This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Connor Ryan, a pro skier from Denver and member of the Hunkpapa Lakota, was strolling the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center in 2019 when he came across some mittens that sparked his ire.
“I was with friends, all of us from different Indigenous groups, and we saw these different patterns and symbology from our cultures in the bead work of these gloves. If it was a Native brand, I feel like we would have known them,” said Ryan, an athlete with Natives Outdoors, a Native American-owned collective of outdoor athletes and designers that advises outdoors businesses working at the intersection of tribal lands and recreation. “We tried to interact with them and they immediately were really defensive and asked us to leave.”
In the four years since, Ryan and other Native Americans have criticized Colorado-based Astis Mittens for cultural appropriation and not employing Native artists to create the intricately beaded designs on the company’s leather-fringed, fur-cuffed mittens. The company’s founders often talked about their idea for their mittens coming from a pair of mittens made by a Cree artist. The word for mittens in the Cree language is “astisak.”
Outdoor sports media brand Teton Gravity Research last month announced it was ending a collaboration with Astis after hearing from athletes and activists like Ryan “that one of our vendors was practicing cultural appropriation,” a statement from the Wyoming-based TGR reads. The company recently trumpeted its collaboration with Astis but has removed the designs from its online store.
TGR worked with Ryan to develop programs that will support the Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game Office, which manages wildlife on the 2.3 million-acre Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. TGR also is contributing to the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Alaska to support the group’s interns studying snow science and avalanche forecasting.
“We are taking steps to improve our vetting process for retail vendors and endeavor to continually raise the bar for future business practices,” reads a statement from TGR’s founders.
The Cree origin story no longer appears on the Astis website. The company, which is headquartered in Minturn, directs a portion of revenue from mitten sales to the American Indian College Fund. A statement from the fund on the Astis website says the mitten-maker has made a “large commitment” and is providing full-time scholarships for Native American students at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“With their investment in Native students and communities, Astis is empowering the next generation of Native leaders to create social and economic transformation in Indian Country,” reads the statement on the Astis website.
The Astis scholarship program started last year and supported three students. The company will be supporting three students again for another year.
Marco Tonazzi joined Astis co-founder Bradford Peterson in 2022 as a partner, replacing a previous owner and helping the company recover from the pandemic slowdown. The Vail Valley entrepreneur with two hotels and retail operations in Minturn and Vail Village is helping Astis “do more to recognize the relationship and inspiration” the mitten company draws from Indigenous cultures, he said in an interview with The Colorado Sun.
“This is something that is so important to Brad. He has wanted to do this for so long but it was not something he was able to do before. The values were not there in the previous ownership structure,” Tonazzi said. “Our inspiration comes from many areas and the beadwork does not only come from Native communities but it comes from Inuit, Norway, Mexico and other sources. The Native community is an important source of inspiration and we are working to better understand how we can give back and support that community.”
Peterson and Tonazzi said they want to sit down with Native American leaders like Ryan and “talk and learn and understand each other and maybe find out that our differences are not that big,” Tonazzi said.
“It’s hurtful to be attacked without having an option to have a conversation,” he said.
Astis’ owners say they are working to hire Native artists who will help the company create designs. That plan is unfolding and the company expects to name specific artists soon, Peterson said. Other brands have done exactly that. Pendleton, the storied blanket-maker in eastern Oregon got its start selling woven wool to Native Americans and now employs Native artists. Pendleton has donated almost $1 million to the American Indian College Fund.
“We will be changing and we are evolving,” Peterson said. “There are ways to go about things and one way is to shout and make accusations and another is to work together to make change. Everyone has different ideas and different opinions and everyone should have a voice. We are revamping this company and getting in line to be a better company and more well rounded.”
The scholarships are not enough, said Ryan, who has pushed the outdoor industry to better recognize the Native American influence in all aspects of outdoor recreation.
“Nothing is enough,” he said, describing his uncle, a bead-working artist “who can barely feed himself” and his family. “They sell stolen goods and art from people who have experienced genocide. They perpetuate the genocide of my people and make money off of it. There is no right way to do that.”
Astis has several collaborations with other brands, including Icelantic Skis.
Icelantic co-founder and CEO Annelise Loevlie said the collaboration is more than 10 years old but they have not ordered anything from Astis in the last few years. She had not heard of the Native American concerns with the mitten-maker, but she said she’s listening now.
“Honestly this has not been on my radar because it’s not something I have brought into my radar,” Loevlie said. “This is something I’m going to look into though. All of this cases reconsideration of our partnership with Astis and another other brand we are working with. Not in a shameful way, but in a way that encourages growth and understanding. On all sides. I’m learning through this too.”
Raising awareness of Native culture, influence
That’s part of the process, Ryan said. These concerns are raised to get more awareness of how Native American culture shapes outdoor experiences and a deeper respect for that culture and influence.
“There are a lot of great examples coming out but I think it can be hard for folks if they want to do it right. I certainly don’t want the Astis situation to scare brands away from working with Native communities,” Ryan said. “But it’s clear that Astis only works with stolen designs and stolen cultural items.”
There is an upswell of awareness and recognition of the Native roots that anchor American public lands. Offensive slurs have been stripped from landscapes and businesses. Native names are replacing the names of white settlers on peaks, valleys and landmarks across the country as part of a cultural shift and embrace of history that precedes the arrival of settlers.
Len Necefer founded Natives Outdoors in 2017 to amplify Native stories and artists in the outdoor recreation industry. Today the Native-owned and staffed business works to connect outdoor companies with Native artists and build campaigns around designs that accurately reflect the Indigenous connection with the art.
“I can understand the Native frustration with Astis,” said Necefer, who is Diné. “It’s something that is going to continue to come up with that company.”
Necefer has spent several years tracking the use of Native American imagery and symbols as part of a larger amplification of cultural appropriation. There are countless brands that have applied Native imagery on products and very few use Native artists in that design, marketing and production process. Necefer’s work helps to elevate Native artists.
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His work with outdoor companies like Smartwool, Eddie Bauer and Bogs includes deals that return 4% to 8% of sales of products with Indigenous art to artists and Native communities.
“We want to make sure that the story and meaning of the design is not lost,” Necefer said. “Culturally appropriated designs can erase the history and people behind the product.”
Many Native artists struggle to pay bills and most are unable to launch a major business, Necefer said. Native Americans continually rank among the most impoverished demographics on the continent, with low wages and high rates of unemployment.
Necefer helps brands acknowledge how incorporating Native images without recognizing the artists who created them ignores the history of colonialism and settlers stealing lands from Indigenous people.
That recognition is increasing as more businesses work directly with Native artists. The challenge with Astis is that the entire product is a Cree design. It’s not just about the beadwork, Necefer said.
“I see them trying. I’m not going to discount the financial impact scholarships have on Native people’s lives, but they are facing a PR challenge moving forward if they continue to use these mittens and designs that come from the Cree people,” Necefer said.
Necefer and his peers are not against using Native designs in products. That art can help sustain Native culture, artists and communities. And consumers are demanding that kind of art.
“If we can help companies build a product that meets that demand and creates a higher price point that makes sure there is a meaningful benefit going back to Native communities, that’s the goal,” Necefer said. “It’s hard with Astis. I think their business model has a fundamental flaw that will always conflict with Native artists.”