Len Necefer, Ph.D, is fearless in his pursuit of change in the Navajo Nation. He is changing the national dialogue around issues facing Indian Country by making sure American Indian voices are heard and engaged.
Necefer carefully chose each step he took as he pursued one degree after another, all so that one day he could do exactly what he does today—find the balance of competing uses of our public lands and natural resources and the interests of Native communities and teach others how to do the same.
Finding his voice was a focus through his entire academic journey, which started at the University of Kansas and was ultimately completed by achieving his doctorate in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.
Frustrated and saddened by the environmental destruction and mismanagement occurring in Indian Country, Necefer decided to dedicate his career to bringing sustainable environmental practices to the Navajo Nation. This work began at the University of Kansas, where he developed his own community recycling program in coordination with the dean, University of Kansas Recycling, and the Coca-Cola Company. In just two years, the program was responsible for diverting more than 9,000 pounds of recyclable materials from landfills.
It was this experience that inspired Necefer to pursue his Ph.D., to further hone his talent for creative problem solving in the environmental sector. Like many Native students, academic attainment is not possible without help. Necefer’s help came from the American Indian College Fund, an organization Necefer continues to work with today in his role as an organization Ambassador. The College Fund’s support was critical in Necefer’s success, as the transition to Carnegie Melon, where he completed his doctorate, was difficult—he was the only Native student among more than 5,000 graduate students. But Necefer did not let his circumstances defeat him, instead he used them as motivation.
Following the completion of his Ph.D., Necefer chose a position with the Office of Indian Energy in the Department of Energy, working with almost 300 tribes to plan and fund more than 40 renewable resource projects for development,
“Helping tribes actualize their vision of what they want their future to be was incredibly fulfilling,” said Necefer, whose initial efforts were directed at finding the most sustainable and cost-effective ways to provide energy to people on reservations.
However, he soon realized that perhaps the most innovative and useful aspect of his project involved determining how to incorporate traditional Native values into environmental planning. He began interviewing tribal members on the Navajo Reservation, and based on their responses, developed an interface that allowed anyone from the tribe to determine the environmental impacts of various methods of energy development, including wind and solar.
Perhaps most importantly, it allowed Navajo people to become engaged with the issues and to have a voice in the decision-making process regarding environmental issues affecting their communities. “It was a really good learning experience for me just to have that engagement with folks,” said Necefer. “I saw a lot of frustration from people. Just being asked gave them hope.”
His next career move was to start his own company, NativesOutdoors. The aim of this company is to develop outdoor gear with indigenous artists and athletes and give a voice to native people in the intersection of the management of public lands and outdoor recreation. While continuing to build his company, Necefer is also an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. This position affords him the opportunity to both teach a new generation of people about the things most important to him—indigenous peoples and environmental issues impacting their communities—as well as engage in public policy.
In his spare time, Necefer is an avid outdoor adventurer using rock/ice climbing, high altitude and ski mountaineering, and bikepacking to convey stories focused on environmental activism and indigenous history. These adventures are documented through his writing and photography, which has been featured in the Alpinist, Outside Magazine, the Climbing Zine, BESIDE Magazine, Patagonia’s the Cleanest Line, and various film festivals.
About Len Necefer
Len Necefer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, with joint appointments with the American Indian Studies program & the Udall Center for Public Policy. In addition, he is the founder & CEO of Colorado-based outdoor apparel company NativesOutdoors. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kansas & a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy. Previously he worked at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio on supersonic vehicle research and most recently worked for the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs supporting tribes realize their energy futures through research and grant making. His research focuses on the intersection of indigenous people and natural resource management policy. This has included work from energy and water issues in the lower 48 and Alaska to outdoor recreation management policy.