors graduate with honors and all the adornments. At that moment he realized he wanted to feel that sense of pride and accomplishment. He wanted to emulate the success he had seen the other students achieve.

Nez said he had always been able to duplicate and capture images and showed talent at a young age. At the boarding school he remembers doing one of his first drawings and his teacher, Ms. Beach, rewarded him with a one-dollar bill. The drawing was of Abraham Lincoln chopping wood.

With his natural ability to recreate designs and determination to “make it” Nez worked locally for a couple of advertising agencies. While working, however, he discovered he was missing something.

Nez decided he needed to take his talents and start his own business. “I quit. I packed up my stuff and left,” he recalled. Nez and his wife, Yolanda, were expecting their first child.

Armed with nothing more than his portfolio, Nez drove to Arizona to present his raw abilities in graphic design to the Chairman of the Navajo Nation, Peter MacDonald. Nez walked into MacDonald’s office and said: “I want to show you what I can do.” He walked out with two jobs.

One of the jobs MacDonald assigned him was for the Navajo Nation Fair in 1989. It is an original oil painting depicting a Navajo man wearing silver sunglasses and the scene of the fair can be seen in the reflection. Nez said this painting symbolizes the presence of the Native American.

The face of the man in the poster is made up of a collection of a few dozen different faces, one of which is his wife’s, Yolanda, grandfather.

Cal Nez Design, based out of Salt Lake City, is a 100 percent Native American graphic design and advertising agency. In October 2005 Nez was featured on the cover of Utah Business Magazine, when it highlighted minority business owners in Utah. Of the experience Nez says it was and is such a great honor. He said he just hopes he can be a good role model for other Native American business owners.

His philosophy about graphic design is that he tries to keep the integrity of the art. Each piece he works on and designs has his own personal touch. Nez believes the world of graphic design should move away from pre-made templates and generic work; he wants to return to the human aspect. “Every client is different,” he said. “Every message is different.”

A Native American leader


Robert Jarvik, inventor of the first artificial heart, once said, “Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” Cal Nez is a leader to many Native Americans because of his vision and lack of fear.

Nez is the owner of Cal Nez Design in Salt Lake City. He is an accomplished graphic designer and has done work for the Office of the President of the United States – National Republican Party, Kodak, AT&T, the Navajo Nation Fair and many more clients. Although his business is thriving, it is his passion for his Native American culture that has helped sculpt his business into what it is today. Nez has dedicated himself to helping bridge the gap between cultures.

Native Americans are able to look up to Nez because he has worked so hard to get to where he is today, without forgetting where he came from. He was born for the Tanaszanii Clan and is originally from Tocito, N.M.

He was raised by his grandparents and to this day does not know why his parents left him. He spoke only Navajo with his grandparents and learned English when he entered the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in nearby Sanostee at age 5. His boarding school experience was, in his words, “A demon from the past.” Students of this boarding school were not allowed to speak Navajo and were punished for participating in some Native American activities. They were also punished for playing like children, Nez said.

As a teenager, Nez participated in the Indian Placement Program by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He left the reservation to go to South High School in Salt Lake City after his grandmother convinced him that it would be best for him. He remembers his grandmother telling him she had nothing more to give him to help better his life. So, he left and went to high school where he began to discover and build on his art and design talents.

After high school and some college courses, Nez went to work for Smith and Clarkson Design. After several years working there, Nez realized they did not have the same vision and direction that he did. So, in November 1986 he quit his job to start his own graphic design company.

At this time Nez was married with a child on the way and was very worried about providing for his family. Nez gathered his portfolio, packed a bag and drove to New Mexico to meet with Peter MacDonald, then the president of the Navajo Nation. He left the interview with two jobs. Both of them included contracts paying him more than he was making with Smith and Clarkson Design. Cal Nez Design has now been in business for more than 20 years.

Knowing from his own experiences what many Native Americans go through, he understands better now how to help others. In April 2008, Nez founded the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce. According to its mission statement, it aims “to promote the economic development of Utah Native American-owned or serving businesses and organizations and those who appreciate diversity in commerce, and to also promote growth of the Utah Native American business enterprises and make them a powerful economic force.” Nez was named president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Nez is a strong leader, but he also does what he can to strengthen his culture by participating in the Native American Celebration in the Park. Nez believes that Native Americans still have a lot to fulfill as human beings. “We are not history,” he said, “we are people, our drums and song are still going on.”

Cal Nez: artist, graphic designer, leader


The children stood silently in a line, their eyes focused forward, arms firmly placed to their sides, their backs straight. The hour has passed and the children are let go so they can make their way to school.

