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Shredding, and preserving, native culture

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Skateboard exhibit offers artistic look at Native American way of life

By Ramsey Scott

Art is often the truest expression of a culture.

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And just like art, culture is constantly evolving, combining the traditions of the past with new influences, ideas and ways of expression.

To truly understand a culture, you can’t just look behind at its footprints. You have to look at the trail ahead as well.

A perfect example of an ever-evolving culture is on display at the Littleton Museum in “Ramp It Up,” an exhibit on tour from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian that looks at contemporary Native American culture through the lens of skateboarding.

“It is a really interesting story. It’s unexpected,” said Betsy Gordon, the Smithsonian’s curator for the exhibit. “When you think about learning about Native American culture, the first thing in your mind is not a skateboard.”

Yet Gordon said that skateboarding provides a perfect window to understanding modern Native American culture. After all, as the exhibit points out, skateboarding is itself a native tradition, derived from surfing on the Hawaiian Islands.

“I was learning about native culture, and I thought this story was a great portal, if you want to use that word, to understanding contemporary native culture,” Gordon said. “It’s a fusion of tradition with contemporary American life.”

As with the rest of the United States, skateboarding has become a very important part of Native American culture, Gordon said. What makes Native American skateboards stand out, and worthy of an exhibit, is the way native culture is being kept alive in the art on the bottom of each skateboard.

“What’s native about it is, they take the opportunity that a skateboard gives you, a propaganda opportunity for graphics,” Gordon said. “The quest for identity is in every culture. What makes this native is this opportunity to declare a native identity in a unique and highly contemporary way.”

Native skateboard companies, such as 4 Wheel War Pony and Wounded Knee Skateboards, fashion their boards with designs rooted in history mixed with modern art or with propaganda and history lessons not being taught in schools.

“I really want the decks to grab the attention of the kids, to make them wonder about the true history of what happened,” Jim “Murf” Murphy, founder of Wounded Knee Skateboards, said in a quote for the exhibit. “No one else is teaching them about native history in schools, so I figured I might as well try.”

Gordon said many of the founders of native skateboard companies saw a desire for young Native Americans to participate in their culture, yet they were “too cool” to be a part of a powwow. Skateboards provide an opportunity for them to express their cultural identity while at the same time expressing their own unique individuality.

While the boards on display can simply be viewed as a window into a culture, the artistry is spectacular.

“The graphics really stand on their own. Even if you don’t care about skateboarding or native culture, you’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ “ Gordon said.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Millie Rothstein, who went to the exhibit’s opening evening on March 7. “This is what I expected, but I didn’t think I’d like it this much.”

The exhibit runs until April 28 before continuing its tour across the country.

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com 303-933-2233, ext. 22.