The most requested question I’m always asked is what inspired me to create Native Max or Native Max Magazine. I totally understand the curiosity, as what I’ve done hasn’t been done before. For the sake of time, I usually answer in a brief sentence or explanation. But in all honesty, the real answer is way too long. A lot of things I’ve gone through in my life, from racism and culture shock to low self-confidence, all culminated into this grand idea: to showcase Native talents and stories in a positive light. In listening to my story, I know lessons can be taken from what I talk about along with bits of inspiration.
To celebrate our 4th anniversary, we wanted to share a few major milestones we’ve been through. The up’s and down’s, the different projects and ventures we’ve launched over the years. I also want to show something a little different; something a little more personal. It was brought to my attention that I’m not as vocal as I should be about my journey with Native Max. The way I humbly stand behind my company didn’t exactly make my name synonymous with the brand that I’ve created. So I decided that maybe it’d be a little more interesting if I wrote about our 5-year journey from my own point of view; from the very beginning when it was just a teenage thought up to what we’re doing now, and even a little sneak peek into the next few years.
Sometime in late 2007 – Denver, CO
Believe it or not, I had terribly low self-esteem. No matter where I went, I stood out like a fly in a bowl of milk. At 16 years old, I stood about 5’8” and didn’t even weigh 100 lbs. yet. I was a light-skinned Native introvert with glasses. None of that helped me when my family moved from South Dakota to the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. For the first time in my life, I noticed how different I was from everyone else. At my new high school, I faced racism, discrimination, and stereotypes. Adjusting from small town life to the big city was not easy.
I didn’t see myself as beautiful until I modeled in my first photoshoot. When I saw my photos I about fainted. I saw myself, as someone else. It opened up my eyes as I really saw myself for the first time. As I became more involved in modeling I looked to build up my portfolio and experience. Besides the rejections I faced, I also noticed a lack of opportunities for Native youth to explore their talents in regards to multimedia production and design. At that moment was when all of my struggles culminated into a simple idea: a magazine; something similar to Vogue but featuring indigenous people. Unfortunately, since I was only 16 years old I decided to put my idea on the backburner and focus on working my way up in the fashion, publishing and multimedia industries.
In the early months of 2012, I made the decision to officially start Native Max. I refined my business plan and created a one-page website that had more information about Native Max. I drafted mock pages and illustrations of what the magazine would look like. I designed the NM logo and created the color palette that would surround the brand. I reached out to as many people as I could about helping me out and maybe even joining the team. I honestly anticipated so many responses that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to go through my inbox the next few days.
Not a single positive response. The only feedback I received was negative: what a bad idea, waste of time, etc… Reading and hearing some of these responses began to discourage me, but remembering how I was treated when I tried breaking into the industry inspired me again. Despite what I heard I moved ahead with my grand idea.
In July, I eventually found a team, and together we released the Preview Issue, which was a preview of what would be in our Premiere Issue with Mariah Watchman (Umatilla) on the cover. The response we received when we launched our first issue was amazing! I thought to myself, “This is only the first issue! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us this upcoming year!”
In September, we officially launched the first full issue of Native Max Magazine, the Fall Issue. The reactions to the release were even bigger than the Preview Issue. We were featured in some of the biggest media outlets at the time, dubbed the trailblazers of Native American media. The world noticed that we were featuring and focusing on topics not covered by any other media outlets¬–mainstream or Native American– anywhere. I didn’t expect this kind of response so soon. Right after the magazine opened up for sales, we had many inquiries about future issues.
One year later we published our first anniversary issue, with none other than Mariah Watchman on the cover for the third time. Our first full year out in the open was interesting; lots of ups and downs. They were certainly trying times.
In March we successfully hosted the first annual Native Fashion in the City event during Denver March Powwow and the annual NDN Biz Expo. I always wanted to host a Native fashion event where the focus was on the Native designers, models, stylists and photographers. The event was a hit and the demand for a second one came right after it ended.
We hosted the 2nd annual Native Fashion in the City event. This time around, we narrowed down the show and focused on making the basis of the show more parallel with a fashion week. We invited store buyers, magazine editors, bloggers and other leaders of the local Denver fashion and art communities. The audience was amazed at what Native American fashion is and from then on we established partnerships magazines and businesses all across Denver.
In August we launched our second mobile app which would house some of our issues. This was a major milestone for us as we wanted to connect more with our audience, in which a majority of them happen to use mobile devices all the time.
One month later we launched Native Max Showroom, the e-commerce arm of the Native Max brand as a sort of experiment to test out a larger full-fledged online shop selling Native American-made apparel, jewelry, home goods, body care and more. I collected a small inventory of products and launched the shop. We made so many sales that we eventually ran out of inventory and had to close down the shop. We realized the potential of having an online shop that focused more on the designers and artists. We certainly want to open Native Max Showroom again as an online shop, and eventually a flagship shop.
