Protecting Public Lands, Together: An Interview with Len Necefer of NativeOutdoors
Today is the day that the Trump administration is scheduled to announce their plan to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by 1.1 million acres and slash Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in half. While this is worrisome for outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists, for Native Americans, this is a vicious attack on their home, history, and identity. I urge my fellow white members of the outdoor community to elevate and center native voices when we talk about land access issues. Public land is first and foremost an issue of racism, not recreation.
In this interview, I chat with Len Necefer, founder of NativeOutdoors, about the challenges he faces as a Native person in the outdoors, what the outdoor community can learn from Native Americans, how the outdoor industry and tribes need to become allies, and the importance of the Bears Ears Education Center. Len and I are on a grassroots team to build the Bears Ears Education Center, which you can learn more about here.
Len Necefer, Ph.D. is the founder of NativesOutdoors, a outdoor gear company that works with indigenous artists and athletes to create gear that supports outdoor recreation on tribal lands. He is a member of the Navajo Nation & holds a Doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy.
How did you get into outdoor recreation?
I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas for the first few years of my life. As one could imagine living in the Midwest the outdoors was fairly difficult to access. We had to drive pretty far to get to mediocre public lands. However, while my outdoors adventures in Kansas were limited, during the summer I got to fully be immersed in the outdoors. My grandparents still retained many parts of ranching & farming in the Chuska Mountains and in Red Valley, Arizona.
Getting them outside was a necessity in many instances — gathering herbs & plants, grazing the sheep, going to the well and getting water. It was during these outings of collecting plants and grazing we were told stories about the land and the history of the place we lived. I remember scrambling around volcanic rocks with my cousins during the summers in the Chuska mountains over 20 years ago. Little did we know that we were doing V2, V3 bouldering just to kill time. However I also remember discovering climbing by the anger of my relatives about the various white folks that would venture out and try climbing on Shiprock (a sacred volcanic outcropping). In the early 70’s a man died climbing Shiprock which lead to the ban of all rock climbing, not only here, but all over the Navajo Nation.
Given that backdrop of climbing on the Navajo Nation I wanted to discover it for myself. In grad school about 4 years ago I got a membership at a small climbing gym in Pittsburgh — it wasn’t anything special but it definitely stoked my interest. Then when I moved out to Colorado I took it upon myself to learn how to do get better & eventually go outside. I’ve been fully climbing for little less than a year. I hope to one day figure out a way to roll back the complete ban of climbing on the Navajo Nation and allow for it to happen in designated areas.
Specifically to Bears Ears: When I moved to the reservation when I was a teenager my mom and stepdad made it a point to get out and explore the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas. Cedar Mesa, Dark Canyon Wilderness, Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods were places that we would often visit as they were less than 3 hours away from Tsaile. These are where I had some of my first serious outdoor experiences. These places are where I encountered the thousands of years of history that I come from. This is the place where I first felt proud about being Navajo.
Tell us a little about how you relate to the land, and how that relationship may differ from a non-native person.
My relationship to the land is my identity, it is what I live to protect, and by doing so it one thing I can ensure that future generations can enjoy the places we call come. These values are informed by a number of rites of passages and traditions that connect us to the land from an early age as Navajos.
One of the first rites of passage as a Navajo is that our parents bury our umbilical cord in a place that has spiritual significance to our family. Our umbilical cords enable us to grow and live in utero and giving the cord back to the earth allows one to acknowledge and recognize the role that the earth serves for us after we are born. The place where my umbilical cord is buried is where I return to during challenging times and it is a place where I return to reflect as I grow older. This tradition is a gift because it provides me with roots and a deep understanding of our connection to the earth from an early age. I find that many, not all, non-native people don’t have this direct connection to place.
As we grow older we participate in medicinal and healing ceremonies that directly come from the landforms and mountains that we call home. These ceremonies often directly call out the four sacred mountains and acknowledge their power and purpose in Navajo worldview. The ethic of reciprocal relationships with these landforms is one of the main tenants of these practices. For the healing, mental clarity, and other benefits that these places provide through these ceremonies we must always return the favor by giving offering, actively protecting these places, and making strident efforts to ensure that they are preserved for the future.
The benefits derived through the ceremonies is something that all folks can relate to and aren’t that different for why folks like to get outside. Like many people, I get outdoors for my own mental and physical wellbeing, that feeling of mental clarity and feeling physically good after a long day of climbing or skiing is exactly what our ceremonies provide for people. That feeling, the mental clarity is exactly the power of these natural spaces. We as Navajo people have simply institutionalized and developed these into healing practices.
One area where I see there being some need for development of the outdoor community is in acknowledging and giving back for these experiences. I see the status quo being an extractive relationship with the land specifically taking experiences without giving back. Going out and recreating in the mountains or desert without giving something back isn’t sustainable. I’m not a perfect example of what this should look like but I try to acknowledge my impact. Volunteering is a good idea, giving money to organizations that maintain these areas is a good step too. Simply what I ask is what are the things we each are capable of doing to ensure that these places we care about are maintained for future generations?
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a native person in the outdoor community?