“I feel like I was at prison when I went to boarding school,” Cal Nez said. “It has been one of the demons of my past.”

Nez, a member of the Navajo Nation, was taken from his grandparents at the age of 6 and was forced into the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in Sanostee, N.M.

“Why could we not just go there and enjoy life,” Nez said. “Unnecessary things that took away the beauty of being a child.”

Boarding school was a terrible experience for Nez, but he now uses his talents as an artist, graphic designer and community leader to bring beauty to his life and the lives around him.

Nez, 50, was born in Shiprock, N.M., where he was raised from infancy by his grandparents Bitonie and Mary B. Nez.

He lived with his grandparents until he became part of the Mormon Church’s Indian Student Placement program that brought him to Utah his sophomore year of high school. Nez graduated from South High School with honors, something he strived for from the first day of class.

He went on to become the founder of Cal Nez Design, a graphic arts firm that he started in 1986 after leaving Ted Nagata Graphic Design. His firm has become one of the few Native American-owned businesses in Utah that have been in operation for more than 10 years. Nez was also featured on the cover of the October 2005 issue of the Utah Business Magazine, something he is very proud of.

One of his first jobs being a self-employed graphic artist was when he approached Peter MacDonald, who was then the president of the Navajo Nation. He gave Nez a variety of jobs that helped to jumpstart Cal Nez Design.

His firm has completed a variety of projects including the Navajo Nation Fair 2005 Official Poster, Navajo Nation Shopping Center logo and Miss Navajo Nation logo to name just a few.

“Every client is different, every design is different,” Nez said.

His firm bridges the cross-cultural communication gap by incorporating aspects of the different cultures into its logos, something he tries to keep in all of his projects.

Nez said that the artistic expression in graphic design is being lost and that artists need to go back to the human element of it. He said that programs on computers are ruining graphic art by letting people just jump in and do it, which makes everyone think they can be graphic artists.

He advises aspiring designers to remember the artistic aspect of their craft, something he is very passionate about.

“I am an artist and am very proud of it,” Nez said.

His business is not the only way he is giving voice to the Native American community. He is also the president of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce, which he founded in April 2008.

Abel Saiz, vice president of the Chamber, said Nez is a natural leader and not a follower.

“We have members of the Native American community call and ask how to start a business and how to get involved in the chamber,” Saiz said.

Giving voice to Utah Native Americans in the business world was one of the main reasons for founding of the chamber.

“We are referred to as the invisible people,” Saiz said. “Nez lets the general public know that we are here and we have needs.”

Nez encourages Native American youth to see the importance of business because of how beneficial it is to their future.

“The time has come to educate our youth about becoming employers instead of employees,” Nez said.

Nez not only spends time with his firm and the Chamber, but he is also married to Yolanda Nez. They have three children: Courtney, Chelsey and Colby. He is active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and said he also believes in the Navajo way the way.

Native Americans are usually viewed as a culture of the past and that is something Nez is trying to change.

“We are not a history,” Nez said, “we are a people.”

Cal Nez finds success


He dropped her off, watching as she bravely walked away. He couldn’t bear to leave, so he waited outside all day, his anxiety building. Would she be coming back to him?

Finally, after Courtney’s first day of kindergarten, Cal Nez held his oldest daughter in his arms once again. She was completely fine. Nothing had happened, and she had loved it.

He wished he had been as easygoing and happy about school as his children, Courtney, Chelsey and Colby, are.

As a child, Nez didn’t know the comfort of being with his family during the school year. He spent many of those years away from his home in Tocito, N.M. At 6 years old, he left for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in nearby Sanostee, where he learned to speak English for the first time. He describes the boarding school as a “demon of the past” and a negative and “horrible experience” for him. The children there had to wake up early, stand at attention and were allowed little time to play. It “took away the beauty of childhood,” he said.

It was during this time, though, that Nez discovered his artistic talent. He made his first drawing, a picture of Abraham Lincoln chopping the cherry tree, at boarding school. He had always been an artist, and he knew he was good at duplicating images. But the teacher praised him for his illustration of Abe and gave him a one-dollar bill.

Nez, 50, was born in the Navajo Nation, Tachiinii Clan for the Tanaszanii Clan. His grandparents, Bitonie and Mary B. Nez, raised him.

Nez spent his junior high school years herding sheep and going to public school. Before high school, he learned about the Indian Student Placement Program, where Native American students were placed in Latter-day Saint homes during the school year. It was this exchange that brought him to Utah.

