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Skate Parks Save Lives: Culture Benefits and Ollies for Native Youth

The skate parks in South Dakota, operated by the Stronghold Society, are providing a healthy outlet for Native American youth, who say the parks help.

It’s here at the Denver Skate Park that 14-year-old Emily Earring finally landed a frontside air during her run in an all-girl event hosted by the Stronghold Society’s One Gathering Skate For Life skateboard competition earlier this month.

“It’s pretty small, but it’s a start,” the spunky Lakota from Rapid City, South Dakota, said of the vertical “vert” trick performed in one the park’s bowls. “It’s where you are coming out of the bowl and you grab your board and air out and go back into the pool.”

Proceeds from the annual competition, now in its sixth year, support the Stronghold Society’s campaigns to create and sustain skate parks accessible to youth living on reservations.

On July 31 and August 1, the Stronghold Society will celebrate the official opening of two skate parks built over the last three years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, said Walt Pourier, Oglala Lakota and executive director of the Stronghold Society, a 5-year-old Denver-based nonprofit.

Completion of the two WK4-Directions Skateparks, which Pourier said rival that of Denver’s—in the reservation towns of Pine Ridge and Manderson represents one of the ways tribes are trying to engage their youth and communities reeling from an epidemic of suicides.

“When you see the vibes these parks create, when you see 100-plus kids a day at the skate park, when you have people calling you because they can’t remember when they last saw their kids so happy—there’s a spark in Pine Ridge people haven’t seen in a long time,” said Pourier, who grew up there.

Taté Walker

An older competitor mentors a young skater at the Stronghold Society’s One Gathering Skate For Life skateboard competition in Denver. The organization’s executive director Walt Pourier said the event brings together youth and families from across the region to shine light on the benefits of skateboarding.

The Pine Ridge reservation has seen too many of its youth fall to hopelessness and suicide, Pourier said. Since December 2014, more than nine people ages 12 to 24 have committed suicide; from December to March, more than 100 people in that age range attempted suicide, according to the federal Indian Heath Service.

RELATED: Pine Ridge School Copes with Rash of Suicides: Federal Grant Provides $218K

Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth ages 15 to 24, and it occurs at 2.5 times the national rate, according to the White House’s 2014 Native Youth Report.

“I think skateboarding represents having a place to fit in if you’re a Native kid who isn’t into team sports like basketball or football. It allows for more diversity for their identity,” Pourier, said. “The skate park becomes like a home, a place to grow, to be healthy and active… It’s theirs. They can take it as far as they want it.”

Taté Walker

A teenage skater awes the crowd with a vertical “vert” trick during his run in the Stronghold Society’s One Gathering Skate For Life skateboard competition in Denver.

Earring, who used to live in Pine Ridge and has friends and family still living there, said she uses her skateboard like a shield.

“This sport saved my life,” she said. Like many Native youth, Earring has friends who committed suicide. She says she, too, suffered from depression.

“I love skateboarding so much… the feeling of coping and carving. I am free,” said Earring. “Every sad, depressing thought I ever had disappears.”

Earring began skateboarding nearly four years ago and makes the 100-mile journey from Rapid City to the Pine Ridge skate park as often as she can. She prefers to skate near loved ones and the skate park is second to none, Earring said.

Earring said she went through a dark phase filled with bullying made worse through social media, alcoholic family members, and isolation. As a kid with little interest in team sports, and even less interest in wearing make up or high heels, skateboarding had major appeal for Earring.

Taté Walker

Young sisters learn how to skateboard at the Stronghold Society’s One Gathering Skate For Life skateboard competition in Denver. The organization’s executive director Walt Pourier said skateboarding provides a unique and positive outlet for Native youth.

“Our movement is about finding creative means to inspire Native youth through skate parks, to help give them a voice and a place to be inspired,” Pourier said. He added the movement is bigger than simply building skate parks, and noted how the parks function as a springboard to tackle other issues the youth face. “That’s where we reach those kids.”

The Stronghold Society partnered with several big names in skateboarding, including Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam and the Vitalogy Foundation, the Tony Hawk Foundation, Vans, and Levi Strauss & Co. to fund and complete the two WK4-Directions Skateparks, which were designed and constructed by Seattle-based Grindline Skateparks.

Primary support comes from Jim Murphy, a pro skater from the Tony Alva “Alva Posse” skate crew of the 1980s, and owner of Wounded Knee Skateboards. Murphy is also the Stronghold Society’s skate parks director.

Much of the parks were built with donated labor and supplies, including assistance from the tribe and community members. Many of the workers slept in tents rather than waste funds on motel rooms.

Pourier said each park is worth double the cost of the more than $200,000 in estimated funds it took to construct. Catering to both street and vert skaters, the parks feature stairs, rails, and boxes, as well as bowls and pools.

“The bowl in Pine Ridge is a top-of-the-line bowl, probably the best in a six-state region,” Pourier said. “People travel there to skate it. Skate pros make Pine Ridge one of their stops now. That’s huge.”

Taté Walker

Destiny Drew attempts a trick during her run in the Stronghold Society’s One Gathering Skate For Life skateboard competition in Denver.

Bigger still is the impact. The Stronghold Society and Wounded Knee Skateboards sponsor kids across the reservation with skateboards and accessories, giving away as much as 80 percent of their inventory. The professional-grade equipment is worth around $200.

“Native youth deserve the best skate parks,” Pourier insisted. “They advance farther, become better skaters, because of the high quality of the park and skateboards.”

Though the skate park environment isn’t always the most positive—drugs, alcohol, and peer pressure sometimes make an appearance—Earring said it’s while she’s landing tricks like the varial kickflip that she’s most in tune with her culture and spirit.

“I do Lakota ceremony, but for me, skateboarding is also like ceremony,” Earring explained. “It’s summer. It’s hot. You’re going from 10 in the morning ‘til 9 at night—the whole day sometimes without food or water, just skate skate skate, giving flesh offerings every time I fall.”

Taté Walker

Lakota skater Emily Earring, 14, from Rapid City, South Dakota, shows off her well-used Wounded Knee Skateboards deck at the Stronghold Society’s One Gathering Skate For Life skateboard competition in Denver. Earring said skateboarding helps keep her on a positive path.

Knowing one’s culture and having a place in it is often the key to turning youth in a positive direction, Pourier said. “The further back you can look the further forward you can see.”

The Toby Eagle Bull Memorial Skate Jam will be held Friday, July 31, from noon to 8:30 p.m. at the WK4-Directions Skatepark in Pine Ridge.

The WK4-Directions Skatepark in Manderson will be gifted to Lakota youth during a celebration on Saturday, August 1, from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Both events will feature a skate demo from professional skateboarders.

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in Colorado Springs. She can be reached at