Meet Nicole Johnny, Senior Business Student

by Bethany Wagner

Azusa Pacific business major Nicole Johnny ’13 is giving back to the Navajo Nation she calls home in transformative ways by restoring a historical trading post into a fair trade store and coffee shop.

Johnny, a full Navajo, grew up in Crystal, a small town on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. There she was surrounded by Navajo culture, especially in the form of arts and crafts. She knows firsthand the hard work required to create Navajo art. “I come from a weaving family,” she said. “My great-great grandmother and my great-grandmother wove, and today I, along with my grandmother, mother, and even brothers, continue the tradition.” Johnny’s grandmother, now 83, has been weaving traditional Navajo rugs since age 9.

Rug making is an extremely long, involved process. Johnny and her family select the best sheep for wool; sheer the sheep; card, spin, and dye the wool with natural dyes unique to the Crystal area and its vegetation; set up the looms; and finally, begin weaving the rugs. Each is a one-of-kind masterpiece.

In a community where many members make $14,000 or less annually, Navajo arts like weaving are an important source of income. Johnny’s grandmother, a master weaver, puts 3–4 months into making her rugs. She sells the rugs for around $350 each to traders, who then sell them for $800–$900 apiece.

“We have to constantly barter for better prices for my grandmother’s rugs, and watch other members of the community cheated out of money for their arts and crafts,” said Johnny. “It is so frustrating to see the Navajo talent exploited.”

The challenges with Crystal’s trading system sparked the idea for a class project in her international business class during her sophomore year at APU. She formulated a business plan to develop a place in Crystal where the Navajo could sell their art at a fair price. Her plan included restoring a historic trading post in Crystal to house this new trading system, a historical center, and a community coffee shop.

She submitted the proposal to the Navajo Nation government and economic development committee, becoming at 20 years old the youngest person in tribal history to submit a proposal of this kind. This past summer, she received approval to move forward with her plan and put her dream into action.

“I’ve been given the precious gift of education and opportunity, and I feel the responsibility to give back to the community of Crystal,” said Johnny.

Johnny plans to house a mini library of children’s book in the shop, hosting story nights for kids to promote literacy and a love for reading. She also wants to provide a place for citizens to display their art with pride and, of course, receive a fair price for anything sold.

Balancing a full class load and working on the trading post can prove difficult and overwhelming at times, but Johnny perseveres with the support of the Crystal and APU communities.

“I have immense support from my family and tribe, and I am so thankful for the education I have received at APU and for the professors who support me greatly in this endeavor,” said Johnny, who hopes to have her new business up and running by 2014. “We are all excited to see what happens. I love arts and my culture, and I am driven forward by the possibility that I can play a part in improving the life of my community.”