Preserving the Navajo language

  • Hear from the teacher of a Navajo-language class and her students (audio slideshow best viewed in full-screen mode)

According to the 2004 United States Census, 381,000 people age 5 or older speak a North American native language. Navajo is the most common with 178,014 speakers. The Census also reported that 28 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives speak a language other than English at home, but the percentage is dropping in some areas. This means that the number of Native American languages spoken at home is dropping and some languages are in danger of extinction.

Alex Griffin and Geoff Sink, two students in the intermediate Navajo-language class at the University of Utah, participated in a program offered by the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center that sends Navajo-language students to a reservation during spring break to stay with a Navajo family. Both Griffin and Sink went to Navajo Mountain, Utah, a small town on the border of Utah and Arizona. 

They noticed differences among age groups when it came to speaking the language..

“A lot of people who are old enough to be my grandparents only spoke Navajo, or if they spoke English it was very limited,” Griffin said. “The people who were old enough to be my parents spoke both equally well, although some were more comfortable with Navajo. Anyone my age and younger was kind of a mixed bag. There were some kids who spoke Navajo pretty well, but there were a lot who didn’t or they understood it but they couldn’t speak it.”

One woman Griffin met while on the reservation felt it important for her 3-year-old son to start learning Navajo. She decided to leave him with his grandmother before going to work so that he would have more exposure to the language.

Sharee Varela, a graduate student in the U’s Department of Languages and Literature who teaches Navajo, feels the reasons the language is not being passed on to the younger generations is because they go to live in the city where Navajo is not spoken. And on the reservation, most schools do not teach it at early ages.

“There are some bilingual schools that will teach children both English and Navajo,” she said.

One project that does this is the Puente de Hózhǭ revitalization project in Flagstaff, Ariz. This project focuses on teaching children both English and Navajo or Spanish and English, depending on the student. Varela said she also knows of other schools that do the same in Fort Defiance and Windowrock, Ariz., as well as in Shiprock, N.M.

However, Varela said some Navajos believe that schools shouldn’t waste their time teaching Navajo.

“My father is old-school and he believes that Navajo language should not be taught in school,” she said. “He believes that parents should be responsible for teaching their children the Navajo language.”

But she asks her father, “What about the other kids that want to learn? What if the parents speak Navajo but don’t really know how to read or write it? Then who teaches them [the children]?”

Varela believes the reason the Navajo language is possibly becoming endangered is a combination of these two ideas: parents not teaching it to their children and most teachers not teaching it in schools. She also blamed governmental actions. Both California and Arizona have English-only initiatives banning bilingual education for virtually all children learning English as a second language. Even students whose English is limited are prohibited from learning in any language other than English. Nevertheless, Varela said some schools in rural areas of Arizona continue using bilingual programs.

Hotki Miles, the former Miss Utah Navajo, also participates in the Navajo language class at the U. She decided to take the class to better connect with her culture and to communicate more easily with her grandparents and other relatives who speak Navajo. Miles’ mother is Navajo but her father is not. Her mother does not speak the language very well, so Miles never learned it growing up. While participating in Navajo cultural events such as Miss Utah Navajo, she was sometimes disappointed that she could not communicate with those who spoke only Navajo. She is excited to be able to understand and speak some Navajo with her relatives.

“My relatives don’t look at me anymore as a stupid kid that doesn’t know Navajo,” she said.

Because of the effort Miles has put into learning the language and her culture, she said the older generations are more accepting and respectful of her. Many times after speaking or performing at an event, some of the older Navajo women came up to her, congratulated her and call her “shideezhi,” which means little sister.

Varela has had other Navajo students, like Miles, who have taken her classes to learn Navajo in hopes of connecting with relatives and understanding their culture. Varela said older Navajos are always very happy when her students come to them and try speaking the language. Even if the students say something the wrong way or with the wrong accent, it still makes them happy that students are learning their native language. 

