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Interview by Frank King, Nations News Magazine

Rudy Rojas is a Native Artist from Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a Surfer, and Cultural Advocate and Business Entrepreneur.

Rudy Rojas

Frank King from Nations News Magazine Interviews 
Rudy Rojas, Creative Director/Smoke Signals Design & Marketing.

Tribal Affiliation: Tigua, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo

Home: San Diego, CA

Rudy Rojas is a Native Artist from Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a Surfer, and Cultural Advocate and Business Entrepreneur.

Best known for the iconic brand (Native Threads), he founded in 1990 - 2006 and grew to become a household name in Indian Country.

Frank King, from Nations News Magazine, recently caught up with Rudy to see what he has been up to and what new projects he has been developing in Indian Country.

 

FRANK KING - NATIONS NEWS MAGAZINE: So - Rudy. Where have you been… and what have you been up to? It seems like you went from being everywhere in Indian Country, to being off the grid for a few years - up until recently.

RUDY: Man... lots has been going on - physically, spiritually and with business too. But, life is good!

FRANK KING: So what have you been up to?
RUDY: On the personal level, I got into yoga about 3 years ago just to keep me limber for surfing.

I’ve been going to yoga class 3-4 times a week, plus I'm surfing at least 2-3 times a week as well.

I think that I am in the best shape that I have been in years. I have a pretty healthy diet, and with surfing and yoga combined, I feel pretty darn good.

I highly recommend Yoga to your audience.

 

FRANK KING: So what about your Art? What have you been up to, and tell us about Smoke Signals? Whats your vision and inspiration behind this new project?

RUDY: Through our art, words, images and products, our vision is to share a positive cultural message that will empower our customers.

The artwork and products that I design are created with the belief that the message we share will help bring badly needed attention to our shared responsibility of preserving our Native Culture and the protection of our natural resources.

 

FRANK KING: That’s cool. What about the name Smoke Signals? Does it have anything to do with the movie?

RUDY: No, our name doesn’t have any connection with the movie what so ever.

Our name “Smoke Signals” has two meanings behind it:

First: One of the earliest forms of communication used by indigenous peoples was the use of sending plumes of smoke up into the sky - to communicate important news from one village to another. Thats the communications part of our name.

Second: The second meaning behind our name also comes from my own Prayer Pipe.

The smoke that comes from my Pipe - are the prayers that I send up into the heavens; Giving thanks to the spirit world with tobacco, asking for the guidance, strength and clarity - for me to walk my life’s path.

So, the meaning and purpose behind the name is very important - and is a constant reminder to for me to always think about others, before I think of myself.

 

FRANK KING: Has your art always been so symbolic?

RUDY: Yes! As long as I can remember, I’ve looked at what I do and the artwork I create as a form of story-telling - similar to music and song-writing. I look at my life... as my art!

I think that's why the artwork I have created for my clothing, and even the commercial projects I have done for Tribes and Tribal organizations across the country, have always carried a spirit of its own.

I think this understanding or design as a form of language initially began to surface when I was in college attending SDSU majoring in Graphic Communications.

The creative growth I experienced coming right out of college working as a Jr. Art Director at one of Southern California's leading Advertising Agencies - gave me a creative foundation on which I have never stopped building on. I was taught how to “tell a story” on a national level.

Just like a good book or movie, Art Directors not only look at the aesthetic qualities of the story being told, but also take into consideration what the overall experience is for the viewer, and not lose sight of what the objective is for the story being told.

These early experiences shaped how I approach everything in what I do. I look at the bigger picture.

I think about what I need to communicate and always put myself into the shoes of the person I'm trying to share my story with. My approach allows me to create a clear picture in my mind - and what I need to do. That is the creative process that I enjoy most.

 

FRANK KING: So, what about your new company?
 How did it get started and what are you working on?

RUDY: Smoke Signals was formed around 2010.

It was my partner Paul John Jr., (a full-blood Athabascan from a small Village called Ruby off the Yukon River in Alaska) who actually encouraged me and has supported me to move forward with my Art.

