- By Chez Oxendine
Roddell Denetso had a moment at the Native American Basketball Invitational in Phoenix last month.
The Navajo artist and former professional basketball player didn’t hit any big shots or lock down on defense. In fact, he didn’t even play.
Instead, Denetso — the founder, owner, and sole employee of Shiprock-based Black Streak Apparel —had an assist of sorts: Native teams from across the country were wearing uniforms he designed.
It was an emotional moment, Denetso said, seeing his work help people find pride in their background and heritage.
“Seeing Black Streak uniforms throughout the gym and seeing these kids being proud of where they play from,” Denetso said. “That was incredible.”
In its own way, the moment was a bit of a full circle for Denetso, a long-time hoops junkie who once scored 54 points in an all-Indian tournament. He came up with the idea for Black Streak at another basketball tournament years before. During that tourney, he saw Hispanic players wearing traditional uniforms that celebrated their heritage, giving them a flair and cultural relevance that standard sports apparel lacked. It inspired Denetso to blend his love for the sport with his life-long passion for design.
“I was watching that tournament and I thought it would look cool to have a Native design all over the shorts and uniforms,” Denetso told Tribal Business News. “That was years ago, and I kind of just kicked around the idea. I had a pretty good job at the time, but somehow, someway, everything just lined up that always took me back to that. I love basketball, I love doing art and graphic design. It all came together.”
After years of working in border towns along the Navajo reservation, Denetso eventually struck out on his own in 2021, during the wind-down of the COVID-19 pandemic. He returned to the reservation and built a small workshop next to his house. There, he designs and, when possible, prints custom-designed, culturally-informed sports uniforms for customers across the country.
In the two years since he spun up Black Street Apparel, Denetso has seen growing success. His clientele includes everyone from high schools on the Navajo reservation to film productions like the upcoming Rez Ball on Netflix.
His next steps: hiring another employee and building a storefront somewhere on the reservation. While he knows he’d have an easier time in the border towns finding a place to lease, Denetso said it was important to him that his business be somewhere in Shiprock.
“I had an opportunity to get a space in Farmington, which is a border town, but I turned it down because one of the most important things I wanted was to have my shop within the reservation border,” Denetso said. “I just felt like that was very important and I felt like it brings authenticity, it brings pride to the community, our people — and it lets kids know it's possible to start a business and succeed.”
A life of art
Denetso’s current successes represent the culmination of a wide array of hobbies and careers, pulling together everything from his experience as a construction worker to build his shop to a life-long passion for art to create his designs.
“As far back as I can remember, I would doodle, I would draw stuff, I would draw the person in front of me at church, anywhere I sat I would sit and draw different things. I was always into doodling, other kids always asked me to draw stuff in their yearbook. It's always been there,” Denetso said. “I graduated in '96, and I went to Collins College School of Graphic Design - when I went there was like the first time I got into Photoshop, Illustrator, and learning how to draw on the computer.”
Denetso found that passion for art stayed with him even as he chased his other love as a basketball player. Denetso began his basketball career as a player for Mesa Community College before joining junior national teams overseas. In 2012, he entered the American Basketball Association as a point guard for the short-lived all-Native semi-pro team Gallup Talons, but his mind always came back to art and design.
Later on, Denetso discovered his time as a semi-pro player made his company an attractive prospect for coaches who could be sure their designer knew what basketball players needed in terms of uniforms, he said.
“When coaches are ordering, they know I know that side of it, too, as far as the uniforms,” Denetso said. “That’s been an advantage.”
Denetso’s practice with physical art fostered a natural talent with digital tools. After stepping away from playing basketball after the Gallup Talons folded in 2013, Denetso found jobs with the Navajo Times newspaper and an ad company in Farmington. Throughout it all, he never dropped the idea for doing his own designs.
By the time COVID-19 hit, Denetso was ready to settle into doing something with that drive, he said. He began taking design jobs for Native club and youth teams, working with them to create uniforms based around symbols important to their tribes and communities. He’s also handled orders for Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas and United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota.
“I try to do more of a Native-influence, but more geometrical shapes, and kind of make it broader so it's not a tribe-specific, trying to make more geometric designs so you could just look at it and see the Native influence,” Denetso said. “When I have orders, for instance, doing uniforms out of Oklahoma, or let's say Montana, and I always ask to give me a little background or bio on their team, and within that bio, I'm able to find out what their interests are, or I'll tell them can you send me a picture of some well-used designs that are maybe used in ceremonies or pottery or jewelry.”
It’s a process that has carried Denetso all the way from high school up through working on uniforms, warm up gear, travel gear, and custom bags for a major film. And he expects that won’t be the end of it, he said.
“[Rez Ball] is supposed to come out at the end of January, early February, and they did a behind-the-scenes interview with me on it, so people will know I worked on it,” Denetso said. “I know it's going to get even busier.”