Adopting Native American children


Alpine residents Katherine Thompson, 43, and her husband Joseph, 48, were devastated when they found out they could not have children. After exploring several options, they decided to adopt. However, it took the couple more than five years to finally receive a child because of one major stipulation. The child had to be Native American. 

Native American adoption always has been a complex issue. In 1958, the Indian Adoption Project was created by the Child Welfare League of America and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to CWLA, the project placed Native American children with white foster and adoptive families. The project was part of a widespread ideal that Native American children needed to be “integrated” into white society.

According to a study conducted by the First Nations Orphan Association, as many as 68 percent of all Native American children  between 1941 and 1978 were placed in orphanages, boarding schools, foster homes, or were adopted at one point in their lives.  

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the act made Native American adoption more ethical. Since then, NICWA has worked to enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act and promote the rights of Native American families and tribes.

Today, thanks to efforts like the Indian Child Welfare Act, Native American adoption is much more ethical. However, it is yet to become mainstream. When the Thompsons wanted to adopt a Native child, they did not know where to start.

“Since we are Native American, we wanted a Native American child,” Katherine said. “However, adopting a full Native American child is very difficult.”

They initiated the adoption process in 1994, but could never seem to find any agencies that specialized in — or even knew anything about — Native American adoption. They worked with many national adoption agencies, but had no luck.

 “We could not find any information anywhere,” Katherine said. “Resources were just not out there.” 

When given the chance to adopt an African American child in 1997, the Thompsons decided not to go through with it because of cultural reasons.

“While we would certainly love a child of any race, we wanted a Native American child,” Katherine explained. “We wanted to be able to share our culture with our child and pass on those traditions. We didn’t feel we could do that with an African American child.”

Finally, in 1998, they discovered an adoption agency called the Cherokee Nation Adoption Program. The agency specializes in placing Cherokee children with adoptive parents. Katherine and Joseph, who are Navajo, were relieved to finally find an agency who could help them.

“Within nine months of finding [the agency] we adopted Isabel. We were thrilled,” Joseph said. “She is our joy.”

Today, Isabel is an 8-year-old third grader. Her elementary school teacher, Susan Jones, believes Katherine and Joseph have done a good job of teaching Isabel about her Cherokee culture.

“She seems to be very well adjusted,” Jones said. “I can tell that she is aware of her heritage and is proud of it.”

Some couples, like the Thompsons, want to adopt Native American children because of cultural reasons. Other couples find that the opportunity just falls right into their laps.

Salt Lake City residents Julian Sanford, 39, and his wife, Megan, 35, have been foster parents for the past seven years. In July 2004, they began fostering a young Navajo child, Hannah.

“We had never fostered an Indian child before,” said Megan. “It was a big change when Hannah came to live with us.”

After fostering the child for six months, the couple decided they would like to adopt Hannah. The adoption process lasted more than a year, but, finally, Hannah officially became part of the family.

“Finally adopting [Hannah] didn’t change how we felt about her,” Julian said. “We loved Hannah the second we met her and have always considered her our daughter.” 

Initially, the Sanfords were worried about raising a Native American child. More than three years after adopting Hannah, it is still a concern, but has gotten easier.

“We were worried that we wouldn’t be able to teach [Hannah] about her culture,” Megan said. “Over the past few years we have made a real effort to make sure Hannah knows about her heritage. We want it to be a part of her life.”

The Sanfords have been introducing Hannah to other Native American children, taking her to cultural celebrations and teaching her about Cherokee history to make sure she grows up with a strong sense of identity.

Native American mixed-race relationships in Utah


Jonathan and Mandie Hansen are a typical married couple. They live in the suburbs, enjoy their weekly date nights and love going on vacations with their young son. However, one major difference separates them from other couples: race. Mandie is white and Jonathan is Native American.  

According to Jonathan, mixed-race relationships are a sensitive issue in Utah. 

“People want to pretend that you don’t exist,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with you.”

