Skateboarding isn’t exactly social work, but in some ways it could be. Living life, to paraphrase the motto of one skateboard group, involves commitment to a set of values and to a way of transcending difficulties that erases thoughts of suicide and hopelessness.
“As soon as I picked up my first skateboard, everything changed,” said a 17-year-old competitor at ONE Gathering – Skate for Life in Denver July 14. Before skateboarding, he acknowledged without elaboration, he had been getting into trouble.
Walt Pourier, of Lakota/French descent, owner of Nakota Designs and a co-organizer of the ONE Gathering, said the skateboarding competition is in part to educate about “the social and health challenges Native American youth face today.”
The day-long event in high-90s heat featured booths and bands, with young skateboarders competing in the bowls of downtown Denver Skatepark located in the city’s upscale LoDo district near the South Platte River.
It was Mike “Money” Hawk, Lakota from Pine Ridge, who said in an interview “Skateboard means life to me; I mean, people say it’s just a piece of wood and metal but it changed my life—I was in trouble all the time, but as soon as I picked up my first skateboard, everything changed.
Hawk said he began skateboarding at the end of his 8th grade year in school and later was sponsored by Wounded Knee Skateboards, which meant he said, that he was “good at it” and that it took him to “another level of life.” The ONE Gathering was his first competition and he was “going for expert [class].” After high school graduation this year he plans to enlist in the U.S. Marines.
Quinn Wilson, competing in the 12 and under class, was accompanied by his mother, Irene Bedard, Inupiat/Cree, a well-known film actress/producer, who insisted that the focus be on Quinn and his skateboarding efforts. The 9-year-old said his specialty is in a washboard-like area in the skatepark that has a gently undulating ascent/descent. “It’s just fun and relaxing” he said, focusing on the recreational aspect of the event rather than on its social implications. “There’s not too much pressure. I just want to have fun.”
Jared “Spacoli” Bollen, 17, of Albuquerque’s West Side Boyz and of Filipino descent, was competing in the spine bowl category and said skateboarding kept him away from everything he wanted to avoid—drugs and violence, among others. “You don’t have to worry about gangs or anything because skateboarders have your back,” he said.
“Skateboarding means a lot to the community,” he said. “Most kids here [Albuquerque’s west side], including myself, come from a poor community—there’s lots of unemployment.” His father may soon be without a job, he said, since layoffs are expected in solar panel production.
Elijah Battese, 12, Lakota from Pine Ridge, said skateboarding “helped a lot of kids. The problem was we didn’t have anything to do and before that there was a lot of stuff, like drugs.” He hopes to go to the new community skatepark after school each day and to eventually become a professional skateboarder.
Pourier and others have built Wounded Knee Skate Park in Pine Ridge and plan others in Thunder Valley, Kyle and the Wounded Knee-Manderson area, all on or near Lakota reservation land in southwestern South Dakota. They’re being planned under auspices of the Stronghold Society, which Pourier co-leads with Jim Murphy, a well-known professional skateboarder and owner of Wounded Knee Skateboards.
It’s hoped their efforts can bring positive changes to a youth culture that has a teen suicide rate on reservations of four times the national average and 10 or 12 times on some, according to former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee before he retired in 2010, quoted in the Sioux City Journal July 12.
“These kids just give up,” Dorgan said. “They think it’s hopeless.”
Pourier insists that skateboarding can help Lakota and other Native youth “return to something we have always been, not something we have become,” noting alcoholism, teen suicide, and other social ills that are “not us—not who we are.”
He deplores the “despair stuff” identified with Lakota culture as depicted in the media and prefers to “show a way of life that works.”