Falling for Nature: A Diné & Asian-American Perspective

Behind the mainstream media eye lies the rest of us—all of us “average” yet avid adventurers and chasers of a life well-lived; and quite frankly, we help drive the outdoor industry. We come from cities, small towns, or the woods themselves. We are diverse, greatly so, and all-encompassing: be it ethnicity, orientation, or wealth. The outdoor community spans many generations and the more it grows, the more lives it touches in ways never imagined. From the gear we buy to the “Instagram likes” to the real-life experiences that populate the crags, backcountry trails, fests, and competitions, we are the core of what defines outdoor tradition and lifestyle. And the more we nurture the outdoor community the less it matters where we come from and how, or what we look like—but media and society at large unfortunately see things through filtered lenses, and many of us come from places and backgrounds rarely mentioned.

From marginalized history to the epitome of a refugee family’s American Dream, the second post in this series will feature 2 people who have found the great outdoors in their own introspective ways.

Intros and edits by Sara Aranda
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Photo of and courtesy of Len Necefer.

Len Necefer, Ph.D. – 29 years old – from Tsaile, AZ/Lawrence, KS

Len’s heritage is of Diné (Navajo), of the Tachiinii and Naakai Dine’e clans, from his mother, and of Scottish and Romanian heritage from his father.  He founded @NativesOutdoors, a “company that celebrates the talent and creativity of indigenous people in the outdoors through the sharing of stories and the creating of outdoor active wear/gear imagined by indigenous people for everyone to enjoy.” He obtained his Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kansas. He currently resides in Colorado and his goals include climbing 100 peaks in the next 5 years, training for and completing a Half IronMan, and riding the Leadville 100!

“I grew up in Kansas for the first decade or so of my life. Living in the Midwest, the outdoors were fairly difficult to access compared to where my mom’s family is from in Northern Arizona. We had to drive pretty far to get to public land in Kansas. In Arizona, we basically lived on them. My grandparents still retained many parts of ranching & farming in the Chuska Mountains and in Red Valley, Arizona. Being outside for them was a necessity in many instances—gathering herbs & plants, grazing the sheep, going to the well and getting water. It was during these summer outings of collecting plants and grazing that we were told stories about the land and the history of the place we lived. I never associated going outside with hiking or scrambling around on rocks as bouldering, however this was my first exposure to these things.

“I fondly remember scrambling around volcanic rocks with my cousins over 20 years ago. But I actually discovered the world of climbing via the anger of my relatives over various white folks venturing out to climb on Shiprock (a sacred volcanic outcropping). In the early 70’s a man died climbing Shiprock, which led to the ban of all rock climbing, not only there, but all over the Navajo Nation. Death in these sacred areas can ‘contaminate’ the space in the Navajo world view. It’s unfortunate that one white guy, failing to heed the warnings of local Navajos, decided to climb this peak anyway, died, and essentially closed all climbing for generations of Navajo kids to come.

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Photo by Steve Bartlett.

“Given that backdrop of climbing on the Navajo Nation, I had to discover it for myself elsewhere. There’s a phrase we were told growing up (constantly when we were whining), ‘T’aawho ajitee’go,’ which translates to something along the lines of, ‘if it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.’ Within Navajo culture, it is expected of all people to be helpful and a self-starter. Things don’t happen by chance or divine intervention; in most instances it takes some level of intention and hard work. This, in many ways, has defined what I do in my own life. I am grateful to have parents who are college educated and advocates for higher education. My mom received a Ph.D. when I was a kid. Nonetheless, my mom’s side of the family would be defined as lower/middle class, with some family being way below the poverty line. My father’s side of the family was of the blue-collar, middle class in Detroit. Being the first in their family to go to college, I recognize that having parents with the opportunity and knowledge of navigating the education system is a privilege to which they’ve passed down to me.

“In grad school, about 4 years ago, I got a membership to a small climbing gym in Pittsburgh. Then I moved out to Colorado and took it upon myself to further learn how to climb and eventually go outside. I’ve been fully climbing for about a year. I hope to one day figure out how to roll back the complete ban on climbing on the Navajo Nation and allow for it to happen in designated areas.

“For my most recent day job, I traveled extensively to remote parts of the United States. More than anything, traveling allows me to take the opportunity to educate myself about the histories and stories of indigenous peoples in various regions. Of course, I also enjoy exploring local recreation opportunities. Some of the more memorable outdoor adventures I’ve had when traveling were of spending time in Barrow and Fairbanks in January, when it reached -50F for a couple days. It ‘warmed up’ to -30F and I thought it would be a great idea to go cross-country skiing for the day. I rented skis and went to a popular cross-country trail system outside Fairbanks. Yes, it was cold but I took the necessary precautions of being out in that weather. I was probably one of four people on the trail that day. I remember passing one guy and he said to me, ‘It’s great to be one of the crazy ones, isn’t it?’