However, according to recent statistics, mixed-race relationships are steadily increasing with more and more people deciding to marry and date outside their race.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of interracial marriages has soared over the last 35 years. Overall, the Bureau calculates that more than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than 2 percent in 1970.

Being an interracial couple is never easy.  Dealing with challenges including racism, cultural differences and raising biracial children in a largely white area can be taxing, no matter how strong a relationship is. Are the challenges associated with being an interracial couple worth it?

Marrying Other Ethnic Groups

Despite the increase in interracial marriages as a whole, mixed-race marriages involving Native Americans remain low. They account for less than 1 percent of interracial marriages in the United States.

Even though mixed-race marriages involving Native Americans are uncommon, Jonathan, 32, and Mandie Mortensen, 30, don’t consider their relationship unconventional. Not now, at least. 

When Mandie first announced to her conservative family, who reside in West Valley, that she was engaged to a Navajo man, they were less than enthusiastic.

“My family pretended that they were all right with me marrying Jonathan, but I knew better,” Mandie said. “[Because] of their hesitancy, it made me question our relationship as well. It took me a few months before I finally [decided] that I loved Jonathan and would marry him with or without my family’s approval.”

Jonathan and Mandie were married in 2002. After a lot of compromise, Mandie says her family has finally warmed up to Jonathan.

“They see that I love him and that [our] marriage is solid,” Mandie said. “I think they are happy because I’m happy.” 

Throughout the six years of their marriage, Mandie and Jonathan have learned to take things one day at a time. They have accepted the fact that being in an interracial marriage always comes with challenges. They will always have to deal with racism and cultural issues, but are trying to make understanding and cooperation the basis of their marriage.

“I’m not Navajo. I never will be,” Mandie said. “But I’m married to a wonderful man who is Navajo so I need to respect their traditions and way of life.”

Marrying Between Tribes

While many Native Americans are not marrying whites, Asians, or African Americans, many are marrying outside of their tribe. While these unions might not be “interracial” by traditional definitions, they can still bring up cultural issues.

When Dayna Jones, 27, a Navajo, started dating Chris Jorgensen, 31, a Ute, she was certain their relationship would never work. Dayna was concerned that because they were from different tribes, their values and beliefs would be too different.

“I was raised in a very traditional Navajo family,” Dayna said. “No one in my family has ever dated or married [someone] from a different tribe. How could I suddenly go against my upbringing and date a Ute?”

Much like Dayna, Chris was also hesitant about dating outside of his tribe.

“Even though we are both Native Americans, Utes and Navajos have different ways of doing things,” Chris said. “I thought dating a Navajo would simply mean too many compromises.”

Despite their initial reluctance to get involved with one another, love quickly bloomed between them.

“I couldn’t help that I fell in love with a Ute,” Dayna said. “Once I started to develop serious feelings for Chris, what tribe he was from didn’t seem to matter so much.”

Chris and Dayna have now been married for three years. They are the first to admit it has been challenging. One of the main issues they have had to deal with involves blending their families.

“When I first married Dayna, my mother did not approve of her,” Chris said. “She wanted me to marry a Ute and Dayna did not fit the mold. She is more accepting of her now that we are married, but I am positive there are still some feelings of resentment there.”

Chris and Dayna also frequently have disagreements about how to raise their 1-year-old daughter, Nicole. Because Nicole is both Navajo and Ute, they want her to feel connected with both tribes.

“We want [Nicole] to grow up with a strong sense of identity,” Dayna said. “Figuring out how to teach her both Navajo and Ute traditions is the complicated part. We don’t ever want her to think that one [tribe] is more important than the other.”

Even though marrying someone from a different Native American tribe has not been simple, Chris says he has no regrets.

“My [marriage] with Dayna is not perfect, but what marriage is?” Chris said. “I love her and that has always been the most important thing.”

