Meet Dustin Lopez, a Navajo, Yaqui and Laguna Pueblo artist based in Phoenix who aims to combat systemic genocide by preserving Indigenous identity through his designs.
“It’s really just about me plastering who I am, that I exist, that my ancestors existed, they were here, we’re here now and my kids will be here in the future,” Lopez says.
The 38-year-old recently retired firefighter is now pursuing art and design full time.
Lopez’s creativity stems from his childhood. In the fourth grade, a friend introduced him to graffiti and he immediately fell in love with the movement of letters and its thought-provoking nature. He recalls growing up and watching his grandmother, a Navajo weaver, draw with yarn.
“She was one of those people who was beaten, had her hair cut, wasn’t allowed to speak her language, and was ripped from her home,” he says.
“So, hearing those stories and her not teaching me the Navajo way of life or even the Pueblo way was really crucial, because I started to understand why she didn’t teach it. It was because it was beaten out of her from all those years.”
Lopez hopes to make his grandmother proud by embracing his intertribal heritage and producing work inspired by their cultures. He is a speaker on identity and decolonization as well, helping others navigate the world and find success on and off the reservation.
“Part of the work that I do and my collaboration with other artists is reclaiming our identity, reclaiming our language, reclaiming our culture and reclaiming who we are prior to colonization,” Lopez says.
Aside from being a muralist, Lopez is the creator of Dopez Design and Mixt Blood Streetwear, which is dedicated to anyone who struggles to embrace their multiple backgrounds.
“The government tells us that we’re only allowed to identify as one,” he says. “So Mixt Blood and my artwork is kind of a ‘(expletive) you’ to the government system. They do that because they want to see the numbers go down.
“If the numbers go down, then they don’t have to facilitate monetary investments anymore, according to the treaties. That’s why they only allow us to identify as one, even if we’re intertribal.”
Historically, many Indigenous people have been pressured into assimilation and suppression of tribal identity. From federal boarding schools that forbade or removed children’s native names, language, clothing, hair, traditions, items and more to today’s societal discrimination, efforts to strip away Native American identity has not stopped.
“That’s the reality we face here as Indigenous people,” Lopez adds.
“It’s something that we’ve faced ever since the Europeans came over and tried to eradicate us. It’s a different kind of genocide.”
Lopez is a contributing member of Cahokia, an Indigenous-led platform for creative peacekeeping that is organized through Indigenous Community Collaborative, IndigeDesign Collab and Roosevelt Row.
“A lot of people don’t know who they are, where they come from or what they represent,” Lopez says. “We as Indigenous people are protecting that. We’re protecting our way of life, what’s left of our language and ceremonial ways.”
When COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation last year, Lopez and other IndigeDesign Collab volunteers manufactured and delivered more than 1,000 3D-printed face shields to protect Navajo and Hopi people on the front lines.
Lopez is creating a ceramic mural, “Water is Life,” for Paradise Valley Community College dedicated to honoring the Indigenous people who lived near the campus — the Piipaash, also known as the Maricopa people, along with the Salt River Authm people.
“You have people putting pipelines through Indigenous lands,” Lopez says.
“Recently, the pipeline spill poisoned the water, which poisons our women, which poisons our kids, which is another way of eradicating us. Again, it’s a systemic genocide, it’s just not as apparent.”
The collaborative art project is designed to show how precious water is to not just Indigenous people but the rest of the world, Lopez says.
PVCC is important to Lopez, who earned his medical certificates for his firefighting position there. Returning there in a different way is enjoyable for him. He has been in the ceramics studio every Friday during the fall semester as a collaborator, guiding all who wish to participate in the art project.
Lopez said he wants to educate people about their identity and how they belong to the communities they represent. He hopes that his artwork will raise awareness on Indigenous issues and create meaningful conversations.
“A lot of people have forgotten who they are, where they come from, and they’re OK with being a part of this equation of a melting pot when really they’ve been stripped of their own identity,” he says.