Skaters watch the action in the White Mountain competition. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

For some Native Americans living on Indian reservations in the American Southwest, skateboarding is more than just a recreational activity. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Ocean surfers on waves off Malibu and Waikiki show off by “Hanging Ten.” But on Indian reservations in the American Southwest, skateboarders do their best just to hang on. And it isn’t easy. Ken Shulman spent time with two Apache skateboard teams in Arizona and came back with this report.

‘Everybody Wants One’ 

Outside an art opening at an upscale gallery in downtown Phoenix, young men from the San Carlos Apache Reservation did “ollies” and “kickflips” on the walkway. Inside, native artist Doug Miles told the gallery crowd about his paintings. The work’s a cryptic blend of Native American iconography and pop culture — smoke signals from the 21st century rez.

Artist Doug Miles talks about art, skateboarding and the beauty of reservation life. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Artist Doug Miles talks about art, skateboarding and the beauty of reservation life. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

“Some of you may not ever go to a reservation unless you’re just going to the casino,” Miles said. “But if you go to a casino you may or may not get your money back. But hey, we didn’t really get the country back either, so maybe we’re even.”

Miles paints mainly on found objects: fuel cans, car hoods, panels from a trailer home. But there’s one outlier among the surfaces, a curious artifact that migrated from California to America’s inner cities to the suburbs and, finally, to the reservation: the skateboard. So what’s it doing here?

“It’s really about a father making art for his son,” Miles said. “My son needed a skateboard. I didn’t have enough money. So I painted him one. And then he rode it all around the rez. And I knew what was going to happen. I knew. So when he got home I said, ‘What did everybody say?’ And he said, ‘Dad, Dad, everybody wants one.’”

‘We’re Struggling Here’

Today Miles’ skateboards hang in private collections and museums. Some of them sell for hundreds of dollars. But the former social worker is most proud of APACHE Skateboards — a skateboard team, shop and artist collaborative he founded on the San Carlos Reservation, about 90 miles east of Phoenix.

A San Carlos skater gets some air in the Phoenix arts district. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

A San Carlos skater gets some air in the Phoenix arts district. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Miles said that making skateboards helps his kids connect with their Apache heritage.

“We’ve been making things for centuries as native people,” he explained. “That’s what we do. We could take some obsidian rock and a nice straight stick and make an arrow and hunt for our dinner or fight off marauding white men. “

The San Carlos reservation is a stunning expanse of mountain, high desert and plateau landscapes. But life can be tough here, especially for young people, with few jobs and even fewer distractions. The San Carlos team has a thriving skate park — with colorful murals painted by Miles and his crew. The team also travels to compete against other tribes and against big city skaters. Miles said the travel is mind opening.

“The kids in the South Bronx and the other reservations and East LA, they’re just like our kids,” he said. “These are all communities that are struggling. So when they meet our kids they’re really meeting themselves. And so I think it empowers kids to know that we’re struggling here, too, but we’re also making art and skateboarding and having a lot of fun in the process.

‘We’re Not Doing No Harm’

Skateboarding is popular on reservations throughout the Southwest. But not all of them have skate parks like the one at San Carlos. At the White Mountain Apache Reservation, close to the New Mexico border, skaters have to shimmy through an iron fence to practice in the courtyard of an abandoned high school. The concrete surface is littered with debris and broken glass. Still, the skaters come almost every day.

A white mountain skater with his Four Wheel War Pony. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

A white mountain skater with his Four Wheel War Pony. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

“Yeah, I think it, like, it keeps them occupied, and, you know, there’s a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs going around here,” said Grant Gatewood, a 24-year-old Apache from White Mountain.

Gatewood likes the freedom of skateboarding: no coaches yelling in his ear, nobody telling him what to do. He thinks skateboarding’s a good thing for native kids who don’t have a lot of other options.

But there are a few folks here who don’t share Gatewood’s enthusiasm. His mother, for one, who doesn’t like seeing him dressed in ratty clothes or paying for his boards and shoes.

“Other than that they have, like, security guards, too — always try to kick us out of spots and stuff, but it’s like we’re not doing no harm,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re getting on us about that.”

The White Mountain team used to have a skate park. But it was ruined, through a combination of benign neglect and, some say, vandalism. Not all the folks at White Mountain dislike skateboarding. But they aren’t all warm and fuzzy either. Part of the chill comes from the sport’s outlaw image.

“When I was kid in the ‘80s, you always saw during Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, it was always the skateboarder in, you know, some urban playground that was coming up to little kids trying to get them to take drugs or drink,” said Dustinn Craig, a filmmaker and leader of the White Mountain skate team.

More Than Recreation

One day, the White Mountain team held a game of “s-k-a-t-e.” “S-k-a-t-e” is a lot like the basketball game “h-o-r-s-e.” One guy does a trick. If the next guy can’t repeat it, he gets an “S.” When you’ve spelled “skate” you’re out.

Dustinn Craig sets up for the White Mountain game of s-k-a-t-e. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Dustinn Craig sets up for the White Mountain game of s-k-a-t-e. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Craig ran down the rules.

“The first round will be traditional skate, only flat-ground tricks, and then the second round is anything goes, rez style,” Craig explained.

The game of skate went by quickly. It was a single-bracket, single-elimination tournament. There were eight skaters, one of whom had ridden his board four miles, mostly downhill, to get there from home. A skater’s wife, two girlfriends and three young boys from the reservation watched from the sidelines. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon in the Arizona mountain air.

But Craig says it’s not just recreation. Kids at White Mountain and other reservations live a harsh reality. Some sink into alcohol. Some spend time in jail. Some are killed in accidents or homicides or take their own lives. Even dedicated skaters struggle to finish high school and find decent jobs. Skateboarding is strong medicine on the reservation — an edgy sport for kids already living on the edge.

“A lot of the children who really picked up skateboarding, you know, they came from households and homes that were really struggling on many different levels,” Craig said. “It seemed like a lot of the young people who embraced skateboarding fully, it offered them sort of a reprieve from that, you know — something to take their minds off of their environments or whatever was happening at home.

Unlike many Indian tribes, the White Mountain Apache were never resettled. They live on their ancestral homeland — a land rich in sun and water and game. Their proud forbears crossed these lands on horseback. Today these skaters, equally proud, roll over them on their four wheel war ponies — on their skateboards.

“I think skateboarding on the very lands that your ancestors were, you know, existing, before Arizona was a state, before Arizona was even a territory, before the United States was a country, you can’t quantify that,” Craig said. “It’s a sense of place that goes, you know, deeper than blood. It’s like we are made up of this land, you know. It’s fed and sustained our people since time immemorial.”

 

Additional Photos: 

The Apache Skateboards team from the San Carlos Reservation. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

The Apache Skateboard team from the San Carlos Reservation. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

A tune up before the White Mountain game of s-k-a-t-e. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

A tune up before the White Mountain game of s-k-a-t-e. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Apache children watch the White Mountain competition. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Apache children watch the White Mountain competition. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

The action heats up in the game of s-k-a-t-e. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

The action heats up in the game of s-k-a-t-e. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)