As a skateboarder of any age, we’re repeatedly faced with heaping piles of our own bullshit and then left to take big nasally whiffs—eyes squinting, mouths drooling. We see things differently than everyone else, we say. We’re all family, you know. We’re united through our weirdness. Wherever we go in the world, we find friends and cohorts who—from the bottom of our thin, shared souls—understand one another on a level that can not be reached through the sad and conditioned viewpoints of a mainstream society.
Also, parents just don’t understand.
We’ve all regurgitated this stuff so often, that now when we hear our beloved, folksy, and biting truisms spoken aloud—even those of us who’ve come to this Lord Of The Flies culture through real and unclichéd lives of abandonment, destruction, handsy religions, institutional bullying, prejudice, discrimination, or some other unimaginable gauntlet—cynicism and suspicion get the better of us. Eyes roll, heads shake, and “fuck that shit.”
Gearing up for getting down. Jeff Chase lends a hand.
So here we all are, steering our very own, life-changing, life-affirming culture into the rocks as we call each other out for being kooks, secretly holding fast to the one detail that we know, through experience, is more real than anything: We owe every single thing we are to the slim, Darwinian chance that skateboarding crossed our rudderless paths. Without it, we are less than zero.
That is to say, we’ve seen the kooks and they are us.
When the news reports from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, cross the border into my home state of Nebraska, it’s not good. Lately, it has to do with the courts, the state, the feds, the protests, and the predatory and depressing existence of Whiteclay, Nebraska—which is physically and geographically connected to the town of Pine Ridge—and its sole existence as liquor supplier to the all-dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Mass grave at the memorial site for the Wounded Knee Massacre.
And when you go to find other info, you’ll run across what some have called poverty porn: photos and footage of twenty people jammed into single-family dwellings, shirtless kids riding horses bareback, and local drinkers sleeping on the ground, baking in the sun. And then come the stats: ridiculous unemployment numbers, and depressing household income figures, and staggering death rates, and weirdly short life expectancies, and mind-numbing fetal-alcohol-syndrome data. And all the documentarians and all the news crews and all the magaziners come to visit and scratch the same irritated surface again and again. What a tragedy, what hell, what complete and total shit.
Wounded Knee gravestone.
That is not to suggest that those things aren’t real or that they should be ignored. But just like Vegas is much more than the Strip, all-you-can-eat casino lobster, and a 24/7 bachelor party, and just like Amsterdam has much more to offer than legal drugs, bike lanes, and the red-light district, the story of the Pine Ridge Reservation is more than meets the media-consuming eye. Again, though, what’s meeting the eye is the emotional TED talk, the beautiful, glossy photography of third-world conditions, Incident At Oglala, The Battle For Whiteclay, and the Oprah Winfrey Network digging for ratings gold, all blasted out to the world, telling the sad tale of the sad tale of the sad tale, lest we forget our guilt, lest we lose track of how the government of the United States of America cleared the native population off the land it had lived on for tens of thousands of years, manipulated them, oppressed them, and then systematically displaced, murdered, and ground them down to nothing.
But guess what? These obsessive, professional efforts to absolve ourselves through sensational journalism and filmmaking eventually gets back to Pine Ridge. The media song remains the same as it has for years and years, and it’s having a negative effect. Pine Ridge reads the papers, they watch the shows, they see the movies—just like everyone else—and the singular story being told becomes a singular reality. Sadly, through the power of the media you are consuming at this very second, Pine Ridge has started to believe that there is only one story.
One statistic you need to try to grasp, right now—one that is hopeful and positive and forward leaning—is this: 42% of the 40,000 people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation are under the age of nineteen.
And just like skateboarding, the population of Pine Ridge is its own youth movement, its own culture, and the creator of its own powerfully unknown future.
Oglala Lakota tribal president, John Yellow Bird Steele, at the dedication of the Manderson Skatepark.
Through the clichéd, oddball magic of skateboarding, the story that half the population of Pine Ridge is establishing, living in, and coming to understand as their own is also the kooky, well-worn hand that skaters today play close to their chests. How? Thanks in large part to ground-level power moves made by Stronghold Society’s co-founders Walt Pourier and Jim Murphy, Jeff Ament, Grindline Skateparks, Levi’s Skateboarding, and dozens of others, the construction of contemporary, legit skateparks on the Pine Ridge Reservation is truth. Starting back in 2012, and most recently through two new projects in the towns of Pine Ridge and Manderson (with plans for two more parks in the works), the newest story of Pine Ridge is being told by the most creative, most enthusiastic, most positive members of any society—the area’s skaters. And just as skateboarding has sprouted, time and time again, from the rocky ground on which it was sewn in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it has taken hold with the kids of Pine Ridge, and this movement based around imagination, arts, music, and skateboarding is literally saving lives.
Honor song for the dedication of the Manderson skatepark.
The emotional clichés that you and I have buried because they sound silly in the face of real shit, or because we’re tired of hearing them, or because they’ve just been forgotten, are having a genuine and positive effect on people’s lives. The stunted oral histories that skateboarding has told itself, the mini miracles we’ve witnessed, the little lessons we learned, and the lives we lead—past or current—are being picked up and run with by kids who need exactly that, exactly now. The real marvel here is that through the zero-to-sixty effect brought on by the introduction of real skateparks and real skateboards to a place that didn’t have access to any of it, a new culture is erupting and, in turn, reminding skateboarding of its own powerful stories. Anecdotally, giving kooks of all stripes a different way of seeing things, building families, saving lives, and creating lifetimes.
Wacipi kids in Pine Ridge.
So a huge thanks is in order. Skaters of Pine Ridge: Thank you for reminding skateboarding of what we work so hard to forget. Our made up clichés may be just that—made up—but they also got us out of the way of mountains of bullshit that pile up through tough lives in a tough world. Prophecies come and go, and the best ones lead us toward a self-affirming, self-fulfilling, weirdo future.
The scene in Pine Ridge is blowing up.
Like the Lakotas say, “Taku skan skan wakan.” Something holy is moving.
Thanks a million Levi’s Skateboarding, Grindline Skateparks, Stronghold Society, Jeff Ament and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy Foundation, Imprint Projects, Wounded Knee Skateboards, Independent Trucks, Bones Wheels, Bones Bearings, Lifeblood Skateboards, Mini Logo, Real Skateboards, Conscious Alliance, Farm League Flims, Bryce Kanights, Matt Sharkey, Square State Skate, Satellite Boardshop, Stacy Phelps and the Wounded Knee District School, John Yellow Bird Steele, Garfield Steele, KILI Radio, and all the amazing people of the Pine Ridge Community for their warm and welcoming hospitality.
And special thanks to Walt Pourier for his tireless and inspired assistance in writing this piece.