NORMAN — Here in Oklahoma it’s not a news flash that skateboarding is popular with Native American youth. From city to small towns across the state you’ll find kids of all descriptions in skate parks, on sidewalks and around school yards riding and performing tricks.
It’s also no surprise that Oklahomans figure prominently into a national exhibition featuring artists, skaters, photographers and filmmakers from coast to coast. “Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America” opened Feb. 8 at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History and runs through June 15.
Betsy Gordon, of the National Museum of the American Indian, curated the show. While her goal was to highlight the quality attributes of skateboard culture — instead of the stereotypes like skateboarders being disrespectful and destructive — Gordon said she faced opposition from professional colleagues who didn’t see the value of preserving and documenting skateboard culture.
“The story is that Indian Country is basically taking something and making it their own,” Gordon said. “It’s a unique culture and such a nurturer of creativity. It does attract a kind of non-conformist kid and the association with photography, filmmaking and graphics make them very visually sophisticated and I like skaters because of that. They’re smart and creative and the kind of kids you want in your museum even if they are a little anti-establishment.”
Much of the pushback was from Native Americans who wanted to know what skateboarding had to do with their culture. Deep seated reservations about skaters and the skateboard community led to the belief that it would link Native American youth and criminality in viewer’s minds.
“Some were asking why would I be glorifying and documenting the worst people of a community,” Gordon said. “I had those perceptions to deal with and it took around three years of consistent lobbying and advocating by me that there was something there to tell.”
She managed to convince detractors that no whitewashing was involved and it was the skaters themselves who were telling their experiences.
An adorned deck from Rabbit Studios in Pryor, Okla., is among the 20 skateboards in the show.
“Painted on the deck is an eagle feather with the red, yellow and green ribbon colors from the Vietnam conflict running down the center,” Traci Rabbit said. “My dad, Bill, did two tours in Vietnam.”
The father and daughter members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma collaborated on paintings and other art together until his death in 2012. Traci has a style distinctive from Bill who is known for his vibrant use of color, but his influence lives on in her.
“If I painted skateboards they would probably be contemporary and colorful,” she said. “They would be on the feminine side for female skaters, incorporating geometric designs.”
Bunky Echo-Hawk, of the Yakama Nation who resides in Pawnee, also has a painted board in the exhibit. He’s an internationally celebrated graphic designer, poet and photographer who designed Nike’s N7 line.
Decks with a variety of graphics and painted Native American imagery are just one part of the exhibition. Photographs and film are also among the entertaining parts of the exhibit.
“There are some spectacular photographs in the show, mostly provided by Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navaho),” Gordon said. “I think the images he provided are some of the strongest.”
Graffiti art panels provide a background for much of the exhibit. Expect a vivacious and colorful experience that reflects the fast-paced excitement of skating. Certain touches that Gordon referred to as “Valentines” are aimed at catching the eye of hard-core skaters.
The exhibit’s first stop outside Washington D.C. was the certifiably thrashin’ skater territory of San Diego, Calif., where it passed muster with flying colors.
The museum hosted an opening reception on Feb. 8. Jacobson House Executive Director Tracey Satepauhoodle-Mikkanen organized an event for the reception that featured Native American artist J. NiCole Hatfield and others. Live painting of skateboard decks and other rad happenings were ramped up to generate initial buzz for this exceptional exhibit.
“The art produced that day will be auctioned off with the proceeds going to the Jacobson House,” Satepauhoodle-Mikkanensaid said.
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