Raising Biracial Children

Biracial children have become commonplace in modern society. More and more children are growing up with parents of different races, learning two or mote sets of traditions, values, even languages.

Mandie and Jonathan know firsthand that raising a biracial child is never easy. The couple says they have struggled teaching their 6-year-old son, Jack, about both his Navajo and white heritage.

“Teaching your child about two different heritages is a tough thing,” Jonathan said. “Jack seems confused about the fact that he is both white and Navajo. Hopefully that will become clearer to him as he gets older.”

Mandie and Jonathan have tried to incorporate both white and Native American traditions into everyday life so that Jack is constantly surrounded by his heritage.

“I try to cook traditional meals once in a while and have been teaching Jack some Navajo words,” Jonathan said. “We also make sure that we visit both sides of the family often so that he is exposed to both cultures. He definitely loves learning about both cultures.”

Even though Jack is only 5, Mandie and Jonathan are hopeful he will continue to relate to both his Navajo and white heritage as he gets older.

“Jack is already proud of his heritage,” Mandie said. “We think it will continue as he grows older if we [continue] to emphasize the importance of both cultures.”

Ultimately, the couple thinks the most important thing they can do is love their son and make sure he knows that the color of his skin is not the most important thing.

“We want our son to grow up and know that he is loved,” Jonathan said. “In our family, love is more important than race ever will be.”

Miss Utah Navajo


  • See a slideshow of Hokti Miles (best viewed in full-screen mode)

Hokti Miles of Salt Lake City was born into a family where her mother is Navajo and her father is white. Her mother speaks both Navajo and English, but her father speaks only English. Because of this, Navajo was not spoken much at home. Consequently, Miles never learned the language. But, her mother did try to teach her what she knew about the traditional Navajo way of life and the culture.

Miles was crowned Miss Utah Navajo in September 2007 and passed on her crown to another young woman in September 2008. Winners of the Miss Utah Navajo pageant typically are full-blooded Navajos and speak the language. But, Miles’ experiences and blend of cultures helped her connect with younger Navajos who do not speak the language. Because of the respect that comes with the crown of Miss Utah Navajo, she was also able to help older people understand what they can do differently to help children learn the language and culture.

After being crowned, Miles met Jonathea Tso, the 2007 Miss Navajo Nation, at a Veterans Day event. Tso invited her to go to a leadership conference for Miss Navajo pageant winners where Tso and other Navajo Nation leaders taught the girls how to behave as representatives of the Navajo Nation.

“You’ve got to learn to be reserved and got to watch what you do and watch what you say,” Miles said. “You’ve just got to act with respect and dignity at all times.”

As Miss Utah Navajo, Miles participated in several programs representing the Navajo Nation. She taught about the culture, promoted good health and living, and the traditional Navajo way of life. She felt it was very important to inspire Navajo children and teenagers who do not know the language to start learning it because they can learn so much about themselves and their culture.

“I would stress the importance of knowing your elders, like your grandparents, before they pass on to another world,” Miles said. “And all the lessons that they can teach you, it’s just amazing. You can become such a good person just from learning from them.”

Sharee Varela, a graduate student in the University of Utah’s Department of Languages and Literature, who teaches Miles Navajo, said, “One of the Navajo philosophers who was one of my teachers back home on the tribal reservation…says that in order for the youth to regain their identity and self-respect again in society, in both western society and Navajo society, is to retain the language and the traditional teachings of Navajo.”

Since she holds this knowledge, Varela feels that it is her responsibility to pass it on to the kids. “Only if they want to learn it though,” she said. “I tell my kids, if you really want to know, if you really want to learn, I’ll teach you, but only when you are ready.”

During her reign, Miles felt the need to tell parents and grandparents they have a responsibility to teach their children the language and Navajo traditions. She often related to them her own experiences.

