A skateboarder lifts off a skate ramp at Innoskate 2022 in downtown Sioux Falls, SD. Photo by Joshua Novak.
Since it began in the 1950’s in California, skateboarding has made its way from an outsider activity to the core of American culture. Angela Zonunpari writes about how South Dakotans are exploring the community building power of the sport, from Pine Ridge to Sioux Falls.
You are up in the air, and you don’t know if you will stick that landing. But it doesn’t matter because you can try again. And again.
There is a constant invitation and openness in skateboarding—a “welcome” sign. Like any creative outlet and sport, skateboarding has a magnetic energy—a challenge that is renewed with every new curb or ramp, and a movement that brings calm and groundedness. Skateboarding conjures up moments of connection between you and your body; your body and the board; your board and the ramp; and the people cheering you on.
That Skate Life
A couple of years ago, Willow Kneip and her older sister were looking through the garage and found their parents’ old skateboards. They started pushing around on them in their driveway. “I didn’t like it too much at first,” said Kneip, an 11-year-old who lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “But I decided I should probably keep trying it and get better at it, so then you actually get the feel for it. From then on, I just stuck to it.”
What does this young skater love about the sport? “The joy of it—whenever you are trying a trick and then you finally do it. Also, going to the skatepark with your friends is really fun!” said Kneip, who wants to go to the Olympics when she is older. In the last two years of skateboarding, she has noticed, “I’m a lot more happy and jolly than I thought. I’m never really that sad. I’m very social.”
For 16-year-old Keith Heth III of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in Fort Thompson, South Dakota, skateboarding has been a part of his life for the last decade, since his father built a mini ramp in their driveway. His persistence as a young kid asking their neighbor and tribal council member about a skatepark finally brought Evergreen Skateparks and grant funding to build a cement park in 2015.
“The friendships I’ve made along the way … they always keep me coming back. There’s something about hopping on the skateboard and riding around … It just starts getting me all happy,” said Heth III, who competed in his first skate contest at Innoskate in Sioux Falls.
Heth III, who is interested in getting a skate sponsorship while pursuing music as a career, said that skateboarding is a part of him and has always been since an early age. “It’s like if it wasn’t there, I really don’t know who I’d be. I guess that sounds kind of dramatic, but that’s how I can say it right now.”
WALTER PORTZ, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF LET’S SKATE
“I don’t think there’s any other sport where your competition cheers as loudly [for you] as your team.”
Since it began in the 1950’s in California, skateboarding has made its way from an outsider activity to the core of American culture. In South Dakota, you can find this creative pastime everywhere, from the streets of the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls, to Pine Ridge Reservation.
“Skateboarding has always been there for me,” said no less than three South Dakotans reflecting on how important the sport is for them. It is this sense of community that keeps people coming back.
Skateboarding took center stage last summer in South Dakota through Innoskate, a unique festival that celebrates skateboarding. Launched in 2013 by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention, Innoskate believes that “invention and innovation happen every day—often in unexpected places.” Through public programming across the world in partnership with leaders in the skate community, it celebrates the creativity and innovation that happens in skate culture.
Kyle Mesteth built his first mini ramp with his father as a young skateboarder and went on to be an announcer at skate competitions—with the sport showing up to build community for him in different ways throughout his life. “Skateboarding really set forth my path, forged it and I’m happy for that,” he said. Mesteth is now building an “ultimate creative space” called Ground Control, a community multimedia studio with an indoor skatepark in the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in southwest South Dakota and one of nine Indian Reservations that share the geography of the state. “We needed something like this on the rez…a community center that focuses on the artists and creativity and making people excited.”
This exploration of building a distinct space for community has given him permission to pursue things close to his heart. For him, it is also a call to makers and doers in Pine Ridge to whole-heartedly embrace their creativity. “The possibilities are endless. There’s room for all of us to eat. There’s room for everybody to put their art out, if need be, and let the world enjoy it,” said Mesteth. “You can see things that are 100% Lakota-made being produced out of here. That’s going to be amazing because it’s important that we take our narrative back and tell our stories from our voice.”
