Kendal Netmaker, founder and owner of Neechie Gear.
"The Native Oscars" is how Kendal Netmaker described the Indspire Awards, an annual gala to celebrate the significant contributions of Indigenous people in Canada. Netmaker was among this year's 14 award recipients, receiving the Youth: First Nation award in Calgary, Alta. on February 27.
Netmaker (BEd'11, BA'11), a member of the Sweetgrass First Nation in Saskatchewan, is founder of Neechie Gear, a Saskatoon-based clothing company that has goals more lofty than putting stylish T-shirts and hoodies on the backs of young people. Neechie, Plains Cree slang for my friend, is a lifestyle brand that promotes positive living and actively supports members of the community.
The two primary ways Neechie promotes positive living—enlisting young athletes, actors and musicians to serve as role models, and providing educational bursaries and financial support for young people to participate in sport—have roots that go back to Netmaker's childhood.
"I was fortunate growing up to have three people who were tremendous influences in my growth, allowing me to take advantage of opportunities and let me take my own risks," Netmaker said. To no one's surprise, mom tops the list of role models. "Mom was always there for us kids." An uncle, who was an elder, served as a great mentor and male influence. And Netmaker's grandmother, who somehow escaped the fate of being sent to residential school, ensured Netmaker and his three younger sisters were surrounded by his traditional First Nations culture growing up.
Another influence—a simple but very deliberate act of kindness—proved to shape Netmaker, and Neechie Gear's mission, more than he initially realized.
An elementary school classmate invited Netmaker to join the town's soccer team. Without the funds to pay for registration or the means to get to town and back home to the Sweetgrass First Nation, Netmaker had to decline. The friend's parents offered to pay the fees and drive Netmaker. "Before that, I had to force my younger sisters to play sports. Our community didn't have a gym yet, so I would drag them outside. I wanted to play, so I jumped at the opportunity."
Eventually, the same family gave Netmaker's mother a car, opening up more possibilities for Netmaker and his sisters.
Netmaker went on to play volleyball at Keyano College for two years before transferring to the U of S College of Education. While some find the university overwhelming at first, Netmaker said, "I was used to throwing myself into uncomfortable situations by then, so I was able to make friends early on. And thankfully there are places like the Aboriginal Student Centre where I felt included. Everywhere I would go, I would see familiar—or maybe not familiar—Aboriginal faces that made me feel included at the university."
Netmaker played volleyball more recreationally while at the U of S. "My knees were pretty shot," he explained. Although, maybe his knees were in better shape than he lets on. "I did win some money in competitive tournaments, which helped pay some bills."
He also won some money to develop his clothing-line concept into a full-fledged business, winning both the Aboriginal Youth Idea Challenge and the i3 Idea Challenge conducted by the U of S Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence. "I never thought I would start a company. There were these cool business competitions so I thought, ‘Why not just give it a shot.' I had an idea to create a clothing brand that would give back to kids. So I showed up, went to workshops, was dedicated to learning, developed a business plan and pitched it. I didn't have a business background, so [winning] gave me tremendous confidence."
He hasn't looked back since. Neechie Gear has grown as a brand that offers positive role models for young people, provides bursaries for both high school and post-secondary students, and donates five per cent of its net profits to organizations like KidSport and the White Buffalo Youth Lodge so young people can play sports.
With the help of his fiancé and "number one supporter," Rachel Thomas (BEd'13), and "too many mentors and supporters to name," Netmaker has amassed an impressive collection of awards and accolades, including an ABEX award, being named one of CBC Saskatchewan's Future 40, the 2015 National Youth Aboriginal Entrepreneur Award, an Alumni of Influence Award from the U of S College of Arts and Science, and, of course, the Indspire award.
Netmaker is grateful for the recognition, viewing it as an opportunity to share his story and be a positive role model. His advice: "Hard work pays off. You never know what opportunity will come next. Surround yourself with positive people who believe in you."
U of S alumni and faculty who are past recipients of an Indspire Award (formerly National Aboriginal Achievement Award):
1995 Rev. Ahab Spence (D), BA'52, LLD'64
1996 Maria Campbell
1999 Dr. Alika LaFontaine, MD'06
1999 The Hon. Lillian Dyck, BA'66, MA'70, PhD'81
1999 Joseph Adams (D)
2001 Freda Ahenakew (D), BEd'79, LLD'97
2001 Harold Cardinal (D), LLB'95
2003 Matthew Dunn, BE'04, MSc'10
2005 Fauna Kingdon, MPAcc'08
2006 James Henderson
2007 Marie Battiste
2007 John (Jack) Poole (D), BE'54
2008 The Hon. Joseph Handley, BEd'68, MEd'70
2009 Rev. Stan Cuthand, LTh'44
2010 Donald Worme, LLB'85
2012 Janet Smylie
2013 Winston Wuttunee
2013 Gabrielle Scrimshaw, BComm'10
2014 Rita Bouvier, BEd'75, MEd'84