When Len Necefer, who grew up in the Navajo Nation, told his friends he had started to do more outdoors than mend fences and herd sheep, their responses sometimes came down to: “Rock climbing? That’s what white people do.”
Scroll through Instagram and it's easy to confirm that image. Punch in #climbing and the results are a lot of white faces. Necefer saw that as fix worth tackling, so he started the account @NativesOutdoors to diversify that stream. The photographs show them shredding steep powder, holding up a fish so long it requires both hands or clusters of freshly gathered sage, or just perched on an overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Posts include comments on what these natural places mean to them—sustenance from fishing, peace and quiet, or the place to ski for the 84th day in a row.
"I was thinking it would be pretty small," Necefer says. "I didn't know what to expect because I didn't know too many other Native people who were doing what I was doing or were interested in the things I was interested in."
But it has blossomed to a bustling 4,500 followers, many of whom are from Canada's First Nations, and some are Indigenous people as far away as northern Russia. His goal is to fuel conversations about public lands that shift how Natives are viewed and view themselves in the outdoors.
Necefer credits his time at the United World College, with its campus in Las Vegas right on the edge of the Pecos Wilderness, for igniting his drive for outdoor recreation. He has since made technical ascents of Colorado's peaks.
"Prior to that, I spent a lot of my time outdoors fixing fences, herding sheep, farming—that sort of stuff," he says. "Climbing on rocks and hiking around was more of just a means to an end to do this stuff, so I never really related to outdoor rec in a big way."
That's typical to his experience with Natives—they spend a lot of time outdoors, often as part of a lifestyle that still very much depends on the land for food. For them, he says, the boundaries blur between hiking and hunting, or boating and fishing.
"There's this inherent connection to the land through hunting and fishing, and also through recreation," he says. "In the larger scheme of the public lands debate … you kind of see divisions between hunters and anglers and people who do outdoor rec, such as climbing and biking—and the thing is, within the Native community, that division does not exist."
It has the potential to uproot the notion that we have less in common than in difference. There’s political power in there, he argues, when it comes to preserving the future. So, too, is there a means to ease some of the wounds of the past. National parks were often created at the expense of Indigenous people, who were relocated to make space for icons like Yellowstone and Yosemite.
"The imagery of a Native person outdoors has been really sort of empowering for a lot of people, just kind of claiming space where historically we have been excluded," he says.
Though 90 percent of national parks are within 100 miles of a reservation, just 3 to 5 percent of park rangers are from tribes. He contends there's an opportunity for an affection for outdoor recreation to turn into not just play, but work, and a way to make a living and stay near their communities without turning to extractive industries like mining. To make space, however, the outdoor industry may need to show a little more respect for how Natives view outdoor spaces. Terms like "conquering" a mountain feel offensive, and the notion of climbing Shiprock, a sacred icon on the Navajo landscape, is downright blasphemous. Questions of disposable time and income to spend on these activities are part of much larger issues, but imagining more minorities outdoors is a start.
Necefer is not alone in the effort, working alongside groups like Outdoor Afro and fellow Instagrammer @BrownGirlsClimb. He's been speaking at events on getting more minorities outdoors in Albuquerque and Denver, and will again at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Utah at the end of July. A preponderance of people of color appeared in the latest REI catalog—he knows. He counted. The hope is that shifting the visuals pays off in much bigger ways.
"It's going to be important that all communities have access to the outdoors, because if anything happens, they'll have a stake in the environment," he says. In the face of unimaginably huge problems like the climate ticking warmer, ever closer to cooking off our current way of life, or plastic waste turning to soup in the ocean, he says, "Getting outdoors and being in nature gives people something to relate to about why that's important."