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Gambling on passion
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Gambling on passion

Charles Decker (Marketing, ’17) grew up near Sedona, Arizona, on the 640-acre Yavapai-Apache Nation Reservation, where red rocks meet blue skies. Decker recalled when the Yavapai-Apache tribe built Cliff Castle Casino in the 1990s. He said the Casino helped the Apache people transition out of poverty, establish a source of employment for citizens, and create enough revenue to give back to the local community.

“Through the Casino, our people can afford better healthcare clinics, dental programs, and scholarship funding for tribal members who want to excel in education,” Decker said. “Education is what we need on our tribal lands to promote and continue economic growth in the health sectors and other areas where we desperately need resources.”

In 2011, 30-year-old Decker gambled on the idea of education for himself and moved to Durango to attend Fort Lewis College.

Charles Decker holds a paint pallete, pointing at the camera with a paintbrush. He is working on a canvas painting of a hummingbird during an event with people at tables in the background.

“I needed an adventure,” said Decker. “It wasn’t easy, but I knew I wanted to do something to change my life, to recreate myself.”

A self-taught artist, Decker said his male clan name, Nagozogen, means “one who marks on the ground people.” He followed his family’s legacy, declared a major in Studio Art, and studied under faculty members Chad Colby and Amy Wendland, who he still views as two of the most influential mentors in his life. He also dabbled in business behavioral and organizational leadership courses in the School of Business Administration, which revealed a new passion.

“I realized a different part of my mind did well with school work, especially math programs,” Decker said. “I began to infuse my art degree with a business degree. I found that resculpting my brain into a business mindset helped my artwork.”

Decker graduated with a major in Marketing and a minor in Studio Art. He returned to his homeland near Sedona and was hired as the artist-in-residence at the Enchantment Resort in Boynton Canyon. Hotel guests watched in real-time as Decker painted celestial motifs, traditional symbols and landscapes, and paintings of hummingbirds, an icon for his people representing unity, safety, and good news. Each piece tells a story of the Apache culture, incorporating contemporary techniques with oils, acrylics, and other mixed mediums.

Decker enjoyed learning how to connect with people who traveled to Sedona from all over the world. He credits his business courses with helping him hone his communication skills, which he said have led to numerous commissioned projects.

“It’s essential to speak about our passions clearly and render those messages into a business frame,” Decker said. “That has helped produce work for me and lets people know they can take me seriously. And while the times I face rejection are incredibly defeating to my artist’s soul, I can digest them through a business lens, thanks to the skills I learned at the Fort. My business degree taught me how to function and that strength, character, and resilience come from defeat.”

In early 2022, Decker partnered with the National Indian Gaming Association to create a large custom painting of NIGA’s former chairman Rick Hill and current chairman, Ernie Stevens Jr. This painting was unveiled at the NIGA Trade Show & Convention in Anaheim, California, where Decker was awarded NIGA’s Artist of the Year. The successful partnership with NIGA inspired Decker to collaborate with a firm to help create Indigenous-themed casino games for slot machines.

“It’s important for Native peoples to build their own games and run their own industries within the casino,” Decker said.

As Decker evolves as an artist, he travels around the globe, creating work for wineries, hospitals, festivals, and other tribal nations. Decker’s works are on permanent display inside the NIGA and National Congress of American Indians, Embassy of Tribal Nations headquarters, both located in Washington D.C. He plans to return to graduate school and work toward a degree in cultural and heritage preservation and management.

“People should always pursue their passions,” Decker said. “You never know where they’ll lead.”

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