The “Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs” list serves to elevate awareness of the innovation, professionalism, competence and tenacity demonstrated by Native entrepreneurs across Indian Country. Native Business is rolling out profiles of these 50 Native entrepreneurs online, in no particular hierarchy, to document and memorialize their innovation and self-determination. The inaugural class of the Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs recognizes leaders across 13 business sectors, demonstrating the diversity of industries where Natives are making an impact. Among the entrepreneurs recognized in our Art & Tourism sector is George Rivera of George Rivera Studio.
George Rivera, an artist and former Governor of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, says that one of his strengths is creating cultural icons. Whether he’s composing a sculpture or a building, he wants to make sure that the design not only reflects the culture, but stands as an icon to exemplify it.
In some ways, his focus on creating works that embody the Pojoaque culture has defined much of his career. After attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and the California College of Arts and Crafts, he studied and worked at the Lacoste School of Art in the South of France.
“While I was there, I had this kind of vision of what I was going to do for my Tribe in the future,” Rivera said. “It was to do an Arts and Cultural Center, and so I came back from Europe and I started working on the project, but the Tribe had no financial resources to apply to getting anything like this done.”
To bring the project to fruition, Rivera started seeking grants and collaborating with other artists on putting together a regional cultural center. At the same time, his uncle, Jacob Viarrial, was serving as the Tribe’s Governor and asked Rivera to serve as Lieutenant Governor. From there, the two started developing businesses for the Tribe to increase its financial standing.
“We started out small,” Rivera said. “We had a supermarket and some land leases, and then we got into gaming, little by little. That really made us learn the business and learn the politics. It wasn’t just a matter of opening a business, it was changing laws and making sure that our own gaming industry was regulated and functioning well.”
Eventually, their efforts paid off in 2008 when the Tribe opened Buffalo Thunder, the largest resort in the state of New Mexico. Because they brought in Hilton as a partner, the hotel giant helped them create an experience that had something for everyone.
“They helped us develop a resort with a casino in it, so you could either have the hotel and casino experience, or you could have the resort experience,” Rivera said. “It was really about trying to diversify, to ensure that it wasn’t just about bringing gamers in, it was about bringing in resort people too.”
When Rivera first started in his leadership role with the Tribe, he says there were approximately 50 employees across their business ventures. After the Tribe opened Buffalo Thunder and began leveraging their gaming revenues toward other economic development initiatives, that number skyrocketed to 1,600.
“We went from a lot of dirt, weeds and small brush to a world-class destination resort,” Rivera said. “It had the same effect on the Tribal members. We went from a poverty-stricken community with a lot of addiction and social problems to a place where people had a lot of hope, and became progressive and educated.”
“The discussion that I used to hear kids talk about was when they were going to drop out of high school or what year they dropped out,” Rivera continued. “And that discussion changed to ‘which college are you going to?’”
Rivera has been sketching and drawing since he was a teenager, and when he returned home from France, his uncle and other businesspeople figured that they could use the ideas he had for creating a cultural center and bringing back traditional art forms to start putting art around local buildings.
“They thought, ‘wow, that’s a great idea, because it makes a statement about who we are,’” Rivera said. “We won’t just have a blank building that says ‘I’m a building,’ we’ll have one that says ‘I’m a Native American Building.’ So we automatically had a theme.”
“We didn’t have to create a different theme, we just had to stay focused on what our cultural identity is,” he continued. “And that was our theme for many of our projects — especially Buffalo Thunder.”
In 1990, the dream that Rivera first conceptualized in the south of France came to fruition, when the first programs started at the Poeh Cultural Center. A few years later, they started construction on the buildings, which were completed over the years, designed to resemble a very traditional pueblo-looking building. Today, the Poeh Museum curates two collections: a permanent collection holding more than 600 objects spanning a millennium of Pueblo culture and an archive containing approximately 10,000 photographs.
Rivera spent 22 years holding elected office — 12 years as Lieutenant Governor and, after his uncle passed away, 10 years as Governor himself. Today, he is focusing on his art full time.
Many of the projects he’s worked on fit into that theme of creating cultural icons.
One piece, which he’s creating for the Pechanga Resort and Casino, he says is “going to be one of the most important pieces in Indian Country and in the state of California.”
For the piece, Rivera is creating 13 bronze sculptures, slightly bigger than life size, depicting the Peon game, which is a stick game or gambling game. One of the reasons that it’s so important, he says, is that it’s one of the games used in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court Case that enabled gaming on Indian reservations.
“This game has never been put out there the way I’m putting it out there for Pechanga,” Rivera said. “And I’m honored to be doing it because it fits both my artistic role as a sculptor, but also all the stuff that I fought for, to help my Tribe get gaming and help the other Tribes in New Mexico get gaming and protect their sovereignty.”
“This sculpture says so much about all of that,” he said. “It’s like taking all our history and honoring it, and by them having me sculpt it and cast it in bronze, it’s really hope for the future.”
Another important piece he’s currently working on honors two ultramarathon runners, Catua and Omtua, who participated in the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. The runners would travel between villages throughout the entire day, communicating messages through a knotted cord. Because the revolt’s coordinators never told the runners what the message was, they were ultimately captured, tortured, and killed on the plaza in Santa Fe.
Still another, yet to be cast in bronze, honors Billy Mills, recognized as one of the most famous Native American athletes whose gold medal win in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is considered one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time.
For Rivera, this theme of having his work tell a story and reflect the culture is paramount. He’s not just making a statue, he’s making a cultural icon. So when he’s starting a new project, he says that the first step is getting the story out of the subject or client. Then the detail work follows from that story, and it all comes together in bronze or whatever medium is chosen.
“I like to work out their ideas into a composition and then have the final product be something that they’re really proud of, whether it’s a single sculpture or a building,” Rivera said.
“The projects that I’ve completed, I think what I’ve done is made something that us now and future generations can be proud of, something that is part of the culture,” he said.