Elijah Battese watches Bobby ollie a bike set up at the other end of the pool, getting two to three feet off of that lip, and landing it cleanly. The other kids oooh.
“I think I can jump that,” he says in a mumble, grey-blue eyes fixed on the bike. Between him and it is an 8-foot drop into a bowl that flattens out and then rounds up again to the lip.
The pool is smooth, and the concrete looks polished. It has two bowls and continues on for a flat stretch over where the old tennis courts used to be. That’s where the skaters used to hang out, back when the skaters were just a couple of freaks who didn’t run track, didn’t play football, didn’t shoot hoop.
Now between the basketball courts and the unruly grass and dirt divots of the powwow grounds stands this alien creation, as weird here in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as it is natural in Venice Beach or New York. It is covered with guys on beat-up, second-hand or donated boards, skating and bailing, carving up the bowl like they’re Tony Alva and it’s 1970s L.A. in the middle of a drought. There’s nothing smooth about their style, and most of their tricks end in a tumble.
But they’re skating. And if they’re skating, they’re not at home in fractured households; they’re not driving around the rez in beater cars necking smuggled-in booze; they’re not standing at the edge, wondering if anyone would miss them if they were gone.
There is nothing simple about the place where Eli and his friends are growing up. There’s little tying it to the fashionable cool of a sport now firmly in the mainstream – nothing but the singular obsession to land a trick, the clack of the boards, and the whir of polyurethane wheels on concrete.
And so with that noise all around him, Eli gathers himself, puts his back foot onto the board at the edge of the bowl and drops in, his waist-length braid whipping out behind.
The story of how the Wounded Knee 4-Directions Skate Park landed in Pine Ridge began just before Eli and his friends were born. But the story of why is far older, its roots entwined in broken treaties, mistreatment, and a spiraling sense of sadness and self-loathing that haunts the reservation.
There’s a litany of depressing statistics that tell the modern story of the Native Americans who originally inhabited this country. And the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, has been the powder keg for more than a century. From the broken Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, to the massacre at Wounded Knee, to the militant American Indian Movement of the 1970s, Pine Ridge has been the flashpoint of the American government’s failed policies toward its indigenous population.
Life expectancy for a man on the Pine Ridge Reservation, roughly the size of Connecticut, is 47. Unemployment affects up to 90 percent of the population, with most living on about $3,000 a year. Alcoholism persists despite a ban on alcohol, disintegrating family structures and eroding tribal spirit. A poor diet means that close to half the population suffers from diabetes.
Old cars rot on unruly front lawns, houses often hold multiple large families, and new buildings, save for the gleaming hospital, are scarce. Among nine districts, Pine Ridge is the center of the tribal council, its main street boasting two stop lights. There’s a Subway, a Pizza Hut and a Shell gas station.
Then there’s the statistic that really shocks – a suicide rate among youth that is 150 percent higher than the national average. Over a 45-day period in 2009, the Oglala Lakota Sioux Public Safety Department reported 90 suicides or suicide attempts.
Tiny DeCory’s phone, the one she keeps in her pocket as a sort of one-woman suicide hotline, was ringing off the hook during that time. It still does, in fact: teens overdosing on pills, others calling up and simply saying, “I want to kill myself,” prompting her to hop in her car and speed over.
“There are a lot of factors that contribute,” says DeCory, a longtime youth advocate and unofficial auntie to countless kids on the rez. “You got single mothers with their kids and there’s no income. Economics has taken its toll, and it’s going to get worse. We know about the kids who go on Facebook and say ‘eff my life,’ and I know which ones, because it’s constant.”
There is enough there to make anyone despondent, and DeCory, whose reputation for straight talk and action is well known on the rez, has a cloudy vision of the future. But amid the panicked phone calls and sad messages, she’s noticed something else lately: Facebook updates of smiling kids and skateboards; cellphone videos posted of tricks pulled off successfully; shots of the smooth grey contours of the skate park – the birth of a genuine alternative?
“We have rodeo and we have powwows and we have our basketball players. But we finally have a new culture,” she says. “And it’s skateboarding.”
The white SUV pulls into the dirt parking lot next to the skate park mid-morning on a sunny spring Saturday. The back is covered in a growing collection of skate-brand stickers, including one for Wounded Knee Skateboards. Walt Pourier and Jim Murphy step out, and their arrival causes a small stir – lots of high fives and some half-hugs among the dozen or so kids at the park. They’re well acquainted with their benefactors.
The pair take in the scene in front of them, one that a year before seemed impossible. “Murf and I get in the car and we drive out of here and we think, ‘Man, we’re doing it!’ ” says Pourier, his voice trembling. “It’s emotional, but it’s such a happiness too.”
