Joey Montoya – a Lipan Apache from Texas who was born and raised in San Francisco – wanted to take his activism to the next level. In 2012, he started to follow Canada’s Idle No More movement, which spurred him to travel throughout California photographing rallies and protests and sharing them online. He saw a need for further awareness in the United States, and so Urban Native Era (UNE) was born.
What was originally an apparel company to spread awareness has now become an all-out lifestyle brand that focuses on reclaiming who Natives are as Indigenous people of the 21st century and shining a spotlight on the issues that Indigenous people are still facing today, including land and water rights, the high prevalence of youth suicide on Native reservations, and the high rates of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“When I first started this brand, there were a few other brands out there, but I think our brand is more about a lifestyle in some way,” Montoya said. “We create apparel to help spread awareness and drive further outreach. As we continue to grow, we’re going to continue to stay true to our roots.”
One of the issues that Urban Native Era aims to tackle is the rampant stereotypes that plague Indian country.
“It’s so easy to sell stereotypical stuff about Native communities,” Montoya said. “It’s problematic in our community. It affects how youth look at themselves and how people look at Native Americans.”
That, Montoya says, is a big problem and one that needs to be addressed.
Around Halloween last year, Montoya traveled to Standing Rock to interview Native youth about their first memories of how their cultures were portrayed, and the results were not surprising. Montoya said that he heard story after story about how in schools and educational systems, portrayals around Thanksgiving and Columbus Day far too often ventured into caricature, with all of Native culture embodied in headdresses and face paint.
UNE’s apparel brand gives Native people a way to break those stereotypes while still representing their culture and heritage.
Now, UNE is branching into the music scene to break stereotypes by highlighting and promoting Native American musicians. UNExMusic is currently managing one artist – Rudy Kalma – and working to promote others like Raye Zargoza (O’odham), Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota), and Calina Lawrence (Suquamish).
“When Native American youth see someone like Frank Waln or Raye Zargoza perform, they’re going to see a Native person who isn’t just a stereotype,” Montoya said. “They’re going to say, ‘I can do that; I can be an artist; I can perform; I can be an entrepreneur.’ If their first interaction is with someone who is pursuing music, and who isn’t just a stereotype, it completely changes the way that they look at their culture and the way they view themselves.”
UNE launched UNExMusic earlier this year with a playlist featuring Native Artists. Shortly after, others were clamoring to be involved.
“After we released the UNE Music playlist, a lot of people started sending us their work,” Montoya said. “We had 20-30 people sending their music and asking us to add it to the playlist.”
UNE now has six curated playlists featuring a variety of artists from Native singer-songwriters to Indigenous hip hop.
On the horizon, Montoya says the next step for UNExMusic is to become a record label for Native artists, bring in Indigenous musicians and helping them to develop their projects. The brand is also looking at expanding into film projects to complement the apparel and music components of its business.
This fall, they’re also looking to release a series of designs and art around national parks, particularly in light of the Trump Administration’s efforts to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante monuments.
“Right now, we’re trying to visit all of the national parks and monuments to collect stories and video of indigenous people from that area,” Montoya said. “We want to reclaim and change perspectives on how people see national parks. Most people don’t realize that national parks are Indigenous lands and people are from that area.”
He says a portion of the funds raised will be donated to efforts to preserve the monuments.
“We’ve found that our audiences view UNE as more than a brand,” he said. “For us, it’s a way to pursue a lifestyle of activism that will raise awareness, highlight the issues that are important to us, and change the perspective of Natives and non-Natives alike.”
“Our efforts have already made a significant impact, but we’re just getting started.”