SLC designer takes long road to finding identity

by ANNE ROPER

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.”