Indigenous Shine: How One Young Man is Changing Native Representation

They say a star is born. In Pawnee, stars are guiding Grandfathers. When the Big Dipper’s tail star landed in Hunkpapa, human beings emerged. The North star guided the enslaved toward liberation. And shining brightly to the west is one of our favorite rising stars- Joey Montoya. A San Franciscan Lipan Apache, he is the founder and director of the indigenous lifestyle brand Urban Native Era.

At 24 years old, Joey already seems like an elder: 

Joey Montoya, Founder and Director of Urban Native Era

“Being Apache means to be a person who gives back to the community, it means being there for the community.” Which he does, his every passion and ambition linked to uplifting Indian Country.

We first met Joey as the Student President of the Native American Student Organization (NASO), at San Jose State. After we gave a keynote he offered to drive us to the airport—already offering his generous, community-oriented nature, because seriously, who does that? And not being someone to flaunt his accomplishments, it was much later when we learned that Joey spent his entire college career building a community for Native students there, as he actually founded the NASO through peaceful protest, student organizing, and his diplomatic shine.

“There was a need for Native community to help you make that transition from high school, and I searched for a group to connect with and I couldn’t find those folks. So I had to start one, in hopes that people in the future would come to San Jose State and already have that solid community to relate and connect with. It taught me to be able to reach out to people and build communities wherever I go.”

Giving the Keynote Address to 2018 Native Graduation at San Jose State

And so he has, forging real-life connections out of social media platforms—from #UpToUs to #IAmNotACostume, Joey is a creative force and constantly active. The thing about Joey is that he’d never brag about all that he’s involved with. It’s taken us two years of working with him for us to realize that he’s an award-winning, up-and-coming activist contributing to organizations and movements in every direction. Joey volunteered for the Indigenous Environmental Network, producing multiple films and eventually going to Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

During his last year in college, he supported a caravan across the country with Shailene Woodley and the Standing Rock Runners, sparking recognition for the ongoing conflict across the nation, leading protests in Washington DC, raising money for the cause with his designed t-shirts that raised over $3,000 dollars. He has donated activist art to #idlenomore, #nomorestolensisters, and #protectbearsears campaigns, even canvassing for Bernie Sanders.

Lehi Thunder Voice Eagle, Shailene Woodley, Joanelle Romero & Joey Montoya at the Environmental Media Association Awards on October 22

He is currently managing hip-hop artist Rudy Kalma, and this summer Joey has plans to work on his new campaign raising awareness about National Park representation, geared towards reclamation and a shift in conscious, stemming from the original names of the sites, “People should be calling it by the indigenous people’s land, and they should recognize and actively acknowledge where they’re really standing.”

Rudy Kalma, Hip-hop artist

Throughout it all, he’s built up Urban Native Era, a young, hip, lifestyle brand that began in 2012, after being inspired by the shockwaves of Idle No More:

“I read about solidarity with those folks in Canada spreading to the United States, and I started to travel to those places where they would have flash mobs and round dances, and I would go and photograph and take video of what was going on. At the time, I was reading a book that talked about urban natives, and in a sense, that’s who I am, and who a lot of native folks are, and I wanted to create something using that. And when this whole movement was going on, I felt that there was a change happening, a shift, and this whole new era was coming. Urban Native Era embodies that, and it’s our time, to continue our traditions, and protect the land.”

Urban Native Era booth at 2018 UCLA Powwow

“I felt that there was a change happening, a shift, and this whole new era was coming. Urban Native Era embodies that”

UNE aims to bring awareness to contemporary indigenous identity, culture, and issues with handmade apparel featuring eclectic indigenous design. And we mean eclectic, because even UNE’s logo is named “Diverse Culture,” the design derived from Pacific Northwest styles, as well as Southwest and Native Californian vibes.

“My whole idea was just to show how diverse we are as indigenous people through artwork, and to get away from stereotypical representation. A lot of brands have headdresses and feathers and it’s crazy because that’s not how every indigenous person identifies. So I wanted to get away from that. As easy as it would be to create something like that and to sell it, to make money or whatever, UNE won’t do that because we want people to learn about our different types of cultures.”

Recently, Urban Native Era has branched out to additionally manage UNExMusic:

“As Urban Native Era continues to grow as a platform, we wanted to be able use it to uplift indigenous artists, so we created playlists which feature a lot of indigenous hip hop artists, folk music, country and independent music. This was just a way for us to continue to share and spread awareness. I wanted to make sure there’s people that can go find these these artists, and make sure that the artists are being supported. I want to be involved in the music—what else and who else can I help uplift with the brand?”

Matika Wilbur for UNE Music #NativeSpotify

Urban Native Era will drop a new playlist every month on Spotify with different artists, genres, and moods. In support of this project, we agreed to curate a Spotify playlist called “All My Relations”. Next month Dallas Goldtooth will be curating a playlist. We look forward to hearing music from others.

Joey says, “I feel like as indigenous people, we always come back to our culture,” and it’s important to remember that it’s always there, waiting for us. Degrees of separation mean nothing to our inborn community, because we cluster and shine together like the constellations above us.

Joey photographed at 2017 Canoe Journey - Photo credit: Matika Wilbur

We hope that you’ll follow and support Urban Native Era. Widespread Native representation is crucial for the collective conscious shifting we need. In a time where Native Americans are terribly misrepresented, every opportunity to support inspired natives rather than “native inspired”, contributes to a better, more equitable future; it’s in the stars.