He was reluctant to leave his familiar surroundings, but his grandma encouraged the idea and told him that she had nothing for him in Tocito. He would be better off by going away.

In tears, he left, saying that he would always remember who he was. He promised to return, and he was determined to make it, no matter the trials.

In Salt Lake City, he studied at South High School for three years. He was successful at everything he tried. He received academic honors and was a member of the wrestling team and newspaper staff. He also won the Sterling Scholar Award for the visual arts, proving his artistic talents.

Nez wanted to be a painter or an architect while growing up, until he discovered commercial art. He worked for several graphic design firms, including Ted Nagata Graphic Design, Inc. and Smith and Clarkson Design.

“When he worked for me, his work ethic was unparalleled,” said Larry Clarkson through an e-mail correspondence. “I believe a great deal of his current work philosophy is a result of working with me, as well as another successful designer, Ted Nagata, early in his career.”

Nez’s art was getting recognition and winning awards, so he decided to work for himself. He quit his job, even though his wife, Yolanda, was pregnant.

“I think one of the key parts of starting your own business is insanity,” said Nez.

Nez packed up his portfolio of designs and went to talk to Peter MacDonald, the former Navajo Nation chairman, and his business was born.

Nez started Cal Nez Design, a graphic design and advertising company in Salt Lake City, Utah, 20 years ago. He takes on a variety of projects, and he gets involved, taking time with each of his designs. Nez likes to focus on the message and target audience for each. He brings every piece of his designs together to create the best communication possible, and he strives to keep the Navajo traditions alive through his art.

Cal Nez Design is now one of the oldest companies in the United States owned by a Native American. And Nez was even featured on the cover of Utah Business magazine in October of 2005.

With all his success, Nez has not forgot his people, traditions or where he came from. He visits Tocito, but things are not the same as they used to be. Sheep corral fences have rotted. A roof of a friend’s house has caved in. And there is not a sheep in sight.

But when he returns, he still goes to the top of a mountain nearby that he went to as a child. Today, though, he sits up there with a laptop in his hands and many successes to his name.

SLC graphic designer promotes Native American business development


Cal Nez, founder of Cal Nez Design, is a man with a vision to revolutionize the Native American business industry in Utah. As the owner of one of the most successful graphic design companies in the state, he is well on his way to accomplishing this goal. 

Throughout his life, Nez has strived to define himself as a strong, independent Native American. Nez was raised by his grandparents on a Navajo reservation in Tocito, N.M. He enjoyed a very traditional upbringing, speaking only Navajo until he entered a Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School near Sanostee, N.M., at the age of 6. Nez recalls his years in boarding school as being a very difficult time. 

“I literally felt like I was in prison for six years,” he said. “I was mentally and emotionally abused and manipulated.” 

Despite going through such a hard experience, Nez is not angry. He believes the experience strengthened him and equipped him with the motivation he needed to succeed. This motivation carried him through junior high school and eventually led him to Salt Lake City.  

In Salt Lake City, Nez took part in the Indian Placement Program sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“The Indian Placement Program was created [to give] Native American children opportunities for a better education,” said Brenda Kilpack, a Navajo who participated in the program as a child. “Children were placed with LDS families in urban areas during the school year so they could attend public school.” 

Some Native Americans who participated in the program did not have a positive experience because of cultural issues and homesickness. However, Kilpack says the experience really helped her growth and development as a child.

“I really learned a lot,” Kilpack said. “The program helped me to become an independent and well-rounded person.” 

Like Kilpack, Nez had a positive experience on the Indian Placement Program. Nez remembers well the day he left his home in New Mexico to come to Salt Lake City. 

“I said to my grandma ‘I will remember who I am. I’m going to go to Salt Lake and make it. I’m going to succeed no matter what has happened to me,’” Nez said. 

Nez quickly adjusted to his new surroundings in Salt Lake City. At South High School, he excelled in his studies, especially his art classes. Nez had been interested in art since childhood and really began to develop his talents during high school. 

After high school graduation, Nez began to pursue another form of art: graphic design. He quickly fell in love with graphic design and decided to pursue a career in the field. 

Nez started his career by working for several different graphic design companies in the Salt Lake City area. After a couple of years, he decided he wanted to start his own company. He quit his job that same day and pled with his pregnant wife to trust him. 

“I don’t have a job, but we are going to make it,” Nez recalls telling his wife, Yolanda. 

Nez grabbed his portfolio and drove to Arizona. He met with Peter MacDonald, then the tribal chairman of the Navajo Nation, and asked if he could do some graphic design work for him. After only a brief meeting with MacDonald, Nez secured two high-profile graphic design jobs. Within the coming months, after many sleepless nights and a lot of hard work, Cal Nez Design was born. 