Her grandparents were never a major part of her life because they died when she was very young. “My mom didn’t teach me much Navajo and it is such a struggle now,” Miles said. “They look down on the younger generations because we don’t know Navajo, and yet it’s their fault that we don’t know Navajo.” When speaking to the elders she often encouraged them not to criticize young people, but to help them instead.

One experience Miles had where she felt criticized was at a charity event called Tip-A-Royalty. This is an event involving all eight royalties from the Navajo Nation. They served as waitresses at Earl’s Restaurant in Gallop, N.M., and all the tips they received were donated to help with the Special Olympics.

While waiting tables, a man asked her a question in Navajo. Miles said she understood bits and pieces of what he said but couldn’t quite comprehend everything. He asked her where she was from and when she told him he said, “Why don’t you know Navajo then? That area is full of culture!” Miles explained her situation, but the man replied, “You should still know.” Miles said in return, “I’m learning now, is that not enough?”

Miles said that was one of the worst experiences she had because she felt so bad afterward. “It was just rough to hear that from people,” she said.

Varela said the way this man spoke to her is appropriate in Navajo culture, especially if he is a close relative.

“An older person getting after you like that, culturally it’s appropriate, especially if they are related to you as an uncle. So, if he was related to her as an uncle he has every right to get after her like a father,” she said. “Navajo culture not only teaches respect but it also teaches you the roles you take in Navajo society. He took appropriate role as an uncle in going after her for whatever he felt he needed to say.” Varela said that culturally this is not being mean or rude. He is just telling her, in his own opinion, what she needs know.

Miles participated in several cultural events as Miss Utah Navajo, including: The Utah Navajo Fair, The Navajo Nation Parade and The Days of ’47 Parade. Some of her greatest experiences as Miss Utah Navajo came while speaking at different schools across the state. She said she loved going to elementary schools because the children all looked up to her. They respected her and would almost always sit quietly while she was speaking. Several have recognized her in other settings, such as while shopping. The children pull on their mother’s hand and whisper with a big smile, “That is Miss Utah Navajo.”

Before being crowned, Miles said she was not a very good person. She didn’t care much about her culture and traditions. But, because of her experiences with being Miss Utah Navajo she said she has became a much better person. She has more respect and love for her culture, language and people. She has also received the love and respect she felt she has needed from the older generations.

“A lot of the elders they would come up to me and call me ‘shideezhi,’” which means little sister in Navajo. “It just felt really great. It seemed like they really respected me for what I was doing,” Miles said. “I just wanted the other kids to know how great it felt to be loved by their elders and to be respected by them.”

Navajo rug sale supports American Indian elders


Life on the Navajo reservation and in traditional hogans made people strong. Years of following sheep around the desert, watching children move away from their homes and weaving together strand after strand of coarse sheep’s wool to create hundreds of rugs in a single lifetime has given the elders at the 19th Annual Navajo Rug Show and Sale their dedication to each piece.

The rug show took place Nov. 7-9, 2008 in Deer Valley Resort’s Snow Park Lodge in Park City, Utah.

Rug weaving is a historic Navajo, or Diné, tradition and is honored in the show that was formed specifically to support the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program (ANE).

This program, created to benefit Navajo elders, began in the 1980s through the efforts of Linda Myers, a Park City woman who was impressed by an early display of Navajo rugs from elders in northern Arizona. Soon after that event, Myers got involved in collecting and distributing medical, food, and hygienic supplies to elders living on the Navajo reservation in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

A group of supporters eventually joined Myers and the Adopt-A-Native Elder Program was established. Mary Phillips, one of the many volunteers at the rug sale, said it is “an honor to work with Linda. The program’s success is truly inspiring and shows Linda’s devotion not only to the elders themselves, but to the Navajo tradition [of rug weaving.]”

According to the program’s Web site, there are more than 2,500 people involved in the program today. Most are from the United States but some are from other countries as well.

Rosita Van den Berg is one such volunteer. Rosita is from Holland and became interested in the program while visiting a fan site of American Indian actor Jay Tavare. 