Resources & Connections
I do not come from a community with many financial resources or connections. Even less so specifically in the outdoor industry. I have started NativesOutdoors by taking on debt with few connections to folks and resources that could help me take this to the next level. I’m breaking down these barriers so that other folks, with less privilege than myself, can have the same opportunity that I have now to create this business. Every day I wonder how much longer I can continue this work without further investment. I worry that this NativesOutdoors idea will die on the vine and that the status-quo will remain — underrepresentation of communities of color in the outdoor industry.
Legitimacy & Relevance
I believe the largest reason why I have been taken seriously in the outdoor community is because of how articulate I am and the flashy education credentials that I have. The fact that I am a native person who is passionate about the outdoors seems to be secondary. I think there is a tentative acceptance that I am capable but I have yet to see the opportunities appear (at least until I was asked to be a part of the Bears Ears Education Center fundraising).
Tribes have been working on protecting Bears Ears for decades and much of the heavy lifting has been done by them. Not to downplay the outdoor community but their contributions, while vitally important, are relatively new and far less substantial in comparison. One concern that many Native folks have about efforts to protect Bears Ears is that the outdoor community will attempt to claim all the hard work and then have a sense of entitlement to the area. Tribes already have enough challenges protecting sacred sites, the thought of dealing with folks that feel entitled to accessing an area is a bit nauseating. However I think that public education and hard work by athletes, influencers, and brands can set important precedents in preventing this.
What do you want the outdoor community to know about native land?
Many folks are aware that native people were forcibly and brutally displaced from their homelands however the extent and timeframe which this occurred is not well understood by the outdoor community. Each tribe is unique and the dispossession of their land has its own story.
The process of Indian removal on a systemic scale extended all the way into the 1970’s (some would argue that the Dakota Access Pipeline was a continuation of this policy). When forced removal fell out of vogue, assimilationist policies, which accompanied forced removal policies, continued until the 1960’s. These included the Dawes Act & Indian Termination which aimed to dismantle tribal governments and tribal lands by forcing native people to adopt lifestyles that were not their own — namely being forced into cash economies, private land ownership (that led to forced removal by banks), and the dissolution of tribal lands and governments.
So why is this relevant to the outdoor community? Many of the lands that now encompass private and public land belonged to native people as late as the 1960’s. The wounds of these removals and policies are quite fresh and in all instances out of the control of the native people that lived there. Now the outdoor community is creating and solidifying identities and relationships with lands that native people today do not have the opportunity to. One can image how frustrating that is for the native folks seeing this happen when just a couple generations ago this connection was strong. Now non-native folks can fairly effortlessly enjoy themselves in these places because of these policies.
This is the context and it’s not a comfortable place to be.
However, from my experiences with the outdoor community folks tend to want to do the right thing to try and rectify this history, yet many folks don’t know where to start or are afraid to do anything. However, folks need to carry the weight to make these things happen and it’s going to take a lot of work. Donating to this cause is one way to correct this history. The next is education your fellow recreationists about this area and how to respect it.
What values or attitudes do native people hold that you believe the outdoor community should adopt?
Relationship of reciprocity with the land, not just for oneself but for folks that are coming behind them.
Learn about the history and people that consider the place where they recreate home. Understand that forced removal and assimilation policies enable recreation in places that are considered scared.
Why do you support the Bears Ears Education Center?
One thing I’ve been pushing in the outdoor industry is that a coalition between tribes’ political and legal power with the outdoor industry’s financial and social influence can be an unstoppable force in protecting public lands. I support the Bears Ears Education Center because it’s the outdoor community stepping up to the plate and leveraging their financial resources and social media presence to educate the broader public about this culturally and ecologically sensitive area. Public education is going to be key to protecting this place as our current administration seems hell bent on defunding and under resourcing the agencies that would otherwise protect Bears Ears. If privatization is what they are shooting for, I’d say let’s get there before the extractive industries do.
My opinion & support on this topic are my own and as no group of people are monolithic and it is important that I acknowledge thar there are native people who do not agree on supporting this education center. The reasons for opposition may not be readily apparent however I agree with the premise of the opposition — namely why aren’t we as Native people telling our own story about this instead of a group of folks from the outdoor industry telling it for us? Another concern is that if this place is ultimately protected and the legal fight is won — who’s going to claim the credit for the work done? Many, including myself, fear that native people will again be erased from the picture yet again. I asked questions of the organizers to this effect and I was satisfied with the responses to support the effort. I trust the intentions of the organizers and participants to do the right thing.
Yes, we as Native people deserve to tell our own story and I see this effort to build the education center as the steps toward making this happen. Time is of the essence in this situation and it’s a lot easier for the outdoor industry to garner financial resources to make these things happen. Secondly, if we are not at the table, we are on the menu. I created NativesOutdoors as a company in the outdoor industry specifically so we could have a seat at the table in these efforts. I’m going to do the right thing by Native people.
Why is it important for the outdoor community to support, respect, and learn about the tribes?
The outdoor community benefits from historical policies that have removed indigenous people from the land. While this history cannot be undone, supporting, respecting, and learning about the tribes of the places we recreate is one way we can bring things closer to a place of healing. Native people aren’t gone and are the strongest allies and advocates for protecting and ensuring access to the places we care about. Together we can protect the places we deeply love and care for.
To support and learn more about our efforts towards building the Bears Ears Education Center, check out the Kickstarter.