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.”

For SLC graphic designer, a life spent searching for home and helping others


Perched on the edge of a mesa overlooking Albuquerque, N.M., surrounded by a desert calm interrupted only by the occasional breeze, is where you’ll find Cal Nez with his laptop, sending email, completing the mundane clerical tasks associated with his work as a graphic designer.

Nez, speaking to a reporting class at the University of Utah, shifts his recollection from the sweeping vistas of New Mexico to the dreary confines of the boarding school where he was, by his reckoning, held as a prisoner for six of his formative childhood years. He remembers ranks of children, standing at strict attention like soldiers, sometimes for hours. Mincing no words, Nez refers to the experience as one of the biggest demons in his past.

“It took away the beauty of being a child—the beauty, the peace of it,” he says.

Nez, who was born in the Navajo Nation, relates his life story in a series of evocative, symbol-laden snapshots like these—some real, some imagined, others a mixture of the two. Beneath each image, the fight to define a geographic and spiritual home simmers, informing Nez’s dual roles as artist and founder of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce.

The impetus behind much of his work, Nez says, is an effort to reassert the presence of Native American people.

“We have a right to fulfill our space as human beings here on earth,” he says. “We are not history; we are not what you see in movies. Our drums, our songs are still going on.”           

Following boarding school, Nez was uprooted once more, this time landing in Salt Lake City, where he enrolled as a sophomore at South High School. Here, he invokes the mental picture of a long school building corridor, his grandmother silhouetted against the light spilling through the door at the end, never turning back.

Nor would he turn back, racking up a dizzying number of achievements and accolades by graduation, including a Sterling Scholarship, a position as editor of the school newspaper, a spot on the wrestling team and student-of-the-year honors.

“I knew I was supposed to go to South High School,” he says, emphasizing the sense of providence he felt in making the wrenching move away from his grandmother and the Navajo Nation. His voice soft, he gazes above the class and, as if speaking to her in person, recalls promising his grandmother that he “won’t ever cry,” and that he was “going to make it.”   

But, even as he celebrates the 20th anniversary of Cal Nez Design, his Salt Lake City–based graphic design company, the 50–year–old father of three still muses over what life would have been like had he been able to stay with his grandparents on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. 

The tension between these two versions of home is evident in much of his work. Using a diverse range of media, including oil paint, pencil and airbrush, he has produced art and designs for everyone from Governor Michael Leavitt, to the Navajo Nation, to the Utah Museum of Natural History. They are works that dot the spectrum of his identity, which stretches between his life in Utah and his roots in the Navajo Nation.

In April, Nez, in a drive to provide support for fellow Native American business owners, founded the Native American Chamber of Commerce. The organization, he says, is designed to unite Native American voices, bring increased awareness to Native American issues and for lobbying purposes.

He further hopes to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship in the younger generations of Native Americans.

“[There is] nothing you can do about the past,” he says, his voice low but clear, “Read about it, study it. But there’s the future…future. That’s where I think the answer lies.”

Abel Saiz, owner of Saiz Construction, is a member of the chamber and an acquaintance of Nez. He speaks of the organization as a support network for Native American business owners who are often discriminated against.

“We’re not called the invisible people for nothing,” Saiz says, adding that he wishes an organization like the chamber had been around when he created his construction company 22 years ago.

Though Nez acknowledges that many challenges remain in his life, he has found some measure of peace on questions of his identity and his true home.

“I’m beginning to find home is here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “And it doesn’t matter where I’m at.”

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