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Design firm serves national market

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POLSON, Mont. - Total Screen Design business owner Steve Lozar thinks tribal economic development can be a family affair.

Out of the 11 employees he manages at his Flathead Indian Reservation screen-printing plant, eight are members of his extended family. Family members, he says, make especially good workers because they have a personal stake in a firm's success and are willing to go the extra mile to get work done. That enthusiasm, he adds, is contagious.

"People know our quality, and people know we'll stay up all night if we need to get their job done," says Lozar, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

"I really feel that I was called to this, and the purpose may be to provide jobs for my family. I feel really, really lucky that we can do that."

The business, which Lozar and his wife, Carol, have owned since the early 1980s, transfers art work, logos and other detail to uniforms, jackets, T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts and other casual wear. In front of the plant, which recently relocated to larger building on busy Highway 35, passersby can browse in a store that showcases their wares.

"If we can get people in the store, they'll buy stuff," he says.

But Lozar says the local market is too lean to fully support the venture, so the business relies heavily on outside contracts to stay afloat. Much of Total Screen Design's work is contracted to the national YMCA, the nationally known Missoula Children's Theatre, and Sun Mountain Sports, a Montana-based gear manufacturer. Other customers are based in Europe and the Pacific Rim. Lozar says he'd like to expand his national trade, including with other tribes.

"We're not out for all the business," he explains. "We just want a fair share of what's out there."

"They're marvelous to work with," Missoula Children's Theatre official Barb Neilan says. "They bend over backwards for us. Their detail work has been really wonderful. It's a long-term relationship."

Most of the plant's operation, especially the design-formulation stage, is computerized. There are six state-of-the-art color printing machines, two multi-head embroidering machines and a full darkroom, along with assorted other tools of the trade.

Accounting work is performed by Lozar's father, who also served as the main contractor for the firm's new building. Most employees are cross-trained to work all facets of the business.

"That wasn't necessarily by design," Lozar says. "It was by necessity. This is a tough business. Screen printers come and go all the time."

Lozar, 51, was born on the Flathead Reservation, but his family moved around the West because of his father's employment with various tribes and the BIA.

"Every few years we'd move to a different reservation," Lozar says. "That may have been the best education I had, to move to a new place, learn to keep your mouth shut, and eventually fit in."

Lozar says his interest in art began at an early age, but he never figured he'd make a living at it. He credits Catholic sisters at his grade school in Oregon with first developing his talents. At age 6, he formally displayed his first work, a picture of a baseball player. While attending high school in California, Lozar was allowed to enroll into a specialized arts program.

"It didn't help my math, but I learned how to draw," he says now.

Lozar majored in art as a student at American River Community College in Sacramento, where he also played football. But the competitive aspect of the business soon turned him off, and he transferred into the school's anthropology program. Art was largely left on the sidelines, although he says he still dabbled in his spare time.

After earning an associate degree, Lozar transferred to the University of Hawaii, where he eventually completed a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

Times were hard, however, and Lozar lived in a car, a tent, and a commune while struggling through school. On the side, he did various art gigs, mainly paintings and drawings of "over-egoed" athletes who would pay him to be portrayed. He also frequented a local Dairy Queen restaurant, where his wife-to-be worked.

"She was the only girl who wouldn't give me free food," he jokingly says of the couple's initial attraction. "I only knew her as D.Q. for a long time."

Lozar later ended up in San Diego, where he landed his first commercial art job - painting house numbers on curbs so emergency responders could find the residences. He also enrolled back into college and came within three credits of completing a master's degree in anthropology before packing it up and moving to Seattle, where he worked for a year as a high school counselor.

"My office was across the street from a Presbyterian church that had bars on the windows," he recalls. "That's what kind of neighborhood it was." Homesick and tired of the city life, he and Carol moved back to the Flathead Reservation just before the first of their six children was born.

Short of work, Lozar hired on with a logging crew for awhile. He later was a counselor at the federal Kicking Horse Job Corps Center, where he helped Indian students with vocational training.

That position led to an appointment as head of the Salish and Kootenai Tribal Education Department and director of tribal recreation programs.

But Lozar says that after several years he got tired of being an administrator, and one day he prayed for a change. Within 24 hours a man called his office looking for someone to buy his screen printing business. That was all Lozar needed, and he and Carol jumped at the chance.

"I'd never taken a business class before," Lozar says of the plunge. "I know culture, but I didn't know the difference between debit and credit. I've had a lot to learn."

In the years since, Lozar says he's seen the ups and downs of running a small business.

During the early days, there were times when there was no money left after the employees were paid, so he and Carol went without paychecks. There have been few vacations, lots of long hours and little security. Nonetheless, Lozar says he's doing what's right.

"I love my job," he explains. "I get to come in everyday and pop things out of my head and make them with my own hands."

Now that the business is established and most of their children are grown, there's a bit more time for fun. Lozar remains an avid hockey player, and he teaches anthropology classes at Salish Kootenai College, as he has done for the past 19 years.

Total Screen Design is widely known around the reservation for its support of a wide variety of Indian and non-Indian causes. Lozar has also served as a trustee on his hometown's school board.

"Perseverance, that's the whole thing," Lozar says of his hard-fought successes. "Everything we've done here, we've done solely on our own. No one grubstaked us."