As one of pro snowboarding's only Native American riders, Lonnie Kauk is far from the privileged, suburban prototype that seems to dominate the shred scene. Born and raised beneath the majestic monoliths of Yosemite Valley, Kauk got his big break after some enduring performances at Snowboarder Magazine's Superpark in Mammoth several years ago. Since then, closing parts with Standard Films and a reputation as a fearless backcountry jump swami have secured his respect among fellow riders.
Yet it may be his approachable and passionate attitude that really sets Kauk apart. Unfazed by the widespread "coolness" of the scene, his positive attitude transcends any hype that may come with being a pro snowboarder. Recently, People Films put out a three-part series on Kauk's life. It provided a good excuse to catch up with the man and have him explain how snow shredding is just one part of a long history of awesome that includes rock climbing and bloodlines that are united with the very mountains he loves most.
ESPN.com: For those of us who don't know, quickly explain your heritage.
Lonnie Kauk: I am a direct descendent of Chief Tenaya, one of the last Native American chiefs in Yosemite Valley; that's my mom's side of the family. My dad came here on a backpacking trip in the '60s and ended up staying and becoming one of the legends of rock climbing.
That's some pretty serious lineage. What do your roots mean to you?
It makes me realize my existence and gives me an understanding of where I come from. It's pretty cool to have something like this -- especially having it all based around a place like Yosemite -- because not a lot of people do.
Do you feel a connection to that area because of this?
When I am climbing I feel a connection with my dad because he spent so much time here. Then I look around the rocks and I will see a grinding hole where the natives used to grind up acorns to make acorn mush, for hundreds of years. There are these holes in the rocks seemingly wherever I climb and it just gets me thinking a little bit deeper about this place.
Just to see these things and think about the history of the place is cool enough, but then I have to wonder, "Were these people my actual family?" It's pretty powerful.
Explain your climbing situation.
I am working on this route right now, which is like my dad's life route. He has put his entire life into this thing. I think that's why no one else has done it, because it's more of an experience than just a climb.
It just hit me one day when I was up there trying it. I felt my existence completely. It was almost like an [awakening]. I realized where I came from, from this guy, my dad, a guy who came to this place and took it as far as he could. After being raised here and spending all this time here, it just hit me hard. There is a spirit in what I do.
It's got to be about more than just sending it. ... There is so much more to why we do what we do than just being good at it.”
It's funny because I wasn't pushed to do this by him or anything. It's just so much in my blood, I guess it kind of came out naturally.
You sound pretty inspired by him. Why is it, then, that you are into snowboarding and don't give climbing all your attention?
I'd say growing up watching my dad doing his thing, living his dream, it just made me think, "I have to do something like that!" Whether it was being a climber or a snowboarder or a skater, I always looked towards something like that -- nothing else. If it could be your job, then great, but if not, all I was going to do was chase whatever it was that I wanted to take to that level.
At this point, with some sponsor changes and a changing professional scene, how do you manage to stay relevant?
In the end it's all about the love for being out there in the mountains and the love for just shredding. It's the love of that feeling. Hopefully sponsors are willing to support you for who you are and not mold you in their image.
After all these years filming, there have been glimpses of cool things that represent me, but sometimes it's not that way at all. I feel like as snowboarders our stories could be told better. So that's what I am fighting for this season. I want to try and tell things the way that they really are. Hopefully I can produce something that interprets my journey for what it really is.
The stories that are told these days in many videos are more of the companies and not the riders. Do you plan on doing your own thing to avoid that?
I want to film but also try and be my own director for my video part, wherever it goes, whatever we figure out. I just want to show more, because my snowboarding itself has been seen. I want to stay on this wave all the way out, all season, all summer, the whole way. I know if I am able to accomplish this, then something really cool can shine through.
It's got to be about more than just sending it. What's cool about the tools that I have been blessed with is that with the climbing side, the native side and the snowboarding, I have a blend of influence and history that makes me who I am. Now we're getting somewhere. There is so much more to why we do what we do than just being good at it.
So in the end, what is that message for you?
Just be who you are. Be who you really are. When you throw that out to the world and you feel great about it, then it's all good! Even if nobody likes it, who cares?! It doesn't even have to be this heavy, serious thing. As long as it is what it is, as long as it's true, who can argue with that?