The Artist & Rez Dog Rescuer Behind the Desert Sunrise Collection: Vernan Kee
Vernan Kee, the artist behind our latest Artist Series, is a graphic designer, endurance athlete, and dog rescue champion. We checked in with him to hear his inspiring story. Photography by Tara Kerzhner.
Vernan drove his van through hairpin turns on a steep climb up the Navajo Nation’s mountains. His partner, Chantal, and adopted rez dogs swayed with the winding road. Hours in, they found a spot to start their search. Vernan and Chantal scanned the area. Their dogs sniffed. Then suddenly, there they were – 10 frightened stray dogs. Vernan thought to himself, “Leave no dog behind.” That’s why he was here. The rescue was on.
Vernan, a Native American from the Navajo Nation, grew up in an artistic family, loving to draw. But life took a turn, and art became less of a priority while serving in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. When he returned to the US, he was eager to reconnect with his creative roots, earning a Bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of San Diego and working as a freelance designer.
And that’s when a dog came into his life – the first of many, many dogs. Vernan and his partner, Chantal, adopted Bruce and soon after, Harley.
Living the Van Life
After years of crowded city life, Vernan, Chantal, and their two active pups craved outdoor adventure. They got their fix with frequent trips to the mountains and desert, but it wasn’t enough to fill that void. When they heard about people living the van life, that did it: they sold everything and outfitted a van as their new home.
Soon, the thought of reconnecting with their roots on the Navajo Nation called them back home. Vernan and Chantal (who also grew up on the reservation) loaded their pups in the van and left the coast for the high desert of Shiprock, New Mexico.
Linking Up with NativesOutdoors
Now back in his hometown, Vernan was searching for new freelance clients. He connected with Len, the CEO of NativesOutdoors, a native-owned athletic and creative collective.
Len shares about NativesOutdoors, “We support Indigenous talent in making inroads into the outdoor and conservation world – whether that be athletic, creative, or business. At our core, we build the capacity of our community through our work, and we also engage in advocacy around environmental and Indigenous issues.”
One of the main services NativesOutdoors provides is creating films and stories to help pave a path for normalizing Indigenous people in the outdoor industry. Films like Spirit of the Peaks, which features a Lakota athlete – and graphics designed by Vernan. These films serve as inspiration for native youth.
During Vernan’s early days working with NativesOutdoors, he found healing outside. Nature was a grounding influence as he processed trauma from Afghanistan. Len introduced him to programs for veterans, such as Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors.
With this program, Vernan joined a group of veterans on a rafting trip down the Rio Grande River. Connecting with other veterans – and connecting to nature – transformed him. The program also exposed him to new outdoor experiences, developing his love for rock climbing, backpacking, rafting, and running.
As a young child on the reservation, he didn’t think he could do these activities. He had no access to them or way to learn. “I am very appreciative and humbled to have these experiences now.”
Vernan is passionate about passing these outdoor opportunities down to native youth. NativesOutdoors provides clinics and scholarships for native children to learn rock climbing, skiing, and more from native adults.
Leave No Dog Behind
During this time, Vernan and Chantal traveled through the Navajo Nation to document what they saw and educate people on their native lands. Vernan used NativesOutdoors’ social media channel to reach a wider audience. As they shared their journey, they saw stray dogs and puppies everywhere.
Finding homes for stray rez (reservation) dogs became their main focus.
At first, they rescued the dogs on their own, fostering them and reaching out to people who could provide them with permanent homes. They swapped out the van life for a more spacious home, ultimately adopting 13 dogs themselves.
Vernan and Chantal streamlined their rescue efforts by connecting with organizations who were already taking in stray rez dogs, such as Underdog and Soul Rescue. Then, they found Turquoise Paw – a rez dog rescue that was in the same town. Most rescues weren’t located on the Navajo Nation, and Vernan loved supporting a native-owned, local organization.
Since then, Vernan has collaborated with Turquoise Paw. He created his own rescue – Rez Roads Rescue, where he and Chantal go on the road and bring dogs back to Turquoise Paw.
Vernan’s own pack of adopted dogs loves to join on his rescue trips. They’re stoked to explore wide open land in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. But these trips don’t always go as planned. Once, Chantal spotted a “stray dog” that turned out to be an enormous coyote! They ditched that plan real fast.
