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Skateboarding Helping American Indians

From youthful despair to a life of helping others, a former professional skateboarder is encouraging young Natives to find hope in the same way he did years ago.
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From youthful despair to a life of helping others, a former professional skateboarder is encouraging young Natives to find hope in the same way he did years ago.

“I was from a poor, broken family,” said Jim Murphy, 45, of Lenni Lenape ancestry. “But skating gave me something to be happy about, and I knew any kid with a skateboard had a fighting chance.”

Murphy talked with young skaters July 9 at the ONE Gathering Skate for Life, described as “A Live Life Call to Action Campaign” of the nonprofit Stronghold Society, leaders of which are Walt Pourier, Oglala Lakota, a Denver graphic artist, and Murphy, owner of Wounded Knee Skateboards.

Skateboarders at the event executed all the graceful—and sometimes heart-stopping--moves in the skaters’ athletic lexicon, swooping and gliding under a hot sun at a downtown Denver skate park lined with booths selling food and gear and a stage that resonated with the music of several bands.

One of the skaters was Dakota White, 13, Northern Cheyenne/Lakota, who lives on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, Wisconsin, and who has been in skateboard competition several years. He said the ONE event is his favorite for “the vibe,” noting that some events can be “really stressful, but here the skaters are cheering each other on and it’s friendly.”

Murphy reinforces the positive side of skateboarding. He was a well-known, world-touring professional in the l970s and 1980s but in the 90s, “when skateboarding died out for me, I wanted to do a company that was education-building.”

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At the end of his pro career, he and the late prominent skater Andy Kessler were talking about their years of hard competition and possible plans and Murphy thought of Wounded Knee. He realized it offered the opportunity for “a more educational account about the true history they’re not being taught at school—about how it was a massacre, not a battle.”

The venture eventually evolved into plans for a skate park in the community of Pine Ridge on the Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota, where construction is expected to begin in August. Other skate parks are planned for the nearby communities of Kyle, Wounded Knee-Manderson, and Thunder Valley.

Not only would the venture pair those offering “old school skills the kids could learn” with local Native youth from the area where the massacre occurred, but it also offered the youth “something creative to do, something they can dedicate their life to, a physical ‘addiction’ that overrides chemical addiction. I didn’t drink or do substance abuse—and there was nothing to want to commit suicide about.”

Murphy and Pourier don’t specifically address youth suicide on the Pine Ridge reservation, estimated at 150 times the national average and echoing the tragic statistic that among all Native and Alaska Native people ages 15-34, suicide is the second-highest cause of death. They said they are in touch with people who work specifically with suicide issues, but their focus is on living life more fully.

“It’s everything I wanted to do, but I never really consulted with elders about it,” Murphy recalled. Then, in 2005, “Arvol Looking Horse (keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota nations) had a gathering in the Black Hills (of South Dakota) and I went out there and met him. I asked him if he felt in any way that this was disrespectful to those killed in the massacre and I would stop doing so if he or any elder had a problem. After I talked to him he said it was a good idea and to go ahead.”

Murphy and Pourier talked about the Native youth coming to the ONE event from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Pine Ridge and other South Dakota communities, and the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado, as well as Native and non-Native youth—all of them welcome--from the Denver area.

As for Murphy himself? He’s still skating today, after 35 years. “It’s therapy—it’s been there for me in good and bad times.”