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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 10, 2002 - Issue 67


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Cloaked in Tradition

By Gil Griffin, Staff Writer,
His brown skin baked in the intense heat, his gaze focused on the glow of the white-hot rocks and his ears attuned to the gourd rattles and prayer chants of the sun dancers.

In the darkness, a message resonated from the fiber of Rudy Rojas' soul. His spirit self spoke: "You're learning your culture – get involved with it."

Before that sweat lodge ceremony, Rojas was a "surfer trapped in a business suit," spinning his wheels, working at an advertising agency.

But after that enlightening fall night 13 years ago at Viejas Indian Reservation in Alpine, Rojas fused his newfound cultural awareness with entrepreneurial ingenuity and artistic flair. He created Native Threads, now the leading American Indian-owned sportswear company.

"It was gnarly," Rojas said. "Going into the spirit world? That's stuff you don't play with."

By blending stylish interpretations of time-honored symbols like eagle feathers and medicine wheels with slogans – and applying them to colorful T-shirts, baseball caps and other apparel – Native Threads spreads consciousness and culture.

"I've had to blaze the trail," said Rojas, a 42-year-old Tiwa Indian, whose company has nearly 100 wholesale accounts with American Indian nations. "This movement is a powerful thing. You feel a wave of pride."

Spiritual journey
Waves are central to Rojas' existence.

"Native people don't surf," Rojas quipped, in between sips of his "rocket fuel" – coffee with a double shot of espresso and non-fat, steamed milk – while sitting at his sanctuary, the balcony of Pannikin Coffee & Tea in Leucadia. "I'm the needle in the haystack."

Rojas' spiritual journey has taken him from his birthplace on the rural Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo in Texas and the barrios of East Los Angeles, to the Hawaiian Islands and his Leucadia home.

Rojas – his family's sixth-born – spent his first few years living "on the rez," in a dirt-floor adobe with no running water. It was how many members of his tribe – descendants of Indians whom the Spanish forced to march 250 miles south from Northern New Mexico – lived.

As Rojas' father, a carpenter, struggled with substance abuse, his mother sold the family's furniture and moved them to East L.A., with Rojas' older sister.

"Your survival skills are developed in a different setting," Rojas said, of his adolescence. "I ran with a tough crew."

But after visiting his older brother in Hawaii, who taught him surfing, Rojas turned away from gang life. Later, a high school government teacher pushed him to apply for a grant to Fresno State University, which he received.

Rojas would transfer to San Diego State University, where he studied graphic communications. But when Rojas got an internship with the Phillips Ramsey advertising agency in his senior year, he left school. Later he was an advertising, marketing and promotions director for Flojos, a surf fashion footwear company.

Rojas had found work, but not himself.

Gaining direction
At an Encinitas beach 13 years ago, at a secluded surf spot, Rojas met fellow surfer Tim Flannery, then a San Diego Padres utility infielder, who shared with Rojas his Cherokee heritage. Flannery also introduced Rojas to Kumeyaay Indian spiritual leader Ron Christman.

"Rudy had been feeling some emptiness regarding what he knew about himself and his ancestors," said Christman, who today ministers to members of 11 other Indian nations. "We invited him to participate in our sweat lodge ceremony. He gained some direction."

To further reconnect with his roots, Rojas returned to his birthplace to visit the father he barely knew. He combined money he had saved and got loans from friends to launch Native Threads. He then scoured "Indian Country," sharing his designs and creations with tribal elders on various American Indian lands.

The journey was arduous.
"You can't just show up and start selling stuff at the powwow," Flannery said. "He had to go to the elders and take them tobacco, before they agreed to talk to him. He had to do sweats and pray over the project with them. This stuff doesn't happen over e-mail, like in the mainstream corporate world."

And at first, Rojas' first T-shirt design, "sacred warrior" – a skeleton head adorned with a feathered headdress – didn't go over well.

"I caught a lot of flak," said Rojas, who wears black, square-rimmed glasses and his company's baseball caps and T-shirts. "They thought it was showing elders who had passed on. To me, it was saying, 'This is what happens when you can't recognize your spirit self.' "

After some convincing, the elders came around.
Years after racking up thousands of miles on his odometer, Rojas got merchandising contracts with scores of Indian nations. Last year, Native Threads grossed nearly $700,000, a 34 percent jump from the previous year. The company projects a gross income of $1 million this year and $3 million by 2006. Through its Web site, Native Threads has also gotten orders from as far away as Canada, England and Poland.

Sheryl Antelope, manager of the Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Toppenish, Wash., contacted Rojas five years ago after seeing a Native Threads ad in Native Peoples magazine.

"The designs and clothing with the eagle feather and the medicine wheel caught my eye," Antelope said.

"Our dancers use eagle feathers in their clothing. All the nations know the medicine wheel as a symbol of the four directions."

Three years ago, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs adopted Rojas' circular-shaped design with water droplets and a rising flame as the logo for the tribe's Agua Caliente Casino at Tahquitz Canyon.

"Rudy understands how we interact with nature," said Tim Taylor, the tribe's chief operating officer. "We had huge, non-Native designers from Las Vegas before, who looked at it from a corporate standpoint. (Rojas) was light-years ahead of them."

The casino's gift shop now carries Native Threads gear.

"When you wear it, you're making a statement about tribal sovereignty," Taylor said. "People say, 'Hey, this is us, and this is what we're about.' "

On the hunt
On a wall at the Native Threads warehouse in Carlsbad, Rojas affixed a quotation on an Edward S. Curtis photograph of a Cheyenne chief. It reads: "My Indian ancestors respected their relationship with water, fire, Earth and sky in their everyday lives."

Rojas' wife, Donna, works there, and their 5-year-old son, Hunter Ryan Rojas, models Native Threads clothing in the catalog. The gear on the racks features the beaded patterns of the Plains Indians, a "spirit eagle" totem in the style of Pacific Northwest Natives, and depictions of the buffalo, hunted by many Indian nations of the West and Midwest. Rojas even applies a potent message on the bottom of a skateboard with the company's logo, recounting a 19th-century massacre of Lakota Sioux Indians by the 7th U.S. Cavalry.

Rojas also gives back. Part of the sales from the "Heartbeat of Native America" T-shirt benefit about 200 Northern Cheyenne schoolchildren in Busby, Mont. And visitors to Viejas can see his interlocking medicine wheel and feather design on wooden signs he built at the Southern Indian Health Council complex.

Still, Rojas remains an aggressive businessman. He recently traveled to Alaska to showcase his gear at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. "He's a very generous, laid-back guy," said Flannery, the Padres' third-base coach, who modeled Native Threads wear in a 2001 catalog. "But he's learned to be a warriorlike businessman."

Rojas said Christman led him to discover his warrior and spirit self.

"He told me life in modern times isn't that much different from when our ancestors lived," Rojas said.

"The moral of the story is survival. I'm on the hunt, trying to provide for my family – and trying to do things in an honorable way."

Visit the site at:

Native Threads

Alpine, CA Map
Maps by Travel

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