Tavare, an avid supporter of ANE, has information regarding the program on his personal Web site and on his Facebook and MySpace pages. Van den Berg, who attended the event this year, created a painting to honor American Indian people and donated it to be auctioned off with its proceeds going to the program.

Tavare, known best for his roles in the TV miniseries “Into the West” and films “The Missing” and “Cold Mountain,” has supported ANE for seven years. He has attended the rug show for the past three years. “It definitely brings awareness about the culture of Native Americans,” he said. He hopes his support can act as “a symbol to reach across nations and get the message as far out as possible.”

Another supporter at the show was author Rose Johnson-Tsosie of “Finding Helen – A Navajo Miracle.” Tsosie was born on the Hopi reservation of northern Arizona in 1950 but she and her twin were taken from her biological mother at birth and were placed for adoption. The siblings were raised by a white family, Albert and Wilmont Johnson, in Cache Valley, Utah, where they grew up never learning much about their American Indian heritage. Tsosie said all she was aware of was that “growing up Navajo in a white society was different only because I knew my skin was different.”

In 1983, Tsosie reconnected with her biological mother, a Navajo, while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Arizona Holbrook Mission. Through tears Tsosie said, “there are many exciting times in my life but this is the ultimate dream when I got to hold my mother and my mother got to hold me.”

Since then, Tsosie has been actively involved in the American Indian communities of California and Utah. She now travels around the country promoting her books and speaking about and on behalf of American Indians.

Attending the ANE rug show gave Tsosie a chance to show the reason she says she loves being Navajo: “learning the tradition of my heritage.” Tsosie also said, “I do respect my heritage. I am still learning about who I am, about where I am going and where I have been.”

About 28 weavers were featured in this year’s rug show. Their ages ranged from the early teens to nearly 100 years old.

Patrina and Diana Furcap, ages 13 and 12, are sisters. They learned to weave from their mother at about 6 years old. Each sold one hand-made rug on the first day of the show. “I think it’s important to keep the tradition going from one generation to the next. We shouldn’t lose it because it’s art,” Patrina said.

Most of the weavers present were women. However, four men also participated. William Whitehair, who has been weaving since he was 7, said gender differences might be rooted in history. When European settlers arrived, they brought with them their traditional form of household with women at home doing domestic activities and men outside working in farms. Although the American Indian way is matriarchal, many Native people adopted the European style and over time, weaving became primarily a female activity. Still, Whitehair said, he weaves because he’s “always enjoyed the art.”

At the show, rugs were sold at prices ranging anywhere from $150 to several thousand dollars. Prices are indicators of the quality of each rug and the amount of labor involved.

Linda Myers explained, “It’s not about the weaving itself. It’s about how when you go up and feel these rugs and you feel the hands of the weavers…that’s one of the gifts of purchasing the Navajo rugs all woven by hand. All these rugs carry that beautiful spirit of the weaver and their hands and the patterns.”

Designs range from the simplistic “Diamond” pattern (a single shape woven throughout a rug) to the intricate “Tree of Life.” This rug is a story, beginning with a “wedding basket.” At the bottom of the rug is the basket, usually woven in yellow or brown, which symbolizes the beginning of a family. From the basket grows a tall corn stalk with many branches growing from both sides. Birds of all colors are perched on the branches, each representing older generations of the family. There are also birds in flight on either side of the stalk, which stand for the younger generations. At the top is the “tassel” of the corn which holds the pollen. In Navajo tradition, corn pollen is offered with prayers, giving significance to the tassel being the tallest point on the Tree of Life. This rug can be woven in any color assortment ranging from rich dark colors to pastels.

Proceeds from the rug sales go to support the ANE program in buying food, firewood, and other items for Native elders. Individuals also could purchase balls of yarn in various shades to donate to elders for use in weaving. Some customers chose to sponsor a specific elder and invited him or her to choose the colors they liked the best. Additional donations can be made at the Web site.