Paul John and my wife Donna have had a huge impact in my life. He has encouraged me to keep forging ahead, even when I wasn’t ready to start moving forward with my journey again.

Though I must admit, starting a new climb to summit a mountain after you fell from the top of your last attempt, is not an easy thing to persuade someone to do. But, this is one of the true life-lessons that has helped re-shape me to the person I am becoming.

You need to know that when life throws and lands a solid punch — you can get up from the canvas and keep on fighting. The lesson you can learn from this life-lesson is — that we are here in life to learn from our challenges and joys, and shouldn’t be afraid of getting in the Ring to experience the journey.

 

FRANK KING: It sounds like you are taking life’s lessons and plugging it into what you are doing now?

RUDY: Oh for sure! I think fear is a killer!

I think most people never get to really experience even a fraction of what their life can actually be, because of their fear of taking a chance in life. I believe that if you’re afraid to get into the “ring of life,” then you’ll never know who you truly are and what you are capable of accomplishing in your life.

To put things into a proper and cultural perspective, I think about my ancestors on a daily basis. Not only to honor them in my prayers, but to acknowledge them for all that they had to endure in their lives’.

Just think about your own ancestors, and what your family’s history? Who had it harder? Them? Or you? Personally I think they had it way gnarlier than anything we’re going through in our modern lives’. Thats for sure.

 

FRANK KING: So… you were the founder and creative force behind Native Threads. So… what actually happened? Are you willing to talk about that?

RUDY: Sure. I’m willing to talk about what happened to Native Threads and how I lost the business that I grew for 16 years.

Native Threads was a huge part of my life. And, losing it was like having a family member pass. I have many fond memories of my experiences and I learned many valuable lessons along the way.

 

FRANK KING: So...

RUDY: Here’s the long-story short; I founded my company in 1990, and grew my home-based company by working my butt off by traveling to Powwows throughout Indian Country, selling my products, building my brand, message and artwork.

By 2006, I grew my customer base to 50,000 loyal mail-order customers, I had over 300 Casino Gift Shops, Cultural Centers and Museums carrying my products. My grew my annual sales to near 3 million.

In 2003, before I brought in my Tribal partner, my company was experiencing a growth rate of about 300% annually. It was crazy trying to keep up with the growth. So I brought in a local Gaming Tribal partner from here in San Diego to finance the growth.

It all made sense to me, and I thought that this was going to be an amazing journey together. From a business perspective, I thought this was a smart thing to do. At that time, I was still young and very idealistic, thinking that all Native People are here to help and support one another. I thought that it was the right thing to do as a Native person looking to do right for Indian Country, working with other Native People.

Well, I was wrong.


FRANK KING: So what went wrong?

RUDY: From the time contracts were signed, my Tribal partner became contractually non-compliant. The financing that was supposed to be in-place, wasn’t. It took a full year of battling with the Tribal Council to finally get things going. But by that time, the ship was taking-on water by all the business lost and the opportunities we lost during that time took its toll.

So, long-story short, in 2006, after 3 years of trying to get them to come around or be bought out, I failed in getting them to act on either option and I had to close my doors and walk away from my company.

 

FRANK KING: That sounds crazy!
RUDY: It was. It was real crazy. I would have never imagined the kind disfunction and craziness I saw and experienced dealing with this Tribe. And it cost me dearly.

But, that is the life-lesson I had to experience in order to truly understand my purpose and have the clarity that I now have on my life, my Art and my purpose.

 

FRANK KING: Well Rudy, It was great catching up with you and its great to see that you are now moving onto the next big thing in your life.

RUDY: No. Thank you! I greatly appreciate the opportunity for allowing me to share “Smoke Signals” with your audience.

I am excited about filling the creative void with our positive message that has been missing for far too long in Indian Country - and exploring the new opportunities that lay ahead.

Thank you again! Sign-up on our mailing list so we can keep you up to date with our latest news and cool clothing. 

 

Check out our Native Culture Shop collection below:

Smoke Signals Culture Shop

 

 

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