Native American student Joey Montoya sets out to help other indigenous youths reconnect with their traditional identity and share their voices.
A large crowd stands in the heart of San Jose’s Santana Row shopping center. Their brightly colored shawls and bandanas are seemingly at odds with the glossy, high-end retail shops surrounding them as they circle a small group of men beating Native American hand drums. Flags and protest signs are held high. A woman with long brown hair holds a handmade, neon green poster board toward the sky with both hands: “When the soil disappears, so does the soul. #IdleNoMore!”
The rally was one of many for Idle No More, a Canadian-based movement devoted to honoring indigenous sovereignty, nationhood and environmental protection. In 2013, the movement was gaining momentum and trickling south into the United States.
San Francisco-born Joey Montoya, ’17 Advertising, had recently lost his father, a Texas-born Lipan Apache and World War II veteran. “I grew up in the Native American culture,” says Montoya, “But I started feeling more of a connection to it after my father passed away.” When he got wind of Idle No More, Montoya began to travel up and down California to take photos of the rallies and protests supporting the First Nations. He shared his images over social media as a way to bring awareness to contemporary Native American issues, but he wanted to do more.
“A lot of people think Native Americans are gone and can’t represent themselves,” he says. “But we are still here.” He thought: I should create something.
The following year, Montoya launched Urban Native Era. An online educational and advocacy platform for Native American youths, Urban Native Era is named for the modern struggle many indigenous peoples face trying to maintain a connection with their Native American roots while assimilating into urban lifestyles. “With all the distractions in today’s world, sometimes I drift away from my heritage,” explains Montoya. “Part of my mission is to help others maintain that connection and reclaim their traditional identity.”
The other part of his mission is supporting the efforts of indigenous peoples struggling to find a voice and protect their traditions, like the current San Carlos Apache Tribe effort to save the sacred ceremonial lands of Oak Flat in Arizona after its sale to a foreign mining company.
This is a new era and a new beginning for us to represent ourselves, to show the world what we’re doing and why it matters.
Montoya, a graphic design minor, designed a poster and t-shirts for the tribe to use in the Save Oak Flat effort, free of charge. He is also selling the shirts on Urban Native Era’s online store, along with his other original, Native American-inspired designs, and donating all proceeds to the Apache Stronghold. Montoya has blogged about the effort and is heading to Oak Flat over the summer to stay on the campground in solidarity with the other activists. “It’s their issue, but it’s an issue for all of us,” he says of his cross-tribe engagement.
Montoya promotes Urban Native Era mainly via word of mouth, setting up tables at Native American events and powwows and carrying stickers with the site’s logo on him at all times to pass out. His social media efforts have proved fruitful. Urban Native Era has a presence on most major platforms and over 3,000 “likes” on Facebook.
Montoya is currently president and founder of the SJSU Native American Student Organization and a volunteer tutor at the Indian Health Center of the Santa Clara Valley. Looking forward, he has plans to ramp up his ongoing project, photographing and collecting the stories of Native Americans with hopes of publishing a book or exhibiting in galleries, sharing any profits with his subjects. He dreams of buying a piece of land to set up a retreat program that includes art and traditional agriculture.
“My vision is to create a platform for Native Americans, where people can share everything from creative endeavors to current issues,” says Montoya. “This is a new era and a new beginning for us to represent ourselves, to show the world what we’re doing and why it matters, and to help each other.”