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Photo by the American Indian College Fund.

I enjoy the experiences where, at some point during the excursion, I question why the hell I’m even doing it. Either from being completely scared and paralyzed from exposure or the pain of being physically exhausted. In those moments I realize that the stresses I have back in the city and the desk job are irrelevant. It brings me to the here and now. It’s a recalibration for me. Yet I realize the privilege and opportunity that many of my relatives and friends do not have. In some ways it separates me from my own community—it makes me an outsider of sorts. It takes money to do these things; it also takes feeling comfortable enough to operate in an environment where you’re often one of the few people of color.

“Ultimately, the life that I am able to live means I can stay healthy and active without much effort. Many Native communities struggle with health disparities like diabetes; so me actively participating in outdoor activity results in contending with this image. I essentially break a lot of stereotypes about Native people. So often it seems that folks don’t know what to do with me. I often feel like I have to introduce myself as ‘Dr. Len Necefer’ to the outdoor community, as this confers a level of legitimacy that otherwise would not be afforded to a Native person. I don’t like doing it, but I also see the need for me to carve out and claim space as an educated Native who so happens to also be doing this outdoors thing. It honestly gives people pause before they try to argue issues involving Native peoples.  In my own community even, I’ve been rhetorically asked why I do all the things ‘white people’ do, like climbing, skiing, and cycling. It is obviously a passion of mine, is something that is empowering, and has also allowed for me to maintain cultural connections to the land that are difficult to maintain living in urban environments.

“Compared to other spaces I’ve been involved with, the climbing and outdoor community is pretty welcoming, laid-back, and fairly easy to be a part of. Yes, there are challenges with diversity and inclusion of both women and minorities, but compared to other spaces, it’s progressive. For example, I used to play golf competitively through high school (Handicap of like +3, believe it or not) and that was definitely a difficult environment as a person of color. I played a few golf tournaments in Mississippi, which was quite the experience in the racial dynamics of this country. Ten-year-old kids, who I played against, would use the n-word to talk about the staff working at the golf resort.

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Photo by Darby Prendergast.

“This being said, I think the climbing community has blind spots when it comes to inclusion and awareness of racial and class challenges, which is gratefully being addressed on a systemic level right now.

“Even still, there’s a vantage point to privilege in which few have addressed. It has manifested itself through the perception that people should have access to every piece of rock, land, body of water, despite the significance it may have to tribes. While speaking with folks (about why this is a problem) often brings them to more sensible positions, there is always ridicule from those that deny privilege. Requests to not climb or access certain areas have been met with both veiled and overt racism. If I were to treat peoples’ churches or sacred spaces in the same way, gearing up and setting cams into their stonework and making my way up to the cross, a number of folks would shit a brick. Simply because you can climb something doesn’t mean you should—and the mindset that you should is definitely a form of privilege.

“Overall, my ideal for the future and mission behind NativesOutdoors is to see the equal consideration of indigenous people in the outdoor industry across all facets, and as allies in protecting public lands. This means a future where our designs, art, and culture are not appropriated to make a quick buck and that our voices are truly heard. It is also a goal of mine to influence at least one renaming of a peak back to its Native name, like Tsisnaajini, currently known as Blanca Peak in the Rocky Mountains.”


Also Read: Falling For Nature: Stories of LatinX Women


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Photo of Davis T. Ngo, by Alexis Collins.

Davis T. Ngo – 25 years old – from San Jose, CA

Davis is currently in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. He obtained his B.S. in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at UC San Diego. Originally from California, Davis has become wildly passionate about climbing, with current goals of continuing his progression with 5-hard & V-hard grades. Outside of climbing and the world of physical therapy, he candidly writes about mental health on hisblog. “Trying to love” every moment, smile, laugh, follow his adventures onInstagram.

“My parents were refugees from Vietnam in the 80’s, so they had to do a lot of fighting to get where they are now. They have that typical, Asian-immigrant, ‘fresh-off-the-boat with only two cents in our pockets and look now we own a house in the Silicon Valley,’ success story. To be honest, I only learned some of the details of their history this last year. While my sister and I were growing up, my parents chose to shelter us from that kind of ‘worry’—about where they came from, or all the hardship they went through. I think ideally they wanted to downplay or even trivialize their difficult past so we could focus on our bright futures. ‘We’re doing well now, so why dwell on it?’

“It amazes me when I really think about how they got from point A to point B, point B being comfortably middle class in San Jose, CA (one of the most expensive cities in the country); being able to send my sister and myself to expensive Universities; how they shelter us largely from money issues and continue to support us, in small ways, through graduate school and all that is adult life.

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Photo by Kevin Parker.

