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'Ramp It Up' Brings Skateboarding To The Museum Of Man

The 4-Wheel War Pony skate team. From left to right, Armonyo Hume, Jess Michael Smith, Aloysius Henry, Ronnie Altaha and Lee Nash. The team was founded by award-winning filmmaker Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo), who got his start making skateboarding videos in Arizona.
Courtesy Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo)
The 4-Wheel War Pony skate team. From left to right, Armonyo Hume, Jess Michael Smith, Aloysius Henry, Ronnie Altaha and Lee Nash. The team was founded by award-winning filmmaker Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo), who got his start making skateboarding videos in Arizona.
'Ramp It Up' at the Museum of Man
GUESTSBetsy Gordon, exhibition curator and project manager at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian Kilma Lattin, former tribal secretary, Pala Band of Mission Indians

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'M Maureen Cavanaugh. Skateboard culture is more than a piece of wood with wheels on it. The creativity and daring of skateboarding has given birth to a whole artistic esthetic. It's inspired visual artists, musicians, film makers, and many native American communities as well. An unusual exhibit called ramp it up at San Diego's museum of man shows the art, skill, and craft of Native American skateboarder. With the Pala band of mission Indians getting some special attention. My guest, Kilma Lattin is a former tribal secretary of the Pala band of mission Indians. Did I say your name correctly? LATTIN: Yeah, it's Kilma Lattin. CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for being here. LATTIN: It's good to be here. I served between 2006-2012, just the beginning of this year as one of the executive committee members or the secretary of the band, which is, you know, if you're looking at it from a rank perspective, it's like the third in tribe from a governmental perspective. So that was how I operated on this project. And Betsy Gordon, project manager at the Smithsonian's national museum of the American Indian, and curator of ramp it up, skateboard culture in native America. Welcome to the program. GORDON: Thank you very much. CAVANAUGH: What inspired you to devote an entire exhibition to skateboarding? GORDON: Well, it's a funny story. I never set out to be a curator of skate culture and Native American skateboard culture. I kind of stumbled into it, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, it got more and more curious. I ran into a Native American artist named Dustin Craig, who is a film maker. He was one of the artists in the show, he submitted a film called 4-wheel war pony, and as I started investigating, I realized that that's not only the name of Dustin a skateboard company, but it's a metaphor of how the skateboard is taking over the role of the resource in some Native American communities. CAVANAUGH: I saw that video, and it harkens back to the days when Native American communities relied on their resources and horses, and were warriors. And it relates that to skateboarding. GORDON: Yes. And I find it to be an incredibly powerful metaphor. And -- I had no idea that there were Native American skateboard companies. I had no idea there were these Native American skateboard competitions. And as I started finding out more information, I started talking to people like killNative American, and I had no idea that Native American communities were investing in their youth and building skate parks for them. So I thought it was a great story. I still think it's a good story. And I was lucky enough to do an exhibition. And in 2009, ramp it up opened at my museum in Washington DC. And now it's on a two-year tour. CAVANAUGH: Describe for us what people actually see when they go to ramp it up at the museum of man. GORDON: Well, you're going to see a lot of skate decks or skateboards. There are over 20 boards, and most of them are from Native American skateboard companies. I have some early skateboards from the '60s and '70s as well. And you're going to see the physical graphics of a skateboard. You'll see some very traditional Native American imagery with some very contemporary imagery, all of theart work done by Native American artists. A lot of photographs, photographs of kids skating, but also some things that you might not expect to see. Some photographs of ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs. You're going to see a historic photo graph of an ancient Hawaiian land sled, called a papaholua, so it's I think something for everybody. CAVANAUGH: And also a half pipe mini-ramp, right? [ LAUGHTER ] GORDON: Right. So how many times have you seen a half pipe in a museum? CAVANAUGH: Not a lot! Can you explain why skateboarding is so popular in Native American communities? LATTIN: I'll address that question from the perspective of responsible tribal governance. And the Pala tribe was delighted to be featured in this exhibit. I worked with Betsy Gordon closely. So to be in the Smithsonian legitimate myselves not only skateboarding, but Native American skateboarding. To be in such an institution was amazing from a tribal perspective. And I said a lot of fun working with this project in particular. But skateboarding, from the perspective of responsible governance which is kind of how you viewed this entire project and working with the youth, as political and economic sovereigns, we face the same issues as county state and federal governments, we have health issues such as obesity, diabetes, misguided youth, and responsible governments of any kind have to address social concerns. If you have children who are obese and in need of activity, and they happen to be asking you to build a skateboard park, it makes sense. Why it's popular among the tribal youth, I think skateboarding is enjoyed by kids of any race. But if it is viewed as a form of artistic expression, perhaps it's a silent way to express rage or aggression. I think it's a healthy way to express these feelings that youth feel at any point during their young lives. And I think that the rise of social media and Internet, we have tech-savvy kids on our reservation, and skateboarding is the new hot, popular topic. And they're tweeting and texting and talking to each other about it, it gives rise to these sorts of things pretty 23569 CAVANAUGH: Now, you were involved in getting this really state of the art skate park built on the Pala reservation; isn't that right? LATTIN: Yeah, that's true. Any project that people put me in charge of, I think they know they're going to get a really quality project out of it. I like to put my own signature touch. I know that we have a legacy we're building it for our kids, and I want to do the best job I can for our kids as their representative. And I grew up skateboarding. So I happen to know the lingo and know the culture, and I know how to work with the personalities, and these things. So when we elicited the help of wally holiday, we knew he were going to get a great product, not just for our kids, but we knew that we could sell it to the public, and we have plenty of nontribal people using our park as well. They drive 60 minutes to two hours just to get to our park to use it. And we charge a daily, monthly, and annual fee for it. CAVANAUGH: Now, you must remember the days, and frankly, those days aren't completely