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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 4 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 everyone. I have found that yoga has helped me balance me life - mind, body and spirit!

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 the art I create, words, images and products I produce, my vision is to share a positive cultural message that will empower native and non-native people all around the world.

The artwork and products that I design are created from the belief that the message I 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, not at all.

Smoke Signals as a form of communication has been used by indigenous cultures throughout time to communicate important information from one village to another.

My vision is to share our Smoke Signals of artwork and empowerment Native People throughout Indian Country and a growing global community - who are seeking to play their part to protect and preserve our rivers, oceans, air, lands, culture and sovereignty.

On a more personal level, the meaning behind Smoke Signals relates to myself being a Pipe Carrier. 

As a Pipe Carrier, the tobacco smoke that comes from my Prayer Pipe - are prayer offerings that I send up into the heavens, to give thanks for all the blessings we have for each day we have on this earth to the Great Spirit, the Grandfathers of the Four Directions, my Ancestors, Guardian Spirits.

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 to it.

I think this understanding that I have as a story-teller using 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 Athabaskan Native from a small Village in Alaska called Ruby, off the Yukon River), who actually encouraged me to continue to move forward with my Art, beyond my Native Threads period. 

My wife Donna and Paul John have had a huge impact in my life. They encouraged me and supported me to keep moving forward during one of the most challenging periods in my life.

I must admit, starting a new chapter in my life after having summited the heights that I had climbed with Native Threads, was not an easy thing to do by any means. However, looking at things in retrospect, moving past that chapter in my life has made me appreciate everything in my life, and has made me a better person, and has shaped what I am doing today. Giving my life even greater purpose.

I had to be reminded that when life throws you a solid punch that knocks you on your ass — when you get up from the canvas and keep on fighting - the lesson you can learn from having been decked - can be a great life lesson.

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 am blessed and stoked to be POSITIVE about where I am at right now in life. And not letting fear take over by any means. 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 is? 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 about 20 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.


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 a Tribal partner to help us grow our company and be a part of the success that we were experiencing, my company was experiencing a growth rate of about 300% annually. It was incredible.

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. At the time, 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, never was. 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 and opportunities that was lost during a very important period for the company. Those losses took their toll on the business, and ME! 

So, long-story short, in 2006, after 3 years of trying to get them to come around and live up to their responsibility - or have me buy them out, I failed in getting them to act on either option. I had to close my doors and walk away from my company. It aws brutal and painful to say the least.

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 my “Smoke Signals” with you and your audience.

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

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Check out our Native Culture Shop collection below:

Smoke Signals Culture Shop



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