“Ultimately, binoculars are this tool that allows you to be present,” says Chris McKleroy, outdoorsman, founder and CEO of binocular brand Nocs Provisions. He says that using them “is like a visual meditation: They allow you to be present in that very moment. You can’t really be distracted, you’re very focused. It allows you to connect with nature on a deeper level.”
McKleroy, an avid surfer and product designer, wanted to be able to check the waves before grabbing his board and walking the 10 blocks from his apartment to the beach. When his searches for compact, affordable and high-quality binoculars came up short, he decided to create his own pair with a handmade 3D printer. It took 20 prototypes to land on the final product, but Nocs released its first line of compact, waterproof binoculars in 2019.
Nocs binoculars are designed to help people disconnect from technology and explore and connect with nature, and the gear itself is inspired by the outdoors: The binoculars feature a wavy pattern that evokes the ocean, the coastal dunes and the rolling hills of the company’s San Francisco home base. McKleroy believes that—beyond being a means to check out the spray before a day of surfing—binoculars are a powerful tool to help people be mindful in the present moment.
“To see a deer’s facial expression or to see the subtleties and detail of a bird, versus just … seeing things with your standard eyeballs, it gives you a deeper level of perception in nature,” McKleroy says.
But McKleroy’s vision to help people connect with nature extends beyond creating good, affordable binoculars: He wants Nocs to nurture a curiosity and sense of wonder that he believes will inspire people to act to protect the natural world. Nocs has been a 1% for the Planet member since day one, making a commitment to give back 1% of company revenue to nonprofits and environmental organizations. The company is also linked with social justice programs like Trips for Kids Marin, a nonprofit that brings underserved youth into the outdoors to explore on mountain bikes, as well as organizations such as the Sierra Club, Feminist Bird Club, Hike Clerb and more.
Beyond its nonprofit and environmental endeavors, Nocs has expanded the company’s greater vision of “giving back” to include the products’ design, specifically the signature woven tapestry straps.
McKelroy was conscious of how often Native American and Indigenous designs were used by non-Indigenous-owned brands—especially in the fashion and outdoor industries—without giving credit, and typically without utilizing the skills of Native American artists. He wanted to make sure that Nocs Provisions blazed a different, more conscientious trail by showing respect and offering reciprocity where it’s long been due.
In 2020, McKleroy met Amelia Winger-Bearskin, an Indigenous artist who is Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma, Deer Clan. Their conversations turned to the topic of how commonly Native-inspired designs are misappropriated for commercial use, an issue about which Winger-Bearskin knows all too well.
Winger-Bearskin uses art, artificial intelligence and technology to empower people and, she hopes, to affect positive change in the world. She founded Wampum.Codes, an ethical framework for software development based on Indigenous values, and hosts a podcast by the same name. While there is not a set of universal guiding principles for Indigenous people, since each tribe is unique in their culture with their own languages and traditions, Winger-Bearskin wanted to take Indigenous thought leaders together to offer up a new framework for designing software ethically for everyone.
One of the aspects of Winger-Bearskin’s work that most interested McKleroy is her position as an Innovation Fellow for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s Honor Native Land Initiative. This grassroots project—not affiliated with the U.S. government—was designed to raise awareness and provide tools and resources for learning about, acknowledging and honoring Indigenous histories in America.
McKleroy commissioned Winger-Bearskin to create a woven tapestry strap for Nocs that features a custom pattern based on the designs of her Nation—its goal is to raise awareness for the Honor Native Land initiative. Winger-Bearskin also helped select the limited-edition tones of the accompanying binoculars.
“For so long, the Indigenous artwork and designs of my people and other Nations have been copied, repurposed and profited from by organizations that have no intention of honoring the original artists,” says Winger-Bearskin. “This collaboration with Nocs is an example of how Native heritage can be recognized and preserved.”
Winger-Bearskin designed the strap based on Seneca-Cayuga patterns: The colors of the textile reflect the kinds of wildflowers found near where the artist grew up in Oklahoma, as well as in her Nation’s traditional homeland and territories in upstate New York. The design features a geometric pattern inspired by beadwork, tapestries and wampum, or shells that are strung together to make woven belts, which have historically been used as contracts within many Indigenous communities.
Winger-Bearskin says that woven fabrics have cultural significance not only due to their artistic beauty, but also because of the way they can convey a diversity of Indigenous stories, values and technology. She says that part of what made the collaboration exciting for her was the ability to create a strap that, when combined with the binoculars, can help people see and more deeply connect with the world around them without causing disruption.
The Honor Native Land Nocs Provisions Binocular Bundle is available exclusively at REI Co-op, and is part of the October 2022 Member Collection. The binocular bundle includes the water- and fogproof Nocs Standard Issue 8 x 25 Binoculars in two limited-edition colors, Dewdrop Blue and Dewdrop Pop, with the Winger-Bearskin–designed strap. The kit also includes a smartphone photo rig adapter for taking photos through the binoculars.
The bundle ships in completely recyclable and plastic-free packaging, which aligns with the Nocs vision to operate with a lesser impact on the environment and help bring awareness to environmental issues—a concern that Native Americans have fought for for generations.
“We are so grateful for the opportunity to work alongside Amelia and have a part in honoring and acknowledging Native land with this collaboration,” McKleroy says. “We’ve always approached what we design as tools for discovery, and we hope that the Honor Native Land project can help encourage people to recognize artists and explore Native lands.”
Winger-Bearskin hopes that through this movement and with this collaboration, people will ask themselves how land acknowledgment represents a deeper connection to the environment that can propel folks to reach out to Native American tribes in their area and begin building relationships. She hopes that allies will be encouraged to attend powwows and events at the tribes’ visitor centers and museums to learn more about both history and current affairs. To support this call to action, Winger-Bearskin was among the designers of the upcoming iteration of the Honor Native Land Virtual Resource Pack, a set of digital tools like Zoom backgrounds and illustrations that people can share on social media to help bring awareness to both the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture initiative and land acknowledgements in general.
How to Honor Native Lands
Making a land acknowledgement can be both a simple and powerful way of showing respect to the original inhabitants of the land and those who may still occupy it, as well as simply recognizing Indigenous people. This reflection also honors the resilience of Indigenous peoples the world over.
The practice is common in countries like New Zealand and Canada, and is gaining traction in the United States. Land acknowledgments have become more widely used to open conferences, classes, town hall meetings and sporting events, among other gatherings, but individuals can make a land acknowledgement—and learn more about whose land they are occupying—no matter the occasion.
A great first step is to learn about whose land you are on by using resources like the Native Land Digital world map, for example. While the territories on that crowdsourced website aren’t exact (and don’t show the current boundaries of the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. today), they can be one of many good tools to help you learn more about the original inhabitants of your area or the places you visit. The Native visibility and advocacy organization IllumiNative also has a Land Acknowledgment Guide available for free download. Another way to learn about the history of Native Americans where you live or travel is to search for local treaties and historical documents about the origins of the land, or contact the local tribal affairs office.
While each tribe is distinct with its own culture, customs and languages, Native Americans have often been seen as a monolith—or they are simply invisible, no longer thought to inhabit the United States. Acknowledging Native land aims to correct these and other misconceptions that blur and erase Indigenous people’s history and culture, as well as current affairs.
McKleroy hopes that people will start to see the environment in a different light, thanks in part to the Honor Native Land bundle. “I hope people can use binoculars to look deeper into nature and really appreciate the beautiful system that it is,” he says, adding that this connection might inspire a spirit of exploration and curiosity that could drive more intentional decisions on how people live and recreate on these lands.
After all, we can all learn a lot about the world around us if we just look a little closer.