While the United States government doesn't openly assault Native Americans anymore, the problems and hardships that have been heaped on them over the centuries can still be felt on reservations across the country. Many of them, including South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation, which I visited earlier this month, are poverty-stricken, and hopelessness, suicide, child diabetes, and alcoholism run rampant. Although no alcohol is sold on the Pine Ridge reservation, just across the Nebraska sits a three-block stretch of land called Whiteclay that looks like a set from The Walking Dead. The space consists of four dilapidated warehouses that act as taverns to service the Pine Ridge reservation. Outside each building droves of Native Americans stumbled about, drinking themselves to death. In 2010 the four liquor vendors sold five million cans of beer, a tremendous amount considering the size of the community.
I was visiting Pine Ridge to see the new Grindline-built skatepark at the Wounded Knee District School. In a place facing such hardship, the park represents a source of positivity for the community. The park was paid for by Levi's Skateboarding and, full disclosure, they flew me out to South Dakota for this trip. While there I met Walt Pourier, head of the Stronghold Society, a group whose goal is to inspire hope and confidence in the reservation's youth through a number of outlets, mainly skateboarding. With the help of Vans and Pearl Jam's bassist, Jeff Ament, Walt was able to get phase one of a skatepark built in 2011 and, thanks to his constant diligence, he eventually convinced Levi's to come in and not only finish phase two in Pine Ridge, but also build the smaller, satellite park on the Wounded Knee school grounds where I met him.
When I asked Pourier about Whiteclay he shrugged it off. "We don't want to focus on that. We know it's there and if that's the route the adults have chosen, so be it. We know the hundreds of skaters at the skatepark each day don't drink; they don't want anything to do with alcohol or drugs. The further back we look the further forward we can see and these kids are learning from that and taking a better path."
He was right; every kid I spoke to was all about skateboarding, stoked on life and the simple act of pushing around on their boards. No one drank, no one took drugs, and their scene was tighter than most any I've visited. There wasn't one bit of graffiti in the park, no trash strewn about, and regardless of being surrounded by a huge dirt lot there was no dust on the course. The kids policed the place like it was Fort Knox, going so far as to hide brooms in bushes and take turns sweeping every 20 minutes
It was apparent after watching the kids at the park that this place is a source of escapism for them, a fortress of solitude making a difference in their lives. "Former Alva pro Jim Murphy is here and he's giving away 100 Wounded Knee skateboards today. That's 100 more kids who will be at the park tomorrow." Walt said, beaming. "But you should really talk to Jeff, he's been so instrumental in helping this community."
Jeff, as I mentioned, is Pearl Jam's bassist, and more importantly a lifelong skateboarder. He has used his fame and success to help build skateparks all over Montana and South Dakota, many on reservations. He has paid for many of these parks with his own money, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I love when famous people back skateboarding. It says a lot when professional musicians, comedians, or athletes openly say they like to spend their free time riding a skateboard, because the underlying message is that regardless of how cool their day jobs are skating is still infinitely cooler.
Ament had come to the park the day I was there to show support for the opening. During a lull in the action, we went around the back of the little red Wounded Knee school building and sat on a set of stairs outside of a classroom. Ament spoke at length about his love for skateboarding and his drive to keep building skateparks.
VICE: How did you first get into skateboarding, Jeff?
Jeff Ament: My parents bought me a Grentech board in 1975 or 1976. I rode that a little bit but I wasn't super in love with it. There weren't a lot of good sidewalks or smooth pavement where I grew up. But in the summer of '76 we went to California to visit some cousins and my cousin, Gary, had made this killer stringered board with California Slaloms and Road Riders 4s on it. It was so much smoother than my Grentech board and we spent the entire vacation riding that board out in front of their house. When I left he gave me a Skateboarder magazine. It was a 20-hour drive home and by the time we got back to Montana I was 100% skateboarder. I was way in!
I can't imagine Montana having many—or any—skateparks back then.
There was only one park. It was a Fiber Rider park that got moved from somewhere in 1979 to Great Falls for eight or nine months.
Your band was huge in the Seattle scene, but was it always the game plan to eventually move back to Montana and build something?
No, by the time I moved to Seattle I couldn't wait to get the hell out of Montana. I was really into punk rock and art. I went out to Seattle in 1982, my freshman year in college, and saw The Clash and X play at the Show Box. My friend said they were opening a punk bar and the first show was Channel 3. So I quit school and lived in my buddy's closet for two months until I got job. I loved Seattle at that time. But when things blew up for the band this neighborhood that I lived in forever, lower Queen Anne, got weird. I couldn't go to the grocery store. You'd come back from tour and it felt like as much work as being on tour. I was just a small town kid so the band blowing up as big as it did, I wasn't used to any sort of adulation. So my bother and I went on a mountain biking trip back to Montana and then I started going back between every single tour leg. After about a year of that I decided I was going to buy a little chunk of property and if it all goes to hell in a hand basket with the band I'll have a little place and can get my life going in Montana. Montana was an escape for me at that point and I think I feel that way now more than ever.
