Washington — A skateboard, symbolic of youthful risk-taking and fearlessness, might seem an unlikely route to responsible adulthood. But because it promotes self-discipline and perseverance, skateboarding — among the most popular sports on Indian reservations across the United States — is a transformative experience for many indigenous athletes, according to a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America (on display through September 13, 2009) showcases the vibrancy and creativity of American Indian skate culture, while also tracing the sport’s evolution and highlighting the achievements of tribe-affiliated skaters. In a recent interview with America.gov, Betsy Gordon — NMAI’s project manager for the Ramp It Up exhibition — explained that skateboarding affirms the importance of “courage, strength and resilience,” facilitating “the passing of Native values in a modern medium.” It also has spawned its own genre of popular music, graphic art and design, photography and filmmaking, and entrepreneurship that revolves around the competitive skateboard circuit frequented by young athletes on and off the reservations.
Skateboarding has indigenous origins as an offshoot of surfing, a sport invented by Native Hawaiians. Surfing spread from Hawaii to mainland America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with movies such as Gidget (1959) and Endless Summer (1966) — and musical groups such as the Beach Boys (Surfin’ Safari, 1962) — cementing its status as the quintessential California teenage pastime. Ramp It Up informs visitors that the modern skateboard owes its existence to innovators who modified surfboards by miniaturizing them and adding wheels. The exhibition states that “the infiltration of surfing into American teen culture provided a perfect gateway for skateboarding,” an activity that permitted landlocked teens to ride high on a narrow strip of wood or fiberglass, even if they lived thousands of kilometers from the nearest beach.
Gordon discovered the sport’s prevalence in American Indian communities while working on another NMAI project, which introduced her to filmmaker Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo). Craig, who made skateboarding videos of himself and his friends during his teenage years, encouraged Gordon’s interest in the sport, and soon Gordon was attending intertribal skateboard competitions and meeting young skateboarders. These athletes, said Gordon, bring “an incredible passion and work ethic” to their sport. “You fall a lot, but you get back up again and persevere,” she observed.
Youngsters take up skateboarding “because it’s fun and challenging,” said Gordon. “I’m not sure most skateboarders care” about the sport’s origins, but some adult athletes — including Craig, who founded the 4-Wheel Warpony skateboard company — believe the sport can be a vehicle to help American Indian kids connect to their tribal heritage. Craig’s company sponsors a skateboard team, also named 4-Wheel Warpony, made up of young athletes who assert their identity by wearing traditional 19th-century Apache scout dress. Flying through the air on skateboards featuring spray-painted designs of tribal motifs, the 4-Wheel Warpony skateboarders “ride with Native pride under their feet,” says the NMAI exhibition.
Ramp It Up also profiles other skateboarders-turned-entrepreneurs who pursue a similar mission. Todd Harder, of Creek ancestry, is the founder of Native Skates, a skateboard company whose decks (the “board” part of a skateboard) are adorned with words in tribal languages. (“If I can slip in just a little bit of knowledge, teach [kids] a word or two in their native language, then I’ve done my job,” Harder is quoted as saying.) Jim Murphy, of Lenni Lenape ancestry, founded a company called Wounded Knee Skateboards; together, he and Harder formed Nibwaakaawin (Wisdom), the first American Indian nonprofit dedicated to “fostering creativity, building courage, enabling cultural identity and pride, and promoting nonviolent and healthy physical activity through skateboarding.”
NMAI visitors learn about many young athletes, as well. Bryant Chapo (Navajo), age 20, and the Lerma brothers, 10-year-old Augustin and 7-year-old Armando, who belong to the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, are among the top competitors in their respective age groups. Chapo, a semi-professional skateboarder, currently has seven corporate sponsors; he competes on the national level and also in American Indian skateboarding events. Augustin Lerma, an aspiring X-Games competitor, attends the Kids That Rip Skateboard School in Mesa, Arizona, “the only school in the United States that combines traditional academics with skateboard training,” Ramp It Up reveals.
Girls skateboard, too, said Gordon, “but there aren’t many” in the sport. “When skateboarding became very physical and more dangerous, then girls got left behind. But I’ve been following some young Native girls in Albuquerque [New Mexico] who skateboard, and I hope to bring them” to NMAI at some point.
While most tribal youngsters never will become professional athletes, their involvement in American Indian skateboard culture exposes them to a variety of related activities that can ultimately translate into marketable skills. Skateboarding “teaches virtues that are rooted in the past, but it’s a very cutting edge,” said Gordon. “And it provides a portal into art, film and entrepreneurship” that can sustain American Indian youth and their communities. Tribes tend to be very supportive of young skateboarders’ ambitions, Gordon added. “Some are building skate parks for their kids.”
Ramp It Up, which opened on June 12, includes 28 objects and 45 images, including rare archival photographs, skate decks produced by American Indian companies and contemporary artists, and film footage of American Indian skateboarders in action. For more information, visit the NMAI Web site.