Born and raised here, Pourier’s all too familiar with the challenges faced by the skateboarders. Now in Denver, where he has a successful graphic-design business, he returns frequently to check in. “A lot of my family is still here, a lot of friends, and we come back often for ceremonies and family reunions, and, unfortunately, for a lot of funerals,” he says.
Skateboarding was nonexistent on Pine Ridge in Pourier’s days. Basketball, football and track were the measure of status. They still are. But Pourier, a bundle of giddy energy with feathered hair and frosted tips straight out of a John Hughes film, showed an oddball streak even back then. Enamored of the sport after he came across it in California, he’d lay down plywood and try tricks. He says he once hit 55 mph on the highway. “I don’t skate anymore,” says Pourier, now 47, the beginning of a grin spreading across his face. “I usually fall. And I make strange noises when I fall.”
Equal parts clown and eloquent advocate for the youth, Pourier saw skateboarding as a way to connect young people to the ancient traditions and culture of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, traditions that would give them the sense that they’re part of something bigger. “Kids nowadays might not pay attention to the story of the white buffalo,” he says. “So we put it on a skate deck.”
The decks come courtesy of Murphy, or Murf, as he’s known to pretty much everyone. A former skater on the legendary Tony Alva’s team, his vert style faded when street skating came into vogue in the mid 1990s. But his love for the sport that gave him focus when his father left the family never did.
Working full time as a stained-glass restorer, Murf and his good friend, the late New York skateboard advocate Andy Kessler, started a company. As a joke, they decided to pay homage to their failing bodies and call it Wounded Knee.
“We laughed, and then I said if we’re gonna call it Wounded Knee, we should talk about what happened in South Dakota,” he says.
Schoolbooks used to refer to it as a battle between the Sioux and the remnants of the 7th Calvary, who were guarding the reservation in the winter of 1890. But Wounded Knee was a massacre, one prophesized by the Sioux chief Sitting Bull. Three hundred Sioux, including women and children, were gunned down, their bodies left to freeze for a few days before they were dumped in a mass grave.
Wounded Knee Skateboards feature designs inspired by Native American culture and come with an information sheet detailing the massacre and its ramifications. “We always fantasized about going out to Pine Ridge and, in honor of those who died at Wounded Knee, building skate parks,” he says. “But it seemed far-fetched.”
In 2007, Murf was involved in an exhibit the Smithsonian put on about Native American skateboarders. Through it, he got in touch with Pourier. Pourier’s connections got things going, and Grindline, a skate park manufacturer, offered to build one for a reduced price. Pourier and Murf secured a $10,000 grant from the Tony Hawk Foundation, which was matched by two of the foundation’s board members. Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam’s bassist – a former skater who grew up near a reservation in Montana – chipped in.
Construction began in September 2011. The park opened a few weeks later, on October 16, to a big ceremony, during which Pourier was given a tribal flag, an honor typically reserved for elders. Murf was given a woven ceremonial blanket. The kids were given an outlet and a support network.
“This skate park gives them more of a reason to live. It’s something to look forward to, it occupies their minds,” says Murf. “You can deal with all of these emotions you’re feeling, or why you’re depressed or why you’re angry. You can work it out on a skate park, and you’ve got a family of skaters to support you.”
Most of the guys at the park come early and stay late. The Saturday Pourier and Murf visit is no exception. Rez dogs trot around, sniffing the air for the first hints of the BBQ that’s getting started. The dirt parking lot is riven with gulleys and bumps carved out by the rough weather. Old Pontiacs with headlights missing, Fords with plastic wrap on the windows and some newer imports pull in slowly.
Among the skaters criss-crossing the park, one stands out. Under a mane of dyed pale-orange hair pulled back in a ponytail, the right side of Joe “Crazy J” Mesteth’s face is covered in a design of silver and blue paint.
“He’s a bit opposite of the norm on this reservation,” says Pourier. “I think the skating is keeping him alive. He’s living the idea that skateboarding saves lives.”
Crazy J’s biography follows a typical thread. He was raised by his grandparents, as his parents struggled with alcoholism. Though he worked for the tribal president at one point, he says he’s also had to sell drugs in the last year to make ends meet.
“The problems here probably don’t compare to the problems out there,” says Mesteth in a quiet voice. “If I was living out there in the white world I could probably hustle around for rent money. Here, you either got the last name, or you’re selling drugs to get money.”
But Crazy J isn’t some thug hustler. His home at the moment is a gold and blue Chevy Suburban, because he has to get away from a family caught up in some alcohol-fueled feud. He’s parked it next to the skate park, his sanctuary.
