The American government has shafted literally millions of people since 1776. But it’s safe to say that no single group of people has had it as rough as the Native Americans. A bloody history of deceit and war nearly wiped out an entire population in a century. The few Native Americans that survived the massacres were forced out of their homes and relocated to reservations — land the white man was willing to part with because of its lack of natural resources or precious metals. Not exactly the proudest moment in American history.
As a result, several reservations across the United States are ridden with poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and teenage suicide rates way above the national average. And despite what they say, the United States government still doesn’t seem to be all that interested in improving the conditions on the rez.
I recently witnessed this firsthand at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota — one of the largest and poorest in the US. Eighty to 85 percent of its population is unemployed; alcoholism plagues around 80% of its people; life expectancy rates on the reservations are the lowest in the United States. So yeah, not exactly ideal living conditions or the “American Dream” our government sells the rest of the world.
But as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and many people are fighting to improve life on the rez. Skateboarder and Lakota native Walt Pourier started the Stronghold Society, a non-profit on the rez, to promote “confidence, creativity, hope, and ambition for the youth of Native communities and non-Native communities through leadership development, arts programs, skateboarding and athletic activities while encouraging youth to take action to live a healthy life in mind, body, and spirit.” Jim Murphy, a member of the original Alva Skates team, started Wounded Knee Skateboards and donates proceeds to encourage young Native Americans to use skateboarding as a creative outlet. Jeff Ament, bassist for Pearl Jam, donates a huge chunk of his paycheck every year to build public skateparks for underprivileged communities and reservations.
Between them, along with financial aide from Levi’s Skateboarding, the Pine Ridge Reservation is now home to two skate parks, and skateboarding is spreading like wildfire. Prior to the initial Pine Ridge build back in 2013, there were less than a dozen skateboarders throughout the community. Two years later, there are now over one hundred. And ya know, I truly believe the community is all the better for it – sure, it’s a cliché, but skateboarding really does save lives. Watch Greg Hunt’s amazing documentary “Skateboarding in Pine Ridge” for Levi’s Skateboarding for proof.
Photography by Atiba Jefferson // Words by Kevin Duffel