The Adopt-A-Native Elder program has been a success for more than 20 years. One weaver has been a part of the program since its inception. Weaver Grace Smith-Yellowhammer of Teesto, Ariz., feels blessed to play a part in ANE and is proud of the international community involved. “We are all connected,” she said, “One voice, one prayer, one heart.”

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.”

Navajo Hogan serves traditional foods


Squanto, of the Wampanoag tribe, helped the starving pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony 387 years ago. He lived with them and taught them how to fish and plant corn and other local vegetables.

The American Indians originally cultivated about 60 percent of the foods we eat today, said Forrest S. Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. Those foods include corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolates and coffee beans.

While mainstream America has taken these native foods and created new recipes with them, the Navajo Hogan, a Salt Lake City restaurant, keeps Native American food traditions alive with their fry bread and Navajo taco.

The concrete building at 447 E 3300 South looks plain at first glance, with only a big yellow and red sign adorning its gray walls. The inside has a few simple, metal tables and chairs and a long counter in front of the open kitchen. The walls are decorated with Native American murals, strings of dried chili peppers, tribal maps, painted animal hides and various weaponry and trinkets.

Bill and Marcie Espinoza, originally from New Mexico, opened the Navajo Hogan in 1989. The building first housed the Espinozas’ arcade for the teenagers attending nearby Granite High School. One night, though, as Marcie was making dinner, Bill had the idea to sell the traditional Navajo taco that his wife made. He wanted everyone to have to opportunity to enjoy it. She refused at first because she had a full-time job, but after some persuasion from Bill she was convinced.

The restaurant’s main menu item is the Navajo taco. The traditional is the most popular, made with fresh fry bread topped with homemade chili beans, cheddar cheese, chopped lettuce, tomatoes and onions. The Navajo Hogan offers about 10 other variations as well, including vegetarian, chili cheese, blue corn and chicken.

Most North American tribes were never taught how to make bread but they experimented and learned to prepare fry bread, Cuch said in an e-mail. After surrendering to the U.S. Cavalry, Native Americans were issued rations of “salted pork or bacon, refined flour, salt, sugar, and lard,” Cuch said. They had to use the white settlers’ food to create the bread.

“The Indians mixed the flour with water and salt and made a dough,” Cuch said. “With the grease from the bacon or lard, they place the dough in the grease and created grease/fry bread.”

The Navajo Hogan also makes a sweet fry bread with cinnamon and sugar.
Mutton stew is also a staple of the Navajo tradition, Cuch said. The Navajo Hogan makes a limited amount of mutton stew with vegetables every Saturday and is served on a first come first serve basis.

Regulars come in every Saturday for the stew. Some will even call in advance to reserve their bowl, Bill said.

Mutton stew comes from the Navajo tradition of herding sheep. Their eating habits are different from other tribes, even within Utah. The Utes, the Native American tribe that Utah is named for, don’t have any well-known food traditions, Cuch said.

The food diversity stems from the Utes’ nomadic background as opposed to the Navajo’s early settling. Mormon pioneers eventually forced the Utes to change their ways. The move to a reservation restricted their eating habits and food sources.

“[The Utes used to] eat more wild game, including deer, elk, buffalo, antelope [and] trout,” Cuch said. “They learned to plant and eat corn from the Hopi.”

Though the Utes’ eating habits have changed from their traditional ways, Utahns still have the opportunity to try the Navajo taco and mutton stew at the Navajo Hogan.

Bill smiles and greets a pair of his regular customers and writes down their order from memory. He cooks their Navajo tacos according to each of their specifications, even cutting one into quarters.

People from all around the world have come to eat at the Navajo Hogan, especially during the 2002 Winter Olympics. There have been customers from New York, Alaska, Japan and Australia, Bill said.

Similar to Squanto, Bill is teaching and spreading the Native American ways and knowledge, all while feeding new people traditional Navajo foods.

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.”


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