In the beginning of November, I had my first actual major speaking gig in San Diego at San Diego State University. Of course, I was nervous and scared, but I just sort of reflected on all of the milestones of my life. Constantly reminding myself of how far I’ve come really helped me push through my fear of public speaking. In a way, I’m used to telling my story to tens and hundreds of people, but I guess the fact that I was going to share my story on stage in front of hundreds of kids is what made me nervous. I know today’s youth are engaged by people who have substance and personality which captures their attention. I assumed I would be boring. But during my speech I became a little more open; I even had the crowd laughing with me. Everyone looked in tuned with what I was talking about. At the end of the presentation, we opened up the floor for questions and I had about 50 hands shoot up at once. After everything, I took photos with the students, teachers, anyone that came to the talk. There were young students who came up to me and congratulated me, and some that even shared their personal stories of overcoming culture shock, poor self-esteem, and their own fears. The response I received after my talk confirmed people did actually listen to me, and that what I said impacted them. To me, that was a humbling experience.
A few weeks later the Assistant Manager of Global Operations Sooner Davenport (Choctaw, Kiowa, Navajo), my assistant Kaitlin Blaylock (Cherokee) and myself traveled to Manchester, England. Native Max was selected as one of five businesses to join the first trade mission of Natives Go Global, which is the first-of-its-kind program created by the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce of Denver, CO that aims to assist American Indian businesses, professionals, and tribes in reaching the global market. Participants travel to cities across the world and make global business connections. It was certainly a historical event, and to say I was one of the few Lakota women on the trip and also the youngest business owner to be a part of this was amazing. The connections we made in England are surely priceless, and wouldn’t have happened without this opportunity. A lot of great things are going to come out of our England partnerships and we can’t wait to show everyone as the year goes by.
We hosted a very successful 3rd annual Native Fashion in the City inside the prestigious History Colorado museum. The museum worked with us so well to create a memorable event. This year the audience more than doubled the first and second events, which made for a packed house. The show was also extensively covered by local and national media outlets through television and journalism. What made this event stand out was the proposed idea of hosting NFITC in other parts of the country. We are now open to the possibility of hosting events in different cities or towns across the country; therefore we’ve established Native Max Events under the Native Max umbrella. I invited our backstage coordinator Veronica Lane (Navajo) to join our team as Events Manager.
In April, we were offered an opportunity of showcasing a Native Max TV show on FNX: First Nations Experience. Coincidentally the team and I were interested in expanding into TV and film production. I brought on board our newest team member Joey Little Bird (Northern Cheyenne), a young and already successful filmmaker, as executive producer of our newly formed Native Max TV network.
We’re currently working on our first internationally-broadcasted TV show, “Native Max TV”. “Native Max TV” is a video magazine which features stories, investigative pieces, profiles, current events, event coverage and more, from across Indian Country. What makes “Native Max TV” different from other Native American-produced shows is the wide range of topics we want to cover that aren’t really featured on television: style, art, music, pop culture, stories of Native youth, etc… At Native Max TV, we are highly invested in supporting Native talent wherever and whenever we can.
The Near Future
We have an amazing lineup of projects coming up the rest of the 2016 year. This July we debut “Native Max TV” to 22 million households across the U.S. and Canada via FNX: First Nations Experience. Alongside our TV show, we’ll soon be launching our YouTube network of smaller shows and video content. In early Fall we’re launching our first makeup line in which we are partnering with a Native American manufacturer, and a small clothing and accessories line just in time for back to school.
Towards the end of the year, we’re planning on globetrotting again, this time to Australia and a return to England on the list.
Of course, we went on our first international trip, which was amazing! I was nervous about going as I wasn’t sure how people of England would take to us or our businesses. But we were welcomed with warmth! We didn’t feel any racism, discrimination or judgment from anyone. From our trip, we established a close partnership with the Manchester/London Fashion Network, and the city of Salford. It was interesting to see how Manchester, UK is a hotbed of cultures and interests. Another issue we noticed is obviously cultural appropriation. When we walked around the malls and shops in the city we saw feathers, beads and tribal prints everywhere. But when we spoke to industry leaders, they admitted to changing the way they shop and style Native American-inspired clothing and accessories. They were willing to learn and find appropriate Native American-made designs and accessories. That was certainly a different response from what we’re used to in America.
We saw that it’d be easier for us fit into Manchester than anywhere else. When we arrived in England we met with our already-made connections and over the course of our visit discussed and established partnerships with businesses in the art, music, fashion, culture, and travel industries. The Native Max team and I are surely working on bringing the projects from these partnerships to fruition and can’t wait for everyone to see!
What I’ve Learned So Far
In the amount of time we’ve been in business, it’s been a crazy rollercoaster ride! Throughout the past few years, it seemed like we worked so hard with little to no return. I feel it’s those moments that really test you and your team. But now I actually see the rewards coming to life. Everything that we’ve worked on for the past few years is starting to really pay off.
I’ve learned that things will almost never go as planned; either good or bad. Our plans have both exceeded all of our expectations which sent us into a frenzy and then we’ve had plans that didn’t go as expected which hampered our spirits. Sometimes it feels like there’s never in-between, but it’s something that my team and I have become accustomed too. I learned that you have to be both, assertive and stubborn, yet flexible and forgiving.
Our Ultimate Destination
Our next big step is focusing on pushing Native Max out in the different platforms we feature: the magazine, our website, our social media platforms, etc. We also want to review different ventures we’ve been slowly working on the past few years for possible future launches. It’s all about finding new ways and avenues to feature Native talent all the while expanding our company, our team and our reach.
Photography by Zoe Friday. Makeup by Johnnie Jae. Hair by Tiffany Lebaron. Designs + jewelry by ACONAV
[The cover story of the June/July 2016 issue.]