over, where a lot of mainstream communities don't want to have anything to do with a skateboard. And will they kind of shun them, you know. , they don't want a lot of skateboarders hanging around. But on the other hand, you have gone out and embraced, and many other Native American communities have embraced this sport. LATTIN: I think it's smart to do that. I think that if you have kids who want to express themselves, I mean, if I that want to do it with Pilates or yoga or exercise or football, I just read a stat that 12 million kids participate in skateboarding, which is more than are enrolled in little league baseball. So if you have more kids skateboarding, but you're not embracing it, and they're out on the street and tearing up the curbs and they're skateboarding in between elderly people trying to walk down the sidewalk, it makes sense to corral these kids if there's 12 million of them, and say we're going to work with you, build you a great park and give them a place to do this activity to express themselves, to be the individuals, and to come together in a positive way versus out in the community destroying it. CAVANAUGH: Betsy, one of the things that this exhibit really demonstrates is that skateboard culture is rich, and it's varied, and it isn't just about making a really great design on your skateboard, although there are a lot of really great designs of the tell us a little bit about how rich and varied it is. GORDON: I think -- I have a great quote in the show from a Lakota man calmed Walt porier, and he runs a nonprofit called the stronghold society. And he says it's more art than sport. And I think most skaters would agree with you. It's a tremendously creative culture. Not only does it have, you know, an outlet for graphic design, but I know that so many skaters are also musicians, they're photographers, they're film makers like Dustin Craig. They get involved in architecture and engineering, if they're building ramps. So I think it is not only rich visually but also just gives a lot of creative choices to the participant. CAVANAUGH: And I saw too that one of the artists, I believe, who's involved in this show was actually comparing the kind of street art or stateboard art that he creates with ancient picketo graphs. GORDON: That would be Jake FAQUA, which is a street artist. And he sees that there is this continuance. And I think some artists would agree with him. I know Craig Stephic who is an otherist and is featured in my show, he's not native, he's a photographer, but he was also in the museum of modern art show on street art, and he completely agrees with Jake in that he talks about it as being, like, the first public art. So I do think that there is this connection. CAVANAUGH: Now, there are some commercial offshoots of this skateboarding enthusiasm in Native American culture. Some skateboarders are actually starting companies that cater to the community. LATTIN: We have one started by a tribal member of our ours, Chris nietto, and he's featured in the exhibit as well. And he does graphics on the bottom of skateboards, and one of his graphics and his quote is that what Native Americans are today are just remnants of what they were thriving civilizations, precontact, preColumbus. So his vision of a remnant, we're remnants of what once existed, and he put that on the bottom of his skateboard, and that's his logo, his tribal company name. So he comes up with these semimorbid graphics, but they're his expression, his feelings. And to his credit, this is what he's come up with. And it just paints a good picture of modern day life on an Indian reservation for some folks. CAVANAUGH: So that's a commercial outlet for this particular craze. LATTIN: For some of them, yes. And if any of your listeners, because I know we might get cut short here due to the breaking news. If any of your listeners want to contact me to talk about this anything else tribal related, they can contact me KLatin, LATTIN 1, at I was approached last week by a mom from La Jolla, California, who wants to do maybe a skateboard park in La Jolla. CAVANAUGH: Wow. LATTIN: Down by the beach. So if there's people out there who want to talk about this, or other Native American issues, they can contact me. CAVANAUGH: You're the man who knows how to do it. I want to ask you both as we wrap up, Betsy, what are some ways that you think this exhibit cob used by the public? GORDON: Well, I think there are so many ways that you can learn from this exhibition or just enjoy it. I think that if you are a family and you have somebody in your family that skates, you can come in and enjoy an exhibition on skateboarding. If you're someone who is interested in native mesh culture, you can come in and enjoy an exhibition on Nate of American culture. The one thing I would hope people would get, is that Native American culture is limitless. And it is current. And I think if you want to have an expansive and different experience about Native American culture, this is also a show that you'd get a lot out of it. CAVANAUGH: I think that's an extremely important point. You're not looking at ancient artifacts here, as people I think when they go to the museum of man are sometimes used to seeing. GORDON: LATTIN: Right. CAVANAUGH: Ancient mummies and things of that nature. LATTIN: They have this mission that's inspiring human connection by exploring the human experience, which I think captures what this exhibit is about. And their vision is to be San Diego's vibrant and dynamic place to go to learn about each other, reflect on our place in the world, and build a better community. And I think this ramp it up exhibit in the half pipe they've constructed inside of the museum, they're doing a great job fulfilling their mission at the museum of man. CAVANAUGH: Well, we have to wrap it up on-ramp it up. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: It runs through September 9th at the museum of man in Balboa Park. Thank you both very much. GORDON: Thank you. LATTIN: Thank you.

Skateboard culture is more than a piece of wood with wheels on it. The creativity and daring of skateboarding has given birth to a whole artistic aesthetic, inspiring graphic artists, musicians, filmmakers and photographers. And both the sport and culture of skateboarding are also inspiring many youth within Native American communities.

From the annual All Nations Skate Jam skateboarding contest to the growth of Native-owned skateboarding companies and the building of skate parks on reservations, skateboarding has taken off within Native communities. And a new traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian showcases and celebrates the art, style and craft of Native American skateboarders.

"Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America" on view now at the San Diego Museum of Man, features photos and videos of Native American skaters, over 20 skate decks created by Native artists and a half pipe mini ramp for the public to spin their wheels.


KPBS Midday Edition speaks with exhibition curator Betsy Gordon, project manager at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and Kilma Lattin, of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, about the popularity of skateboarding within Native American communities across the country.

"Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America" runs now through September 9 at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park.