Were you skating throughout those years of heavy touring?
I didn't skate from about 1988 until 1993. I always had a board I'd ride to the grocery store, but it wasn't until the first time we played Australia that I really got back into it. We played Sydney and we pulled up to Bondi and there was a vert ramp on the beach. The tour manager at the time, Eric Johnson, was a skater and we were both like, "We're here for four days, we need to go get boards!" We spent four days riding that ramp and I was like, "Why did I ever quit doing this?"
How did you get into building skateparks on Indian reservations?
The band gave some money when they built the first skatepark in Seattle Center when there were metal ramps, and then when they turned that into the first concrete park we gave them like 50 grand or something like that. It was a cool project to be involved with and I lived really close to that Seattle Center park, so I was over there a lot. After that I went to city council meetings for about five years to try and get something built in Missoula. That one was a brutal process because it was such a big city. But then I helped get the St. Ignatius Park built and that was super easy because it was a small town. That's when the focus became on these rural towns and these isolated areas, whether they're reservations or not—I don't really see color when it comes to that. I think kids who are in isolated places have a tough hill to climb and it just so happens that this time we did one at Wounded Knee and added onto Pine Ridge.
But you've built quite a few on Indian reservations. What are your ties to that community?
The town I grew up in, Big Sandy, Montana, was about ten miles from the Chippewa Cree reservation, so growing up I played basketball against two of the schools on the reservation. I got to be friends with a lot of those kids and you start to realize they're exactly like you and want to do the same stuff all kids want to do but they're not able to because the system is so broken.
Teen suicide is a huge issue on the reservation. Just this year Pine Ridge has had 15 young people—aged eight to 15—take their own lives. Were you impacted by that when you were younger?
Yeah, my little brother's best friend killed himself when he was 14 and that profoundly changed my brother's personality. Suicide is certainly an issue in Montana, but it's not like it is in Pine Ridge.
I have a six-year-old. I can't even imagine what would possess an eight-year-old to take his or her own life. Why do you think they're so plagued with youth suicide?
I don't know what happens in these kids' homes. Obviously there's abuse and things going on but I think whenever a community has that rampant alcoholism and drug abuse it's a recipe for disaster. I'm told there a lot of copycat suicides, which is crazy to me. I can't wrap my head around it. I don't know if I've ever felt that much despair. And the sad thing is that they're kids. They never got the opportunity to be 18 and run away and try to make it happen on their own. I don't have kids myself, so in building these skateparks I feel like I've gotten to know a lot of these kids. I exchange addresses and stuff so that if they need a board or something down the road I can sort of be some kind of lifeline for them.
What impact do you think these parks have had on the reservation kids?
The great thing about the park in Park Ridge was there were about 15 kids who were helping out when it was getting built and that core group of kids have real ownership of that park because they put their blood, sweat, and tears into it. That's what you try and do in each place—find even one kid who's going to be the steward of the park and take care of it. Who knows what that can turn into? Maybe that kid is on his way to being on the tribal council and trying to change bigger problems. And that's in addition to just getting kids outside and exercising and helping their self-esteem.
Most of these kids are super young. Do they even know about Pearl Jam?
Not really. I'm just the guy who helped them build a skatepark, which is awesome and way better. Some of the kids' moms are fans, but again, this is my connection to youth. I'm 52 but I'm still doing all the same stuff I did when I was 15. I'm still skateboarding, playing music, playing basketball, and riding my bike around. They keep me young.
What do you have lined up next?
The band will probably try and get another record going in the next year, and I just want to build more parks in Montana. We're starting a park in Stevensville in two weeks. We just finished a bowl in Havre and there are five or six more cities I'm talking to. The way I look at it is if I'm touring and doing more things with the band I make more money. If I make more money I build more parks. It helps me get more excited about touring because I'm usually not too excited about it.
Is it correct that you're personally reaching into your pocket and paying for these parks?
Oh yeah. The band's Vitalogy Foundation takes $3 from every ticket and we split that up five ways for our causes. That ends up being a good chunk of change, but most of the bowls I pay for out of my own pocket.
Can you ballpark how much of your own money you've spent on building skateparks?
I have no idea. The little foundation I have is called The Montana Pool Service and the bowls and pools we build end up being 60 to 80 grand each. I've probably built like 12 or 13 of those. I don't know what that works out to be.
When you think about your legacy do you think of it in terms of skateboarding or music?
I don't really think that much about my legacy. If global climate change has its way like it has in the past few years a legacy isn't going to mean anything. I think it's just about making life as comfortable for as many people as you can and being a good human.
But if you wake up dead tomorrow how would you like to be remembered?
Throw my ashes in some pool block and put me in parks all over the state.
To support the Native American skate movement go to http://strongholdsociety.org