Navajo designer returns to NYC for Native American Heritage Month


Dustin Martin, founder of Sovereign Original Land Owners

Dustin Martin, co-founder of Sovereign Original Land Owners clothing brand, at Works in Progress on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Photo: Alexa van Sickle

November is a busy month. Thanksgiving brings with it the twin pastimes of shopping and cooking, and Black Friday provides a coda to the season before Christmas preparations begin. But for Dustin Martin, 22, a Navajo designer who turned a printing hobby into a clothing brand this year, the more important occasion to commemorate is that November is Native American Heritage Month.

At the request of Columbia University’s Native American Council, Martin has created a commemorative t-shirt for council members to wear and give out at this month’s events, which include an opening ceremony and a book signing. His design—for now, still only on Martin’s drawing pad–imagines the Statue of Liberty in Native American dress instead of her neoclassical robes. He also created a logo for the Native American Council, adding some tweaks to Columbia University’s crown motif to lend it a Native American aesthetic. But does he think this commemorative “month” really raises awareness for Native American causes? “It is really up to the people involved to raise awareness. The constituents have to take the initiative,” he said. “Student-run events like the council’s are a good example.”

This is the first time Martin—who graduated from Columbia this year with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology–has been back to New York since he returned to his home in New Mexico in September, where he is setting up the New Mexico operations of his clothing brand, S.O.L.O. (‘Sovereign Original Land Owners’). He launched S.O.L.O. with his friend and fellow New Mexico native Jonny Ribeiro, 24, in June. Martin’s Navajo heritage and the way of life in their home state are integral parts of the aesthetic, identity and motivations of S.O.L.O.

Martin was born in Chinle, Ariz, a small town on a large Navajo reservation. “Chinle is next to a gorgeous sandstone crevasse they call Canyon De Chelly. This is the canyon Kit Carson chased the Navajo into in the winter of 1863 in his campaign to ‘pacify’ the Navajo community,” he said. But he spent his early childhood near Gallup, New Mexico, in a town called Vanderwagen.

After his parents divorced when he was a child, Martin moved with his mother and little brother to Albuquerque, where he was shocked to meet people only two hours east of a Navajo reservation who had little clue what to think or say when they learned of his heritage. Martin is Navajo from his father’s side.

“There’s always the classic ‘Did you live in a teepee?’ question,” he said. “But I think the most seriously misguided inquiry I ever got was from a kid who had wanted to run from his home in Texas to Oregon. In the end, he decided to abandon his ambitions because he couldn’t find a way to make the trip without having to run across the Navajo reservation. When I asked why this was a problem, I saw the utter confusion in his eyes right before he asked: ‘Wouldn’t they hurt me or kill me or something?'”

Martin enrolled at Columbia University in 2007. “The ridiculous questions about my heritage only increased as I began to introduce myself in New York,” he said. “My peers’ lack of education about Native communities and lives is what inspired me to major in anthropology and eventually start S.O.L.O.–with the hope of eliminating ignorance with meaningful design and access to its history.”

Diane Fraher Stockton is the founder of Amerinda, a non-profit organization that supports Native American visual artists in New York City, where Martin once worked as program assistant. Stockton said she is inspired by Martin and Ribeiro’s plans. “Fashion featuring the Native American aesthetic is highly commercialized, and rarely has anything to do  with traditional Native artists,” she said.  A filmmaker by background, Stockton is a member of the Osarte Native community, which is originally from Oklahoma. She came to New York on a scholarship and stayed. She says the S.O.L.O brand is a new part of a robust tradition of linking the New York and New Mexico visual arts communities. “Contemporary Native American theatre started in New York,” she said. “There is a forty year history of the New York movement of contemporary Native arts, and in the visual arts it is the only discernable movement outside Santa Fe.”

During his trip to New York this month, Martin held a t-shirt printing workshop at Works in Progress NYC, where he spent time as an undergraduate. It is a ramshackle printing shop on the second floor of a Lower East Side building, with blank t-shirts spilling out of stacked boxes, shelves of open paint cans, and gently humming machines taking up most of the floor space. He walked a handful of “students” through the process: pressing the stencils of a design onto a silkscreen with an industrial press, drying it with special infra-red dryer, then spreading ink onto the screen with a squeeqee. The ink works its way into the “open” areas of the screen where the design has been stenciled–and is then pressed onto the shirt. The process takes a quite a while to set up, but the design is transferred in just a couple of seconds.

This process is the origin tale of S.O.LO. He tells his students he started printing t-shirts out of his dorm room in McBain Hall for the spring 2009 track season, using only a small tabletop printer. “I used to place a book under the shirt and print the image on them that way,” he said. He used the print department at Columbia to design the images. Later, he got the idea for a logo and a company. “Don’t put anything underneath the press you care about,” he told his charges. “You will get ghost prints on it, and that ink won’t come off.”

S.O.L.O clothing features designs from Native communities, including geometric patterns and Native motifs. In New Mexico, Dustin is reaching out to Native artists who will collaborate on these designs, which will keep the enterprise authentic. “So much of our brand is related to content and we want to present that information in the best way possible,” said Martin. “We want to be legitimate. We don’t want to appropriate any design without knowing what it means and its implications and origins.” The venture also has a charitable aspect: 15 percent of the proceeds from clothing sales will go back to Native communities and causes.

Martin met Ribeiro, a Columbia history graduate, at Albuquerque Academy, an independent co-educational school where they both ran track. They went on to be track teammates at Columbia, and Martin still remains deeply involved in the sport. In New Mexico he works as program director at Wings of America, a charity that promotes the sport of running to empower young Native Americans. This job is helping him set up the funds to buy his own printing press, which he estimates will cost around $7,000.

Ribeiro stays in the apartment they shared in the Meatpacking district, forming the New York headquarters for S.O.L.O. He recently left his old job working for a real estate broker to take a job at RRL—a sub-brand of Ralph Lauren that sells vintage clothing and jewelry. “This affords me the opportunity to work on S.O.L.O. after hours as a second job. It’s good to have a partnership with someone at home in New Mexico, and someone in New York for the fashion industry and public relations aspect,” said Ribeiro. He does not have any immediate family connections with Native communities, but his grandfather set up a trading post in in Bien Muir, New Mexico. “He died when I was young, but he started trading and going to reservations, traded with Native artists for pottery and jewelry, and would bring them back to Albuquerque.”

Martin says he was socioeconomically atypical of most of his friends at school, who were almost all Navajo. “My family and I were lucky enough to have our own private property and a house with electricity and running water.” This was not the case for a lot of his peers: ”My best friend lived right down the road from me and he had to haul water in from town every week and heat it up on the stove to take baths in the morning. It’s still like this for a lot of folks out that way today.”

Martin and Ribeiro don’t have a background in design or fashion, but Martin was exposed to his visual arts influences early in his day-to-day life: “All through my childhood, I was bombarded with not so subliminal reminders of the design heritage I had been born into,” he said. “We picked up our mail every day at a small post office located in a trading post called Joe Miloe’s, which stocks an inventory of some of the finest and most authentic examples of Indian arts and crafts from both Navajo and Zuni artists. I was also exposed to great Native art every weekend when my family and I would go to the Gallup flea market to get our weekly roast mutton sandwiches,” he said.