Dr. Len Necefer Is Willing to Ask for Help
A run-in with law enforcement when he was a college student spurred the Native activist to build an organization around the idea that we have to show up for each other
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Dr. Len Necefer shared his story with producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
I was driving my car in just super red necky part of Arizona and I got pulled over. They searched with a dog and found some crumbs of weed. This is not enough weed to fill a bowl, like, just for reference. Like it’s not a whole lot. And I got arrested
I had to spend a night in jail. They were threatening to charge me with felonies, and I was just in the process of starting grad school. I basically had my entire life on the line. If I had two felonies thrown against me, I might have had to spend like a year in jail. The fact that that could derail my entire life and career, it was kind of mind-boggling.
I live in Tucson, Arizona. I purposely chose to live in the path of an Air Force Base. Right in line with the runway. It’s the largest fleet of A-10 Warthogs in the country. They’re great airplanes. I love them, but not for recording podcasts. I fucking love planes. Do you hear that F-16 just going full throttle?
If I can find a way to move in a way that’s engaging and fun through the outdoors, that’s what I do. So I do ski, I do bike, I do climb. I’ve gotten into river rafting and pack rafting recently.
I do a lot of work in the outdoor and conservation space. I also run my own company called Natives Outdoors, and we do film and media work, consulting, a lot of design work. But also just helping build the capacity of our team. We wanted more Native folks to be a part of this industry.
I would say I’m driven to create community, and that I’m driven to empower people and their full potential.
A Brush with the Law
It was December of 2011. I had started a semester at Arizona State University in Tempe. I was really unhappy, so I found out I got this full ride fellowship to grad school and I decided I was gonna go transfer to Carnegie Mellon.
I had just wrapped up finals, and I like pulled an all-nighter and I was really tired. And my only car at that point was this Subaru Loyale, and I had a temp tag on it. And so I left Tempe and I was heading north towards the four corners of Arizona. And part of that drive goes through this town called Payson, Arizona.
You climb out of the Sonoran desert to the Mogollon Rim: 1,000 feet to 6,000 feet in like 80 miles. So it’s like this huge climb. And I’m in the slow lane with this Subaru with a temp tag and there’s no AC and it’s getting hot.
I roll down the windows and the temp tag had been taped in the back window, so it was fluttering around in the back. You could still see it, and right as I was about to pull into Payson, this sheriff started tailing me, and then pulled me over about four miles, five miles outside of town.
The sheriff was just asking me a bunch of questions like, why are your eyes so red? Why are you talking like that? I was like, hey man, I’m moving from Tempe and I’m gonna go to Pittsburgh. And he just didn’t believe me. He’s like, well, you’re clearly up to something else. And then he asked me, do you have dead bodies, weapons, or drugs in the car? And I was like, what? Dead bodies? It was like, no, man. You can see inside, I just got my backpack back there. And he was like, go stand by the cruiser. And then they called a drug dog.
I had lent the backpack to a friend the weekend before to go backpacking, and they had been smoking weed. I didn’t know that. The drug dog signaled, and I was like, oh shit.
And I was just handcuffed on the side of the highway. They took me into the jail in Payson, Arizona. Just fully like cavity searched me. It was just humiliating, you know?
I got to make a call. I made a call to my mom and I said, hey, this is what happened, can you find a bail bond? And they couldn’t find one. So I spent the night in jail.
They were threatening to charge me with felony possession of marijuana and paraphernalia, a DUI, and then also false information to an officer. And I just remember being like, oh my God, what the fuck is going on? It was just a mess.
I was never charged with marijuana possession because they put me on a diversion program that meant I had to be on probation for a year. The whole ordeal ended up costing like $13,000 or something like that. Like, if I didn’t have family that had a credit card that they could put money onto and whatever, I’d be screwed. I did have a small savings, but that all got wiped out because I was also having to pay fines and lawyer fees.
It put into stark relief the broader problems within our criminal justice system. How people like myself are overly criminalized. Losing that sense of control over your life—it’s scary. It’s like really disorienting and isolating.
I had this over my head the entire time when I was in Pittsburgh. I was kind of this random grad student that showed up halfway through the year. Most folks were really intrigued about me coming from the reservation and like that I was Native and no one had met a Native person before.
For them to hear that I also potentially had felonies, I think I would’ve become more of a pariah or outcast than I already felt.
For a lot of these hoity-toity academics, it’s like, so out of the realm of reality. Like the idea of criminal justice and like the effects of racism are just such an abstraction that I just didn’t even want to cross that Rubicon to begin to talk about that.
But one of the things that came out of that is I think it just made me more tenacious. I’m not just gonna become another statistic.
One of the things that gets levied against Native folks and people of color is that we just take handouts and we just… “freeloader” is like a, you know, often very politically charged statement that gets levied against us. And I think for me, my inclination was this sort of rugged individualism of like doing it on my own, persevering. But in that moment, I couldn’t do it alone. It was that realization that if I tried to go this alone, I would fail. I need to ask for help.
I was only able to get through this experience because I had a solid family unit. I had all of these financial supports that don’t quite exist in many parts of my community. And I realized in order for me to work with other Native people in our community, I had to create a company and an environment in which they were supported: financially, professionally, just like had people in their corner.
That’s led to the work that I’m doing now with Natives Outdoors: taking away that stigma of being willing to ask for help and to be there for each other. And I mean, for that I’m grateful.
That experience was shitty, but I think at least in some regards, it has made me a better leader of our company and our people. Everyone faces challenges at different points, but it’s whether they have people in their corner that come and show up for them that often makes the difference.
Dr. Len Necefer is a scholar, adventurer, and the CEO and founder of Natives Outdoors. You can follow him on Instagram at @LenNecefer. Also check out @NativesOutdoors.
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