“Whenever I’m on a skateboard, I feel free,” he says. “I got some problems going on right now, but down here, I feel free.”
Earbuds in, he skates the bowl with coiled concentration, his knees bent, absorbing the curves of the concrete as he carves around. When he’s not skating, he’s the first to slide in if a board or a piece of trash goes flying down into the bowl and whisk it away.
The younger kids flock to him when he takes a seat, and he dispenses trick advice or helps fix their skateboards. He’s a role model, and Murf’s made him an official member of the Wounded Knee Skateboards team.
“There’s so many problems that plague every one of these kids, stuff they’re not even aware of,” says Mesteth, at 25, one of the elder statesmen at the park. “I’m trying to make a mobile skate shop out of my car. I want to go out and find the kids, really utilize what I got with me.”
Murf estimates that for every kid out on a board, there are probably a hundred who want one and can’t afford it. Getting more boards out to those who need them has been the guiding philosophy of his company, and probably the reason he’s never turned a profit.
The SUV is full of Wounded Knee decks – prizes in a mini contest Murf and Pourier have organized during their visit. As hot dogs grill on the BBQ, a mix of parents, friends, and toddlers sit along a concrete ledge watching the action.
The judges are lenient, and everyone gets a chance to participate. There’s no PA system, just two volunteers shouting out the names of the contestants. Murf, decked out in a Wounded Knee hoodie and his hair in a ponytail, provides color commentary over the noise of the boards.
“C’mon man, you got this!” he shouts. “One more trick!”
The camaraderie at the park is striking. Whoops and shouts of encouragement greet every trick, whether it’s landed or not. “It’s amazing how, since October, everyone is just killing it out here,” says Murf. “These kids could be skating at the same level as those kids in California. You just need to build them the same level of stuff.”
At the end of the contest, decks are handed out to the winners of categories like “best trick” and “most improved.” Eli, who started skating the day the park opened six months previously, wins a deck for “most heart.” “I’ve lived here most of my life,” he says. “There’s been not much to do until I got this skateboard. If it wasn’t for Walt and Jim, I wouldn’t be able to be as good as I am right now. I’m pretty sure all of the others feel the same way.”
Of course, to Pourier and Murf, skill level takes a backseat to empowerment. One of Pourier’s favorite sweatshirts is a black hoodie with the words “iNative: 7G, The Nations’ First Network” printed on it.
“There’s two parts to the prophecy of Sitting Bull. One was that it ended at Wounded Knee, with the massacre,” he says. “The second half was that it also begins at Wounded Knee, through the 7th generation, this generation of youth.”
The ancient belief is the undercurrent to the pair’s fervent commitment to skateboarding and its impact here. They plan three more parks for Pine Ridge.
“We can’t wait another week, we can’t wait another two weeks,” says Pourier. “We’ve buried too many kids here, and it’s something no one should have to go through. It’s not about building skate parks, it’s about changing mindsets.”
The afternoon sun has begun its slow descent past the hills and copses of Cottonwood trees that separate the skate park from the high school, the dying rays bathing the dozen or so skaters and friends hanging out on cars and park benches.
Jaydin Thomas Peters’ gold helmet catches a glint, the bright light matching the grin across his face. In a place looking for success stories, Jaydin is an obvious one. He’s won awards for Native grass dancing, and he excels at school. He’s been raised by his grandparents, a stoic woman by the name of Lena and a Bob Marley-loving, Lakota language and culture teacher named Will. “The kid’s tough, he’s grown up here,” says Will Peters, peering through dark John Lennon glasses. “His mom’s in and out of the picture. He knows how it goes.”
The Peters’ house is a neat and basic prefabricated one-story building typical of the reservation. The room in the basement Jaydin shares with his brother is tidy, the beds arranged like your typical dorm room, posters of the Denver Broncos on the wall. Among his prize possessions is a little wooden box, the front of which carries a drawing of a Lakota warrior astride his horse. Inside are gifts from family members: a knife blade, the choker given to him by his mother, a bracelet of porcupine quills. “I only take them out for wakes,” he says.
There’s plenty to keep Jaydin down, but if it does, he hides it well. Five years ago, when he started skateboarding, the wooden ramp built on the old tennis courts was the only place near his house to skate.
But here he is at the edge of the bowl with Eli, his cousin, watching his friend Jake Roubideaux drop in and get some nice air on the other side. “See what Jake just did? And everyone was clapping?” he says. “That really gets your heart going, knowing these people are here for me.”
He pauses and looks out again. “Here, we don’t consider best or worst,” he says. “There’s no ‘I’m better than you.’ Everyone’s equal.”