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.”

For Cal Nez, it’s all in the journey


Cal Nez says he didn’t like the six years he spent in boarding school, that it was more like a prison than a school. He says it didn’t make him angry even though he was forced to leave his grandparents when he was 5.

He describes his Navajo beginnings in Tocito, N.M., the beauty he knew there as compared to the loss of childhood via harsh treatment at school. He talks about today, living in Salt Lake City as a successful business owner.

But he asks, “What do I call home?”

And he wonders, “Is home a physical place, or is it inside me? Is home where my clan is? Am I Navajo or American?”

Today, Nez appears to be living the life of both.

A business owner since 1986, Nez works as a graphic designer at Cal Nez Design as well as on the mountain tops of New Mexico. He enjoys his business and will tell you this is how he does a portion of it, “with a laptop in the middle of nowhere.”

“We have a right to fill our space as human beings here on earth,” he says. “We’re not history; we’re not what you see in movies or on book covers. We are people.”

We are Native Americans who must move forward, he adds. There must be a reconciling between the past and the present. Those who have reconciled, while still maintaining their Native American heritage, can make significant contributions. And that means owning a business over working as an employee.

But the journey is not an easy one, nor is entrepreneurship for every Native American., says Sandy McCabe, Navajo, and owner of Sandy’s Kitchen, a catering business located in Salt Lake County.

“Living in a white society, is a new world,” she says in a phone interview, and not every Native American is able to make the shift. “If not for my husband, Samir, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.”

McCabe calls herself a “worker,” a quality, she says, not every Native American thinks they have within them. “A lot of us are afraid to make that next step, that next challenge. It was so true with me.”

She describes her East Indian husband’s motivating power in getting her to go to college to obtain her business degree, something she says she did “kicking and screaming.”

Years before, she was a high school drop-out as well as a single parent raising a son she’d had at 17. “I had to earn my bacon and come home and make the bacon,” she says.

Today, McCabe runs her own catering business. The idea came from the question, “Do you cater?” by a fellow Wal-Mart employee requesting help for a 300 person catering job.

After that, “one thing led to another,” says McCabe, who counts her business a success. She caters two weddings a month and organizes at least three catering jobs a week – all out of her home and at a “little place” she rents out at the Jordan Landing center in West Jordan.

Despite the pain of the past, McCabe counts her life blessed.

“I had to go back and take a look at myself. My hardships. No money. Now I have a house that I can call home,” she says.

The detours haven’t always been easy, but the journey has definitely been worth it.

“I have to work,” McCabe says. “It’s hard, but it’s easy. You just have to put your heart into it, and it will come to you. You will have it.”

As for Nez, he seems to echo McCabe’s words with a direction he hopes other Native Americans will not only consider but take on as part of their own journey: “There is nothing we can do about the past. The future, that’s where I think the answer, lies.  My journey is not so much a Cal Nez journey but a journey of the Native American.  Home is here. It doesn’t matter where I’m at.”

Cal Nez has found his home in Salt Lake City


An old English proverb says, “Home is where the heart is.” Another variation says, “Home is where you hang your hat.”

The search for home is never simple, but it’s important to make peace with the answers that come from the journey.

Cal Nez is now content calling Salt Lake City home; this peace of mind, however, was not always the case.

Nez, a Navajo, takes pride in his Native American ancestry, but understands all too well the hardships that can be associated with his heritage. Nez has spent his entire life asking, “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where have I been?” In answering these questions, he has discovered what “home” means to him. Throughout his journey he has learned home is more than just the structure where one lives.

At the age of 5, Nez was sent to boarding school in Sanostee, N.M., where he describes his experience as “six years of prison.” After returning to the reservation in Tocito, N.M., he realized that his options for success were very limited.

An opportunity to move to Salt Lake City arrived and Nez took it. He remembers that saying goodbye to his grandma, who raised him, was the hardest part of leaving. Yet he recalls thinking, “I left because I knew one day I would make it and come back for [her].”

Nez made his way to Salt Lake City to participate in the LDS Placement Service Program. He was eager to live with a “normal family” and see what their lives were like. The next three years, attending South High School, were some of the greatest years of his life, but the joy and satisfaction of success at school made him question, “Is my Navajo life home or my Salt Lake life home, or is it somewhere in the middle?” At that point, he still did not have a good answer.

Several years after school Nez quit his job, got his portfolio together and succeeded in building his own graphic design company, Cal Nez Design, in Salt Lake City. After finding his success and realizing his dreams he returned to the home of his childhood, the reservation. When he got home, things were different. Shops were closed, people he knew were gone; this was not the home he remembered or the one that he came looking for. Was this still his home?

Nez remembers vividly the day when he finally was able to feel at home again on the reservation. He recalls sitting on a mesa as a young boy looking out over half of New Mexico. The day the feeling of home returned he had taken his laptop and stepped onto that same mesa. As he sat overlooking New Mexico, computer in hand, his homes connected and he linked his traditional life to his modern life.

Many other Navajo men feel similar to Nez. While they live modern lives, they love to return home to New Mexico and feel the peace of going back. Paul Lillywhite, a St. George stone mason employs several of these men. Lillywhite said that although they have very little money, they drive home every weekend to visit their family and their friends, “to go home.”

Lillywhite described home as “a feeling of a connection to a place and a connection to the people there, a place of shelter from the world, a place to re-group.” He understands there are differences in the type or location of home, but he also understands what Nez means when he says, “Home is here it doesn’t matter where I’m at.”

Nez said his biggest challenge in life is “finding the identity of … Native Americans.” The search for this identity is the search for home. Nez spent many years seeking these answers. Eventually, he came back to visit the reservation. This, according to Nez, is exactly as it should be.

“As Native Americans, the goal in the journey is to come full circle; to make it home,” he said. Nez found home on the reservation, at South High School, and in Sandy, Utah, where he currently lives with his family.

As Lillywhite says, “A home is really where the things that you love, and the people that you love are.”   

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