Heritage on the Half-Pipe

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

For some Native American tribes, skateboarding has become a thriving part of Native culture.  Image Courtesy Luke Graham/Aristocracy Skateboarding.

For some Native American tribes, skateboarding has become a thriving part of Native culture. Image Courtesy Luke Graham/Aristocracy Skateboarding.

A country as devoted to the idea of choice as the United States was never going to be content with just the standard sports options.

Enter skateboarding.

Once associated almost exclusively with California, where it was developed by surfers looking for a way to simulate surfing when the waves were flat, skateboarding eventually became a national—and global—sports phenomenon.

In fact, according to the International Association of Skateboard Companies, about 12 millions American kids skateboard. (For perspective, that’s more than are involved in Little League baseball.)

Among those who contributed to the sport’s skyrocketing popularity over the past few decades?

Native Americans from a wide range of reservations and tribal backgrounds, many of whom have found ways to use skateboarding to express their Native culture and preserve their communal history.

In the 1980s, Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation began hosting some of the earliest local Native American skateboarding competitions. Over the years, these competitions have grown in size and popularity. One of the largest is the All Nations Skate Jam, held annually since 2007.

Since skateboarding is one of the most popular sports on Native American reservations, it’s a good way to keep younger tribe members invested in their heritage while also encouraging non-Native education on Native history and culture.

For example, the skateboarding company Native Skates distributes sets of Four Directions skateboard wheels, where the color of each wheel (white, yellow, red and black) represented a different aspect of the medicine wheel, a symbol sacred to some Great Plains tribes.

Many Native skateboard artists also decorate their boards with images important to Native culture, commemorating meaningful events, people and places through their artwork. This artwork often comments on the shameful treatment the U.S. has inflicted on Native communities, allowing Native skateboarders to fuse Native American culture with skate culture to powerful effect.

That’s part of the mission of the Native nonprofit Nibwaakaawin, meaning “Wisdom,” which wants to use skateboarding “to foster creativity, build courage, enable cultural identity and pride, and promote non-violent and healthy physical activity.”