Some may argue using the words skateboard and culture together presents an oxymoron. Many negative connotations are attached to skateboarding, ranging from drugs to teenage rebellion. But what these detractors fail to see is the impact this sport has had on many, specifically the Native American community.
The San Diego Museum of Man is displaying the Smithsonian exhibit, “Ramp it Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America.” This exhibit highlights the birth of skateboarding -starting with an early depiction of a papaholua, a sled used to “surf” on land – moving toward current skate-board companies born from Native American tribes.
The exhibit is more than pictures or displays. It contains a spirit which absorbs you into the growth of skate-boarding like it was an infant matriculating into manhood.
The story begins in a time when the inhabitants of Hawaii are search- ing for an adrenaline-rushed sport beyond surfing and off the waves. The earliest surfboards, like the papa he’e nalu, give birth to the papaholuas. As time passes, word spreads and the famous shores of Southern California adopt skateboarding.
Looking further into the exhibit, it’s evident the exhibit is more than a flash of history. There is an important message flowing through each art display. Palomar College American Indian studies professor Alan L. Aquallo, of Luiseño and Maidu heritage spoke about the purpose of the exhibit.
“The mission of ‘Ramp it Up’ was to introduce to the non-native community of the importance of skate-boarding in the native communities throughout the U.S.”
The variety of art displayed helps guide the exhibit into different stages of skateboarding through its development in various communities. This includes vintage skateboards from as early as the 1960s to photography and documentaries on native professional skateboarders.
The exhibit demonstrates how crucial skateboarding can be for native youth, especially those who experience problems such as obesity or substance abuse. Tracy Nelson, of Luiseño heritage, contributed to the exhibit, and has a deeply rooted passion for the sport.
“Skateboarding is something that I really treasure, it was something to keep me away from drugs and alcohol,” Nelson said. “The feeling when riding up against the wall, that feeling, that natural high; no drug can give you that.”
Nelson was so inspired by skate-boarding he started his own skate-board company called Full Blood. Similar stories fill the exhibit, providing youth examples of people who have been in their shoes.
The popularity of skateboarding has soared in the native community. Several skateboard companies have come from native tribes as well as professional skateboarders such as Bryant Chapo. The fast growth of the culture inspired Native American youth to pursue professional careers in skateboarding.
Those who made careers in skate-boarding have not wasted the opportunity. Some, such as Native Skates, brought their culture and their career. As stated on its Facebook page, Native Skates is “a Native owned and operated company that produces high quality skate decks and wheels to help promote Native pride and skateboarding for our native youth.”
This sense of pride comes from the skate-board designs related to the native culture, as well as organizing skate competitions with skate celebrities.
The exhibit exposes skate-board culture and the strong, positive influence it has, not only on the native youth, but globally. Skate-boarding isn’t just a form of expression. For many, it’s a future.