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.
“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.”