Vernan appreciates how unique each rez dog is. A mix of so many breeds, rez dogs often have eccentric looks, bright minds, and a thirst for adventure. He admires their resilience – how they heal from their traumas once they are in the right hands. Just as he healed from his own hardships.
Many of these dogs are descended from the original dogs that Navajos brought to the Southwest around a thousand years ago. Historically, Navajos have been a pastoral people – their dogs worked, taking care of the sheep and cattle. They chose hearty dog breeds that could stand working outside for long periods of time. Len of NativesOutdoors says, “In many respects, rez dogs are the perfect outdoor ‘breed,’ because they are a mix of the best breeds.”
Vernan has committed himself to rescuing as many rez dogs as he can. “My time in the marines taught me ‘leave no man behind.’ Now, it’s ‘leave no dog behind.’ You learn to be there on the frontlines to help. Now, I can’t just give that up. I have to keep helping.”
He hopes to inspire native youth to keep this going – with generations chipping in, he believes the Navajos can end the reservation’s stray problem. For him, this brings to mind the Navajo phrase for self determination, Táá hó’ájit’éégóó. It means, “If it's meant to be, it's up to me.” In other words, if you see a problem, step up to fix it yourself instead of waiting for someone else to do so.
Story Behind His Artist Series Desert Sunrise Art
When Vernan found out he’d been chosen for Ruffwear’s Artist Series, he couldn’t wait to brainstorm designs. It was while hearing about the weaving style of our leashes that he had a lightbulb moment. Weaving had been a staple of his upbringing on the Navajo Nation.
The many Indigenous women who raised him would gather together and sit for hours, practicing native weaving techniques – a tradition that spans back thousands of years. Vernan still remembers the sounds of these women chatting while they weaved, the sights of colorful yarn, and the elaborate patterns of geometric shapes. He was in awe of it then, and he still is today.
In addition to drawing inspiration from his own mother and family members, Vernan is inspired by Len’s mother – a highly skilled Navajo weaver. On visits with Len to see her, he’s blown away by the intricately woven rugs hanging on her walls – each a blend of old and new weaving techniques. Currently, she’s working on her section of a generational rug that her great-grandmother started.
As a child and young adult, Vernan fell in and out of his own culture. Today, he dives into learning more about it to foster a meaningful connection with his heritage. His designs for our Artists Series are a way for him to honor where he came from and celebrate the traditions of the Navajo women in his life.
Len shares, “I’m proud of the heritage and traditions that we come from as Navajo people. The fact that Vernan is able to translate these traditions into different media speaks to his skill as an artist but also the vibrancy of the culture that we carry. Culture dies when it does not evolve to meet the needs of contemporary times. We are now learning how we can pass on these traditions in the future.”
Dogs are woven into the Navajo culture in their own way. They’re often thought of as sacred – an integral part of the community’s survival. Dogs even play a role in the art of weaving: they herd, protect, and take care of the sheep, and the sheep produce the wool used each year for yarn.
When a non-native person creates Indigenous designs, there’s no space left for native people to do so. As a native artist himself, Vernan’s designs don’t only share his perspective as the artist – they tell a cultural story of where the design came from. “Native artists now, like myself, are trying to pay homage to our culture.”
And not only is he pulling from traditions of the past. He’s moving with the times, creating designs with cutting-edge technology and modern techniques. As a child, he grew up with only a pencil and paper to create his designs. Now, he’s at the forefront of his field, inspiring others to learn new skills to honor their culture.
Vernan encourages people to educate themselves about the Navajo Nation. Its native inhabitants are building trail systems, rescuing rez dogs, and providing resources to native youth. Consider supporting their efforts before making plans for your own. When visiting, respect the nation’s rules and be aware of private land.
And, if you’re looking for Vernan, you can find him traveling across the Navajo Nation with a van full of rez dogs, on the quest to find more. That is, when he’s not designing epic prints for companies like Ruffwear.
Vernan looks ahead to another passion project: officially establishing Rez Roads Rescue as a nonprofit. He hopes to hire employees to expand his rescue efforts. His graphic design work supports this dream. You can follow Vernan's journey here: @vernankee.
Explore the Desert Sunrise Collection here. Ruffwear will be donating a portion of proceeds to Vernan's nonprofit of choice: Turquoise Paw.