“Growing up, my mom and dad would take us on family trips camping and skiing every now and then, but the outdoors were never a ‘normal’ part of life. My dad seemed to be more into the exploration and adventure of it, while my mom hated being outdoors and stayed home or inside, generally. I actually grew up playing a lot of video games and spending much of my time indoors. Little did they know I would discover climbing in college…

“That being said, being a child that is a product of all of this comes with a certain amount of expectation. The ideals and goals my parents worked towards their entire lives were very much centered around the values of comfort, of safety, of financial success and stability. This is something they’ve tried to impart on us since we were little. It makes sense, that coming from such instability and turmoil would yield the ultimate American dream: to settle down in one of the safest neighborhoods in one of the wealthiest cities in one of the richest countries (with some of the best weather, too).

“It makes sense. That they want my sister and myself to take this life they’ve built, of comfort and financial success, and build upon it further. ‘Success’ in their eyes would mean making more money, being even more comfortable, and most of all, having children and giving them even better lives than the lives we’ve had. I was to do well in school so I could become a doctor, or lawyer, or something else with high social status and financial stability. You know, the cliché ‘Asian stuff.’ I didn’t come from a low-income family, and the mantra of financial status was instilled in me from a young age. But (fortunately for me), my exposure to and love for the outdoors and the climbing community have inspired me to begin defining success on my own terms.

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How friends help each other out. Photo by Michael Forney.

“I discovered climbing through my little on-campus bouldering gym at UC San Diego. This was almost six years ago now (omg). My first experience climbing outdoors was when I drove through the night to meet my friends at this place called ‘Bishop,’ which I knew absolutely nothing about. I drove my mom’s sedan on the dirt roads in search of my friends’ camping spot. I was woefully unprepared—no technical clothing, a couple summer flannel sleeping bags, no chapstick, no sunscreen. I slept in the back of the sedan and woke to Mt. Tom and Basin, the iconic Bishop skyline. I was in love.

“Since then I’ve gone on countless climbing trips all over the west, a notable memory being Snake Dike on Half Dome under the light of the full moon. I’ve also spent some time in Mallorca and France and Italy. I feel very lucky to have the means to have these experiences. Being from California, in places inundated with Asian-American climbers from the middle class, I never really felt the effects of underrepresentation in climbing, nor was I really pressed to think about it—but I’m feeling it a bit now in Colorado, with the climbing population being so white.

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Photo by Sara Evensen.

“What bothers me the most about privilege is that many people are unaware of how good they have it. I’ll try and speak only towards the climbing community, since that’s generally the population I’m most familiar with. While climbing is influencing those from all backgrounds more and more, the rise of all these expensive corporate gyms in metropolitan cities seem to only maintain the demographics of climbers as those with money. And, those with money are generally more likely to be entitled, in my opinion, like, ‘I DESERVE the right to play anywhere and everywhere,’ whereas those without money just seem more grateful, and ultimately satisfied, with nature as it comes to them, and for the growing opportunities they have. As for me, I just try my best to be cognizant of my privilege, I try my best to be grateful for what I have, and I try to ‘pay it forward’ through outdoor stewardship.

“All said and done, I could probably write a book about how climbing has changed my life. I have gained an immense appreciation for experience over material possessions and money. I am becoming much better at being present. Before, I would dwell on failure in unhealthy ways, but climbing is a great teacher for dealing with failure. I can also see beauty in so many things. I’ve brought myself to places I never would have gone without climbing. Oof! I could go on and on. Yet the challenges remain: Money. Time. Overall mental health. I personally never have enough of any, especially now that I’m in grad school and will be in debt for the rest of my life.

“An interesting thing, is that I’ve dealt with a fair bit of ‘gatekeeping’ from the older generations of climbers, such as people not wanting to share information about climbs, not wanting to associate with or teach me, etc.;  when the vibe is that of not wanting newcomers into social circles, judgement over aesthetic (whether or not you ‘look’ the ‘dirtbag’ part), and critique over not immediately knowing the full history of climbing and all it’s complexities.

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Photo by Alexis Collins.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that the sport is becoming so much more popular, since ideally it can raise tons of awareness for outdoor preservation and mental health, but we need to be proactive about it instead of being defensive. I would love to see more outdoor-etiquette education in climbing gyms. And overall, I love how supportive the climbing community is. I love the unique appreciation of landscapes. But like every other community, things could always be better. I’m a male in a male-dominated space. The stigma I try to combat on a daily basis is the resulting stigma of my own gender, and I would be horrified to be seen as a creepy asshole who sprays beta and is oblivious to mansplaining.

“In the end, do I lead by example? I hope so. Whenever I introduce people to the outdoors (Bishop, mostly), I try my best to educate them on Leave No Trace. I pack all my shit out and stay on trail. Respect others, equally. But, as with everything, I can always be doing better. We all can. Bettering self-awareness and supporting each other should never end, no matter your background.”


Related: Falling for Nature: Stories of LatinX Women

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