5 questions for Len Necefer, founder of Natives Outdoors

The Native American advocate is passionate about bridging the gap between native people and the outdoor industry.
Publish date:
Len Necefer wearing a Natives Outdoors shirt

Len Necefer founded Natives Outdoors in March 2017. 

Len Necefer has a Ph.D in engineering and public policy. It might not surprise you, then, that his outdoor apparel company is about far more than the gear. Natives Outdoors is a B Corp that shares profits with Native communities, and Necefer is working to take back Native-inspired designs that have long adorned outdoor gear. We asked Necefer how the industry can tackle cultural appropriation in a meaningful way, and what tough conversations we need to have to move forward.

How do you define cultural appropriation, and where have you seen it in the outdoor industry?

Len Necefer: Cultural appropriation is a form of copyright infringement that uses imagery, symbolism, or ideas from marginalized communities who have not had the benefit of protection under the law. It’s not cultural exchange; it’s stealing. That takes away a source of direct revenue from communities that have already had a lot taken away. Companies spend a lot of time preventing copyright infringement [of their own designs], but don't give the same respect to Native designs. Recently, I saw a tent that had an iteration of a Navajo rug design. I’ve also seen a lot of disparaging uses of names and imagery. One climbing company has a belay device called the “totem,” and I had a long conversation with the company owner about why that wasn't appropriate. He didn’t understand the context of what he was doing. We’re trying to connect Native artists to those designs in a way that educates consumers about where they came from.

Why is it a problem to create designs inspired by Native culture? What’s at stake?

LN: Historically, tribes have been some of the biggest enemies of outdoor recreation. They’ve stopped access to climbing areas, backpacking trails, and other areas. Appropriation can actually create an antagonized environment where tribes and the outdoor industry are fighting against each other. It makes it much easier to remove support for, say, Bears Ears, because it fractionates efforts. We’re at a very important point in history, where there’s an alignment of interest and concern to protect these areas, but using the word “tribe” or the phrase “spirit animal” casually, or appropriating designs, can erode that support. There’s a legal definition of what a tribe is, and a lot of history, significance, and culture behind that word that I think is diminished when people say, “I found my climbing tribe!”

Why is it important to include tribes in conversations about public lands?

LN: Most tribal lands are surrounded by national public lands. And throughout the history of the United States, a lot of Native communities haven’t received their fair share of resources and state-level funding. When the country started to electrify towns in the ‘30s, Congress basically didn’t electrify a lot of tribal land in the West. You can imagine the economic impact. In the same way, a lot of outdoor recreation happens near tribal land, or land that was once held by a tribe. There’s a moral duty to think about how we recreate. Outdoor recreation can provide a sustainable opportunity for economic development, and tribes took care of this land for thousands of years prior to the current management system. It’s because of their hard work that we can enjoy these places.

It often seems like fear—of offending, or of trying the wrong thing—is holding back real change. What's missing from the industry’s broader diversity conversations?

LN: I find it kind of ironic when some person is willing to lead climb a 5.12 and they’ve never been on the route before. That’s incredibly scary and dangerous. But then that same person often doesn’t feel the same kind of bravery when it comes to this particular conversation. This is part of the reason we started as a company, largely because we didn’t want to be treated like a charity case trying to increase diversity. We wanted to have a seat at the table and influence decision-making. And we’ll get there. The population is changing. The Latino community, for example, recreates at a higher rate than any other demographic. But are there any companies that offer Spanish-language advertising and meet the needs of this particular consumer? It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. If retailers and brands don’t adapt, they’ll fall behind.

What can the industry do to be part of the solution?

LN: Ask questions and look for answers. If you see something that doesn’t sit well with you, there’s an opportunity there to change the process. I think a lot of companies need cultural sensitivity training; it’s important that people ask for those resources. It’s not just Natives or cultural appropriation—it’s a whole suite of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues across the industry. It won’t change unless people start asking for it and demanding it. And eventually, if companies don’t change, someone else will come along and out-compete them. 

This article was originally published in Day 2 of The Daily (summer 2018).


Chevon Powell, founder of Refuge Outdoor Festival

A new outdoorsy camp for people of color

A 2016 survey conducted by the National Park Service found that less than 20 percent of park visitors were non-white. For many reasons, including economic and safety issues, the outdoors can be intimidating, particularly for people of color. Chevon Powell, founder of  Golden ...read more

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper smiling outdoors

Colorado's governor on the evolution of the outdoor industry

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is the kind of guy who will stand up in front of a room of outdoor industry professionals, realize he’s overdressed, pause to take off his tie, and then keep speaking as if nothing happened. Before he was governor, before he and three friends ...read more

Headshot of Mirna Valerio with hoodie

Body positivity lessons from The Mirnavator

Bronx native Mirna Valerio first laced up running shoes for a 5K—and just kept going. She now has almost a dozen 50K trail ultramarathons under her belt and is well-known in the ultra world and on social media as The Mirnavator and author of the memoir A Beautiful Work in ...read more

Timothy Egan

Keep up fighting the good fight for public lands

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, columnist, and author Timothy Egan spent years covering the West—past and present—as a correspondent for The New York Times. His books have covered everything from the origins of the U.S. Forest Service to exploration of the Pacific Northwest to ...read more

Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike

Indigenous Women Hike founder calls the JMT by its original name

On Aug. 1, Indigenous Women Hike Founder Jolie Varela and a dozen other indigenous women will take their first steps on the 210-mile-long Nuumu Poyo, more widely known as the John Muir Trail in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas. The three-week journey is unlike anything Varela has done ...read more

Susan Wood, marketer/consultant

How The Trailhead drives small-town success

Buena Vista's The Trailhead is smack in the heart of Colorado Fourteener country—a short drive from 15 of the monster peaks. But for all outdoor recreation in the area, the shop's marketing manager, Susan Wood, and other businesses felt the town still lacked opportunity for the ...read more


5 questions with newbie retailers

For many, Pittsburgh doesn’t conjure up the image of an outdoor town. But after Christine Iksic and Chris Kaminski moved back to the ‘Burgh after separately spending several years of living elsewhere, the two business partners saw an opportunity for an independent gear hub that ...read more

Cailin O'Brien Feeney closeup

4 questions with Oregon's new outdoor rec leader

When Cailin O’Brien-Feeney attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, more than a decade ago, he was introduced to backcountry skiing, went on his first overnight rafting trip on the Rogue River, and explored the wonders of the redwood forests and Sierra Nevada ...read more


Yes, we are getting better at diversity

When journalist James Edward Mills, 51, attended his first Outdoor Retailer show in 1992 he was surrounded by thousands of people yet he felt utterly alone. Like many walking the aisles, Mills shared the same love of the outdoors that they did. But he was also very different ...read more