In a roomy space on the second floor of the National Museum of the American Indian, there is a modest wall adorned with two vividly colored paintings hanging side by side. The first, loudly beaming with red and yellow rays, depicts a Native American warrior mounted proudly atop a stallion with his arms desperately outstretched. Blood-red letters underneath the figure say, “It’s a good day to die.—
The other painting presents, much more matter-of-factly, a series of U.S. maps, each spattered with more white paint than the one to its left. “A North American Progression of Land Loss,— it reads.
The visual and ideological punches delivered by these two paintings are as powerful as they are political. But what makes them truly remarkable is that they are created on skateboards, and painted on the bottoms of long wooden boards that flip around on four wheels.
These and many other unique works of Native American cultural art constitute the museum’s newest exhibit, “Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America,— which runs until Sept. 13.
Wounded Knee Skateboard Manufacturing and Propaganda, the distributor of the two politically motivated works on display, represents just one facet of the Native American skate culture, which, broadly speaking, is defined by a growing group of artists and skaters who have managed to put a native twist on the skating tradition.
“Native American skate culture is a very distinct subgroup of regular skate culture,— said Betsy Gordon, museum curator and project manager for the exhibit. “Native American skate culture is so much less about the industry and more about the identity.—
The exhibit highlights several different media involved in building this culture, including painting, storytelling and filmmaking. The theme attached to this movement, which according to Gordon is largely responsible for culturally uniting several North American tribes, seems to be the use of modern skate culture to celebrate the traditions and generations of the past.
“You can take a skate deck and make it native,— Gordon said. “And you can take something very traditional and also attach it to something completely 21st century.—
One of the contributing artists, Bunky Echo-Hawk, tells his story in a short film featured by the exhibit. To Echo-Hawk, Native American skate culture is at its roots a search for what it means to be a modern Native in America.
Through his painting, he said, he tries to fuse the culture of his ancestors with the present while subtly combating some of the most hurtful stereotypes associated with Native Americans. He tours the country showing off his work and auctioning it affordably, with bids for his paintings often beginning at $5.
But for all of the movement’s cultural significance, Gordon pointed out, it is ultimately about skating and having fun. If it weren’t, she said, it wouldn’t be a skate culture at all.
“When it comes down to it,— she said, “I think these guys just like to get together to share this sport. It’s what they love to do, and it’s everywhere.—