In Sioux Falls, just over 300 miles from Pine Ridge, plans are underway to design and build the Barb Iverson Skate Plaza, the city’s first cement skatepark at the edge of downtown. A result of an ambitious $2-million fundraising and community buy-in effort, this visible success in Sioux Falls recently brought Innoskate to South Dakota. Walter Portz, Executive Director of Let’s Skate (formerly Sioux Falls Skatepark Association), said that there has been “an explosion of opportunities and ideas” since, with an acknowledgement for what the sport and new space can do for community members.
“I think everybody that was there [at Innoskate], skateboarder or non-skateboarder, feels momentum and energy. Sioux Falls just became a skateboarding town,” said Portz. “I estimate between 200 to 300 kids stepped on skateboards for the first time or were exposed to skateboarding for the first time in person.”
From corporate companies and school districts interested in partnering for after school programs, to invitations for representing the sport in athletic events across the state, to working with other communities in the country to campaign for skateparks, Let’s Skate is experiencing momentum in different directions. The nonprofit organization is working with communities in Worthington (Minnesota), Rapid City (South Dakota) and Waxhaw (North Carolina) to scope out skatepark fundraising campaigns and projects.
Ground Control is seeing similar interest and investment. “What’s crazy is there are people who just want to be involved in any shape or form,” said Mesteth. With a fully equipped professional production studio and expansive offerings to meet creative needs of makers and skaters, the facility will be “rocking and rolling” by the end of 2022. It has been important for him to frame this space up in a way where anyone can see themselves in it. “It’s making it visual for the next person to say, ‘I want to be a part of that,’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to do something like that,’” he said.
There is an inherent connection between skate culture and diverse art forms. Innoskate in South Dakota celebrated just that—the intersection of music, art, videography, photography, and skateboarding.
In Fort Thompson, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Youth Council recently organized a summer bash showcasing visual artists and skateboarders. To see them and other people operate within these collaborative spaces highlights how skate culture is fostering creativity and innovation in South Dakota.
For Portz and Mesteth, who have been key in leading efforts in Sioux Falls and Pine Ridge, the work has come full circle many times—from introducing their craft as artists working in photo and video, to creating space for young skateboarders.
The skate communities in Sioux Falls and Pine Ridge have come together a few times already. From sharing photo and video gear to show what those mediums mean for documenting the sport and shaping professional skills, to working together to lay Masonite sheets for Ground Control’s indoor skatepark, to co-hosting skate contests in the two places. “We bridged the gap between Pine Ridge and Sioux Falls. And that, to me, is amazing,” said Mesteth.
A 2019 ESPN article cited research by the Aspen Institute that ranked skateboarding as the third most financially accessible sport next to track and field and flag football. Families on average spent around $380 per child annually on skateboarding. These South Dakotans among many others have been making a case for the sport and skateparks—one that has been amplified with skateboarding making its Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
While the sport has existed globally on a large scale with prestigious competitions and events, the inclusion in the Olympics seems to have bolstered it to the main stage. Opening a new awareness of its impact and reach—a recognition for its low barrier of entry and the potential it holds to shape talent in diverse ways.
The attraction and magnetism to the sport is equally palpable in people who have skated for 30 years or just two. The possibilities of creativity through the sport—through actions of perseverance and small, slow shifts—seem endless for these South Dakotans. They are highlighting the creative, emerging power of it through movements in Pine Ridge, Fort Thompson, Sioux Falls, Watertown, and communities across South Dakota and beyond.
In Portz’s words, a skatepark is more than a playground. “It’s a community center and a playground in one.” And to inspire people into this world of possibility, fifth-grader Kniep says: “You can do it when you’re ready. There’s no rush, because there’s no rush in skateboarding.”
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