SLC graphic designer promotes Native American business development

by ALLISON JOHNSON

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.”