Student Artist Puts Soul & Soles Into “My Green” Campaign

Erin Bulow (Zuni Pueblo) proudly displays his custom painted "My Green" contest shoes

First Nations Development Institute’s “My Green” campaign helps Native youth learn how to take charge of their money – and begin to walk the path to financial wellness. As part of this financial education campaign, First Nations sponsored a contest in early 2013 where the grand prize was a pair of shoes that made that journey a little easier.

“You see so many contests these days with prizes like electronic gadgets and gift cards,” commented Sarah Dewees, First Nations’ senior director of research, policy & asset-building programs.  “That stuff can be great, but we wanted something more original that could tie directly into My Green’s message of financial empowerment.”

Sarah and her team didn’t have to look very far.  Last year First Nations worked closely with young artists on a “My Green” financial education poster project at Miyamura High School in Gallup, New Mexico.  One student had an interesting hobby that got them thinking.  Erin Bulow, 17, hand paints colorful designs on tennis shoes. It turns out that custom-painted shoes are “all the rage” these days. In fact, there’s even a national shoe-painting contest for high school art students that is sponsored by Vans, a popular tennis shoe company. The Vans “Custom Culture” program is a national shoe-customization contest where schools from all over the U.S. compete for a chance to win money for their art programs, and usually has about 2,000 schools participating.  Miyamura High School entered this year, and so did the Early College Academy at the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, Oregon (NAYA Early College Academy is another school with whom First Nations partners to provide financial education programming).

First Nations hired Erin, who is originally from Zuni Pueblo, to design a one-of-a-kind pair of “My Green” shoes to serve as a prize for the contest.  Erin comes from a family of distinguished artists – his grandfather was Duane Dishta, a well-known kachina carver and silversmith, and his mother is an accomplished painter and potter.  In addition to shoe painting, the high school senior carves fetishes, makes pottery, silversmiths, and enjoys photography and writing short stories.  To date he has created more than 20 pairs of custom-painted tennis shoes that he sells along with other artwork through his website,

“I’ve been into art my whole life, but I really started getting serious when I was about 13,” Erin explained. “It’s my passion to create, but it’s also my business.  I’d like to eventually own a gallery and become a full-scale dealer and trader.”

Erin’s ambition fits well with the “My Green” message of financial empowerment.  He also draws upon profound life experiences to produce art with a positive message.  When he was a child, his family home was lost in an accidental fire.  “I learned a lot when that happened,” he observed.  “I learned how important it is to be self-reliant and have money set aside.  I’ve had to grow up fast, but that’s a good thing.  I think some of these values come out in my art and I’m proud to share them with other young people who appreciate my work.”

It’s been said that the secret to a fulfilling life and rewarding career is doing what you love.  Erin Bulow has figured this lesson out a lot sooner than most. Our lucky contest winner got to think about taking a walk in his shoes – in more ways than one.

By Shawn Spruce, First Nations Financial Education Consultant

Talented Native Students Make Art of Financial Literacy

Westlee Poor Bear begins drawing his piece “Bulls vs. Bears.”

In an effort to build Native youth financial literacy, First Nations worked with five art students at Miyamura High School in Gallup, New Mexico, to produce creative, camera-ready posters addressing various financial education topics.

Miyamura art teacher Tine Hayes, who worked with First Nations to facilitate the project funded by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, selected five especially gifted art students to participate. The students were commissioned for their artwork and received a payment upon the completion of their finished piece.

First Nations financial education consultant Shawn Spruce visited the high school in December 2012 to lead the art students in three three-hour sessions.  He introduced various financial concepts and asked them to begin drawing a unique piece that illustrated “Risk/Reward,” “Capital Appreciation,” “Diversification” or the “Circle of Life.”  One student, Westlee Poor Bear, was inspired to create a piece of art that captured both the up and down stock markets, titled “Bears vs. Bulls.” Another student, Kyle James, drew a piece titled “Invest in Yourself” that connected financial skills with his passion for wrestling by illustrating how both require dedicated practice and discipline.

Teacher Tine was very supportive of the kids receiving compensation for their work.  According to Tine, it gave the youth experience learning how to cater their artwork to the needs of a client, and it demonstrated how art can be pursued as a career.

“This project gives kids an opportunity to see the vocational aspects of art,” he noted.Miyamura High School art students with teacher Tine Hayes (back center).”

After the students took a couple of months to put finishing touches on their artwork, Shawn followed up to present them with their compensation and to offer a complimentary two-hour financial education class.  The session topics mostly focused on instructing students on how they could make responsible saving and spending decisions with the payment they were receiving for their artwork.

“One student intends to use his payment to purchase art supplies so he can produce more artwork to sell,” Shawn said. “Inspiring young people with forward thinking ideas like this is the whole goal.”

The posters were used as part of First Nations’ national “My Green” campaign (see separate story) that helps youth who are receiving large minor’s trust or per-capita payments (“Big Money”) make wise financial decisions.

By Benjamin Marks, First Nations Research & Program Officer

Risk and Reward
by Deon Tom

Bulls vs Bears

by Westlee Poor Bear

Invest in Yourself
by Kyle James

Top: Circle of Life by
Bryce Belinte

Circle of Life by Jayth Benally