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.”