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Pine Ridge: Wheels of Change in Motion on the Reservation

PINE RIDGE, S.D. ‒ In early August, humidity thickens the air and a rusted orange moon rises and hangs over the Pine Ridge Reservation. Barefoot babies wander through the brush holding hands while already-stumbling adults head to Whiteclay.

The small town of Whiteclay, Neb., lies two miles outside of the dry reservation, across the state line. Whiteclay’s population ranges from 14 to 17 adults, is composed of four liquor stores, and according to the Nebraska Liquor Commission sells nearly 13,000 cans of beer a day.

According to Tribal Police, over 1,000 DUI’s are issued yearly along the two-mile stretch between Pine Ridge Reservation and Whiteclay. Similarly, 90 percent of criminal cases on the South Dakota reservation are alcohol related.

Jim Murphy and Joe Mesteth talk with young skaters at Wounded Knee 4-Directions Skate Park. Photos by Holly Martinez.
Jim Murphy and Joe Mesteth talk with young skaters at Wounded Knee 4-Directions Skate Park. Photos by Holly Martinez.

Walt Pourier, Oglala Lakota and founder of The Stronghold Society, has not lost hope. In a community where 80 percent of adults suffer from alcoholism, Pourier doesn’t struggle to find beauty, “So many people come here searching for the ugly, but [the Lakota people] are so spiritual.”

Pourier grew up on Pine Ridge and along with his wife and family founded The Stronghold Society, a non-profit organization with a mission to “inspire confidence, creativity, hope, and ambition for the youth of native and non-native communities…through creative movements.”

Most youth on the reservation face uncertain futures as poverty, alcoholism, suicide, and rape force themselves into their daily lives.

Pine Ridge is the second largest reservation in the country and in 1975 was named the most dangerous place to live in America. Since then, Pine Ridge has been struggling to improve its stature among cities in the United States.

The Stronghold Society aims to rebuild and heal the native spirit of Pine Ridge through investing in the youth on the reservation.

“The stronghold is a place where the community regroups,” reads the Stronghold Society’s website, “a place to stand your ground and together face life’s challenges.”

The Stronghold Society recently teamed up with Wounded Knee Skateboards, Vans (shoes), the Tony Hawk Foundation, and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam to build a world class skate park for the youth of Pine Ridge.

The Wounded Knee 4-Directions Skate Park carries a price tag of over $150,000 and is less than a year old.

Joe Mesteth Skating
Joe Mesteth Skating

Jim Murphy (“Murph”) owner of Wounded Knee Skateboards and Skate Program Director of The Stronghold Society had never built a skate park with impoverished children before working alongside the Lakota youth.

“My goal with Wounded Knee Skateboards is to develop a reputation similar to that of TOMS shoes,” said Murph, “We need people to invest in our boards so we can continue to supply these kids with top of the line equipment and keep them skating.”

Murph founded Wounded Knee Skateboards in 1998 with Andy Kessler. Their company was named as a tribute to the Lakota people who had been killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

“I traveled to South Dakota to meet Chief Arvol Looking Horse to explain to him what we were hoping to do,” said Murph, “and to gain approval for our company name. My skateboard was the thing that kept me focused and allowed me to channel anger into something positive. I knew that’s what I wanted to help do for the youth at Pine Ridge.”

Residents of Pine Ridge were skeptical of the initial promises of a skate park according to Murph and Pourier; however, once Mark Hubbard (“Monk”), skatepark builder lead and his team were out digging up dirt and laying cement, many Lakota children were right beside them digging with their hands.

“When Monk got out here with his guys we asked them where they wanted to stay while we worked,” explained Murph, “but they all decided to sleep outside on site so we could spend every last penny on concrete.”

The park took six weeks to build and due to a lack of funding, some sections remain incomplete.

“We’d like to finish our half pipe and get some more things for a street course,” said Pourier.

“Skating gives these kids hope,” said Pourier, “they never want to leave [the skatepark]; the police have to make them go home each night.”

Pourier and Murph journey to Pine Ridge as often as possible, neither men live on the reservation or even in South Dakota; their connection to the reservation is rooted deeper than the skate park.

Through their work developing their respective organizations, they have built relationships with all of the young residents of the rez. Pourier and Murph hold each youngster to a high moral standard and provide for them emotionally; spiritually adopting all of the skaters at Pine Ridge.

Pourier and Murphy want to develop future skate parks. They’d like to see three more on Pine Ridge and several others elsewhere in the nation; however, donations have not been coming in the way they had hoped.

Nonetheless, putting their personal financial circumstances aside, hundreds of dollars of top-of-the-line skate equipment and clothing is given to the skaters with each trip. “When we get the chance to visit, we have to make it count” said Murph.

Stronghold Society and Wounded Knee Skateboards booth during 2012 Oglala Lakota Powwow.
Stronghold Society and Wounded Knee Skateboards booth during 2012 Oglala Lakota Powwow.

Every day the park is crowded with children as young as two sitting on boards and paddling themselves around the concrete. Other than Joe Mesteth, 25, very few adults are present. Mesteth acts as a mentor and friend to the young skaters, teaching them to skate and cheering them on,

“There’s no reason to be afraid of falling off your board,” said Mesteth. “It only hurts for a little while and the pain lets you know you’re alive.”

Following the lead of Pourier, Murph, and Mesteth, all the young skaters have invested in each other. The skate park has become a safe haven for many children on the reservation; a place where there is no hierarchy or hostility. Even the youngest child can feel safe and supported knowing that their peers will pick them up if they should fall, will be there to teach them new tricks, and to cheer them on as they become more experienced.

Lonnie Pourier, Walt Pourier’s sister, also remains tightly involved with the youth of Pine Ridge. She is the director of the Kamimila “Age of the Daughters” Gathering.

“This era of parents forgot about their kids,” explained Lonnie, “I see so many kids with pain in their eyes.”

Lonnie lost one of her 33 grandchildren to suicide; the Kamimila gathering was organized in memory of Taya and in order to help other young girls cope with life’s challenges and to draw strength from each other.

“Kamimila means butterfly in Lakota,” said Lonnie. “We believe that anyone can break from their cocoon and fly when they’re ready.”

During the first weeks of August, while the Oglala Lakota Powwow occupied adults, a powerful dust storm lifted a tent into the air. The tent began to spin high above the unpacked amusement park rides; fast, powerful, and in sync with the wheels of the skaters.

“Our ancestors aren’t happy,” said Pourier, “Chief Sitting Bull once said to ‘put our minds together and see what kind of life we can make for our children.’ We need to move forward together to help ourselves as a people.”

Dirt and sand sting the knees and fill the mouths and lungs of the skaters. Even the youngest look into the large concrete bowl and thrust themselves off the edges, their braided ponytails outstretched behind them. Their eyes, at first tightened fighting off sun and wind, widen immediately to greet the speed, movement, and freedom beneath their feet.

Murph watched from the sidelines.

“Skating is about overcoming enormous amounts of fear ‒ and training your body to do it over and over again.”


Holly Martinez is a junior at Seattle University studying journalism. She is a winner of the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s  2012 Journalism Fellowship on Poverty.

 “I’m planning to move back to Denver after I graduate to attend law school to study international law and human rights,” said Martinez.  “I chose to write this article because I feel that it is important for people to realize what goes on in our own backyard, both the good and bad.

“Walt Pourier in particular has really invested himself into The Stronghold Society’s Live Life Call to Action, and in return has won many hearts and saved many lives on Pine Ridge Reservation.”  

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