BY: TYLER FYFE
Next to a dirt parking lot of beater cars, cradled by a perimeter of sun-bleached trees, members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux glide in circles inside a smooth concrete bowl like a Ghost Dance on skate decks. In places far away from here, dyed orange hair and bruised shins might be seen as accessories of some phase of recklessness. But on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, skateboards are symbol of resilience.
Photo by Matt Sharkey and Zach Baker
Located 75 miles southeast of The Black Hills in South Dakota, The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a place where survival is statistically ambitious. The suicide rate is 150 per cent higher than the national average. The infant mortality rate is the highest on the continent. Most families live inside dilapidated houses infested with black mould. Ninety per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. The median income is $3,000. Here’s a crystal vision of “rez life”: children are more likely to develop diabetes from malnutrition by age 40 than they are to finish high school. In this American town, male life expectancy is the same as Somalia– 47 years old.
Walt Pourier, founder of the Stronghold Society, was born on the reservation and knows that growing up on Pine Ridge is much like balancing on the edge of a receding cliff. But according to Pourier, a trained suicide counsellor, “skateboarding saves lives.” In a video interview, Pourier says “[The Wounded Knee Skatepark] gives the people a place that is theirs, something they can take ownership of. It gives them hope. It plants a seed for something bigger there for them.”
The name “Wounded Knee” is not just a reference to the unforgiving road rash of a botched blunt slide on a handrail. December 29th, 1890 is what most American indigenous people hold as the most important date in their scarred history. It was then that U.S. troops surrounded a Sioux camp at Wounded Knee Creek and unleashed a new automatic weapon called the Hotchkiss gun indiscriminately on 300 civilians. Oglala leader American Horse testified to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1891, “There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce…Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing.” Twenty Congressional Medals of Honour for Valour were awarded to the 7th Cavalry for the massacre framed as a battle.
According to Aaron Huey, this would set the tone for the federal government’s stance on indigenous rights—a people whose treaties now stood in the way of commercial progress, a people to be disposed of or else quarantined on prisoner of war camps branded as reserves.
Photo by Aaron Huey
Black Elk said of that day, “I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from the high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard: a people’s dream died there, and it was a beautiful dream.”
When the last shovel of soil was packed onto the mass grave at Wounded Knee Creek, it should have been known that the effects of cultural genocide could not remain buried. And so they have leached through the earth. Instead of navigating the wind-whipped plateau, today’s Lakota of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation navigate land mines of addiction, incarceration, and general apathy. Between December and March, 103 people between the ages of 12 and 24 committed or attempted suicide according to the federal Indian Health Service.
Pourier knew residents needed a place where they could physically and spiritually roam—it is synthesized into the very nature of the once nomadic Sioux and Lakota. So with his partner Jim Murphy, he secured a $10,000 grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation. In addition, two of the foundation’s board members matched that with personal donations and the Pearl Jam bassist, Jeff Ament also contributed a sizeable amount for the skatepark’s construction. Now, the Wounded Knee Skatepark has become a concrete heart pumping life back into the community. When the skatepark is packed with life every morning, it’s much harder for the future to look empty. In a place where many people come from broken homes, the skatepark is breeding a new definition of family. Skateboarders, regardless of skill level act as support systems and help foster a mentality of self-development on the pavement. It’s a mentality that is bleeding into other areas of their life.
Photo by Aaron Huey
Pine Ridge Skateboarder, Emily Earring says “Every fall teaches you to be tough in this really isolated reservation.” To Earring, skateboarding is not just a form of recreation, it’s an innovative approach to healing. “No matter how bad home is and how bad your friends are, there is always your skateboard. Your skateboard never judges you.”
The cultural identity of indigenous people was stripped at the massacre of Wounded Knee. Now the 7th generation of Oglala Lakota are reclaiming it. So it ended at Wounded Knee, so it begins their again.