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‘Ramp It Up’ tells story of Native America’s vibrant skateboard subculture

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The All Nations Skate Jam, held every year at the same time as the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, N.M., attracts hundreds of American Indian kids who glide and fly on skateboards while their friends and families watch.

Ramp It Up!”, an exhibition this summer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., focuses on skateboarding, which has become one of the most popular sports in Native communities – in addition to better-known Indian country sports like basketball, lacrosse and rodeo.

“A lot of Native kids are athletic,” said Todd Harder, the Creek co-founder of the All Nations Skate Jam. “They’re fearless; they still have that warrior mentality in their blood memory. This is a way they can test those skills.”

Skateboarding isn’t new to Native America. As soon as the first skateboards, called sidewalk surfboards, were introduced in California half a century ago, Native teens throughout the Southwest were skating.

Skateboarding is an indigenous American sport, said exhibition curator Betsy Gordon. Using historic and contemporary photographs, the exhibition explores the Native skateboard movement. Skateboards were born from Hawaiian surf culture, rooted in ancient traditions of the Polynesian Islands. Surfers figure in the Hawaiian Islands’ ancient petroglyphs.

The 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” narrated by Sean Penn, tells the story of young skaters in Santa Monica, Calif., in the 1970s who evolved modern skateboarding by copying the styles of renowned Native Hawaiian surfer Larry Bertlemann.

“Larry Bertlemann started surfing in a remarkable way,” Gordon said. “He had a low-slung way, aggressively darting in and out of the waves. There were a group of surfers who wanted to emulate what Larry was doing on his surfboard, and they did it on the skateboards. At that moment skateboarding developed its own set of moves, separate from sidewalk surfing.”

American Indians followed the trends. Native kids skated on homemade ramps and paved parking lots. As the Native skaters of the 1970s and 1980s matured, they looked to skateboarding as a way to promote a healthy lifestyle and culture among Native young people.

In the past decade, several small Native-owned skateboard companies have emerged, such as Harder’s Native Skates in Adrian, Mich., and Jim Murphy’s Wounded Knee Skateboards in the New York City borough of Queens.

“The reason I am doing this company is not to make money, except to keep it going so when I go to Wounded Knee, I can take boards,” said Murphy, who was a pro skateboarder in the ’80s and is of Lenni Lenape descent. “I know what it is to grow up poor, and what a difference it makes when I can give a board away to a kid who I know can’t afford it.”

The skateboards, whether Harder’s or Murphy’s, feature Native graphics like eagle feathers and medicine wheels; when Harder sets up his booth at pow wows, the designs stop kids in their tracks. He uses the moment to quiz them about their cultures.

Referring to the American Indian Movement’s 1971 occupation of the notorious island prison in San Francisco Bay, he’ll say, “Do you know what Alcatraz is?”

At the Pala Skate Park on the Pala Band of Mission Indians Reservation in Southern California, Harding asked kids, “How do you say, ‘Hi, my name is. …’ in your language?”

Gordon recalls, “No one knew, so he was like, ‘Call up your mom and ask her. If she doesn’t know, call your grandma.’ Soon we had the grandma on speaker phone.”

Native skateboarders have been putting culturally significant designs on skateboard decks almost from the beginning. The expression is unique, Harder said, and something he doesn’t see among other cultural groups.

Maybe what has attracted Native youth to skateboarding all along has been some of the linkages between the sport and their culture. Skaters have been outsiders because of the way they dress or the music they listen to, Harder said, not unlike Native Americans.

“Even though it’s a true-born Native sport to America, it’s been hated since it’s been around. They don’t want the kids skating here or riding there. A lot of the ways skaters are treated parallels the way we as Native peoples have been treated here. They may not want us to ride in the best areas, but we are still going to exist.”

Skateboarders find their own community, often forming ad-hoc groups who share a skate park or skate in similar styles. “Once they start skateboarding,” Murphy said, “they are part of a global community.”

One place the Native skate community gathers is the All Nations Skate Jam, which has doubled the number of skateboarders registered in each of the three years it’s been held. The jam, with pro skaters offering demonstrations in a festival atmosphere over two days, drew nearly 1,000 registrants in April. Parents in bleachers watched between sessions of the Gathering of Nations pow wow.

Fred Mullins, who works as an addiction prevention counselor at the Seminole Tribe of Florida, came to the All Nations Skate Jam before starting a program for Seminole youth.

Mullins, who made his own board in the 1950s by tying roller skate wheels to a two-by-four, is using skateboarding to promote healthy lifestyles among youth. In communities where more than half the families deal with addiction or domestic violence, Mullins has formed a club, Skaters’ Nation, where youth who pledge to remain drug- and alcohol-free learn “101 ways to fly without drugs.”

In recent years, new skate parks are being built at reservations across the country, including Cheyenne River Sioux in Eagle Butte, S.D.; Osage Nation in Pawhuska, Okla.; and Gila River Indian Community in Sacaton, Ariz. Some communities report a decline in crime after establishing the parks, which offer tribal youth something fun to do, Murphy said.

The All Nations Skate Jam was a moving experience for Mullins.

“Every morning, sessions opened with a gentleman who came burning sage, and we had prayers together. To bring that many kids, and to see them in their own world, where it was like they were family meeting for the first time – we didn’t have to tell them how to behave.”