Cal Nez Design, Inc., was officially started in 1989. From the beginning, the company has strived to maintain artistic integrity.

“The graphic design industry has been messed up,” Nez said. “They have lost the integrity of art. I’m trying to keep integrity of communication, of artistic expression.” 

Most importantly, Nez believes that his designs are a way of giving Native peoples a voice in modern society. 

“The Native Americans, we are here. We’re still here,” Nez said. “We have a right to fulfill our space as human beings. I’m trying to keep [Native American] traditions alive through modern technology.” 

Despite his success in the business world, Nez believes he still has much to accomplish within the Salt Lake City Native American community. 

“I need to work that much harder, reach out to my community, the younger generation,” he said. 

In April 2008, Nez helped start the first Native American Chamber of Commerce in Utah. He hopes the Chamber will promote economic and business development for Native Americans. 

“The time [has] come when Native Americans need to have a voice in business [and] politically,” Nez said. “The time has come where we need to teach our young to be employers and not employees.”

Even though Nez feels the Native American community in Salt Lake has a long way to go, he is optimistic. “We’re going to keep going,” he said. “That is my goal.”


SLC designer takes long road to finding identity


Cal Nez entered the room so serenely, he almost went unnoticed. He came to address a journalism class at the University of Utah and brought with him two seemingly contradictory symbols of his life: the first, a copy of Utah Business Magazine bearing his picture on the cover placed carefully in a protective plastic bag. The second, a wrinkled green paper certifying he is Navajo.

The two objects begin to coalesce when Nez states he is both owner of Cal Nez Design in Salt Lake City and president of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce. But his search for his identity as a Native person, like many, is more complicated than his prized possessions. 

Nez’s life has challenged norms, making it hard for him to rely on someone like him to aid his identity search. He was given to his grandparents in Tocito, N.M., to be raised, which isn’t uncommon in Navajo culture. But instead of following the Navajo tradition of being given to his mother’s family, the dominant clan, he was given to his father’s. He never knew his mother and hardly knew his father. Then, at 6 years old, he was enrolled in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School in Sanostee, N.M.

“Boarding school is one of the demons of my past,” Nez said with sudden seriousness. “I really feel like I was in prison for six years in boarding school.”

Nez spoke only Navajo before attending boarding school, where he was forbidden to speak anything but English. He said the school shaved his head, a stark contrast to his now long hair, tied back in a ponytail. Children stood at attention for hours and were punished for acting too much like a child, Nez said.

“It took the beauty, serenity and peace out of being a child,” Nez said.

For his sophomore year of high school, Nez decided to go to South High School — in Salt Lake City.

Before he left Tocito, he made a promise to his grandmother.

“One day, I’ll come back for you,” he said. “No matter what my trials may be, I’m going to make it.”

Through the Indian Placement Program, an initiative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1947 to 1996, Nez found a family to live with in Utah. He somehow always knew he was supposed to go to South High School, he said. It was there that his art teacher saw his talent and encouraged him to pursue art as a career. Nez agreed, and knew a little more about who he is.

“I’ve always been an artist,” he said. “I’ve always been able to duplicate, [to] capture.”

Although Nez could identify himself as an artist, he still struggled knowing what to call his ethnicity. After considering the terms American Indian, Native American and Navajo, he felt most comfortable with Diné, meaning “the people.”

Lena Judee, the American Indian program coordinator at the University of Utah, has addressed this issue herself. Finding a name isn’t as important for her.

“It’s just a label,” Judee said. “As long as I know who I am, it doesn’t matter.”

However, knowing who she is didn’t come easily. Judee also attended boarding schools. She said she couldn’t say anything bad about them because they gave her an education and something to eat. The trouble came when they would show “cowboy and Indian” movies in school.

She didn’t understand the Indians were supposed to be representing her, and she thought the people in the movie were stupid. When she found out she was being stereotyped by the “Hollywood Indian,” Judee was upset at the misinformation being mass-produced. She decided she wanted to be the one who informed people.

However, she soon realized taking on the world at once in order to change it was ineffective. She would have to work one-on-one to get a result.

“I can’t rescue all stray cats,” Judee said. “But I can make a difference.”

Nez has adopted this same give-and-take approach to change.

“We can’t do anything about the past, but there’s the future,” Nez said. “That’s where the answer lies.”

Maybe Nez will find the answers to his existential question in the future. But for now, he knows one thing for sure about his people.

“We’re here. We’re still here,” he said. “We have a right to fulfill our space as human beings.”