"I'm one of those people who can say, 'Skateboarding saved my life,' which is something you hear almost all old skaters say as they look back on it," says Walt Pourier, speaking from the artist-in-residence studio at the Denver Art Museum's American Indian Galleries near the end of his recent 10-week stint there. Surrounded by Wounded Knee Skateboards decks, featuring his iconic portraits of Black Elk, Crazy Horse and the White Buffalo, Pourier adds, "Skateboarding inspired me."
When Pourier -- an Oglala Lakota painter, graphic designer and lifelong skateboarder -- says "Skateboarding saved my life," he means it quite literally: A suicide epidemic on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation has reached deeper and deeper into his circle of friends and family. Lately, he's been turning his old "skate or die" rallying cry into what he calls a "Live Life Call to Action Campaign" in the hope that skateboarding still has some other lives to save.
"My parents got divorced when I was really young, and my mother moved us to Southern California," Pourier says, explaining the roots of the culture shock that has informed both his life and his artwork ever since that upheaval. "We went from the reservation, from the Badlands of South Dakota, to having a huge palm tree in the back yard. It wasn't long before I kicked the cowboy boots from my days as a Little Britches rodeo competitor to the closet, got my first pair of Vans and started noticing this skateboard thing going on."
A cousin in Huntington Beach, Calif., first got him rolling in the 1970s, ultimately introducing him to skaters like Tony Alva and Steve Olson, who Pourier says ended up being his heroes for life. He's been working to pass the favor forward ever since. "Art and skateboarding, which are inseparable in my mind, gave me something to live for and ways to express myself when my own life felt most difficult," he says. "I've been trying to share that in any way I can."
Nearly a decade ago, Pourier launched a youth skateboard team, dubbed the Nakota Dogs Movement, and began working with young people through a series of art and skateboarding workshops that eventually caught the attention of curators from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. They invited Pourier and his team to the museum in Washington, D.C., in 2009 to be featured in "Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture In Native America," now a touring exhibition.
It was there that Pourier first met Wounded Knee Skateboards co-founders Jim Murphy and the late Andy Kessler, beginning a collaboration that has put Pourier's art in front of new audiences and has since helped bring the first public concrete skatepark to the reservation. The WK4-Directions Skatepark opened in Pine Ridge in 2012, the first of four planned skateparks there and the first of many now in the works on reservations across the country.
But, Pourier concedes, "It's not even really about skateboarding. It's about changing the mindset. It's about giving these kids something to look forward to and getting them inspired, which literally means 'to live in spirit.'"
Living in spirit has become Pourier's life's work. He is a sundancer and pipe carrier in traditional Lakota ceremonies and is involved with Tusweca Tiospaye, the organization behind the annual Lakota Dakota Nakota Language Summit. Through his graphic-design business, Nakota Designs, he's worked for dozens of clients ranging from the Colorado Indigenous Games Society to the Native American Rights Fund, and Lakota imagery and inspiration has infused everything he does.
Pourier was invited to participate in the Denver Art Museum's artist-in-residence program after catching the museum director's attention in September 2012 at the museum's 23rd annual Friendship Powwow, at which Pourier led a group art project for kids: painting a stretched canvas in the form of a skateboard, with the words "Let my people skate."
In addition to displaying his Wounded Knee Skateboards designs, Pourier used the public studio at the Denver Art Museum to work on a group of large-scale paintings he calls his "Raven Cry" series. "The black birds fly to warn you of the coming storm," he tells a young museum visitor who has turned his attention to the paintings, each depicting a bold, dark bird against a swirling, color-soaked background. "It's not to create fear, but to create unity, a gathering at the Stronghold to ride out the storm."
"The Stronghold" is both a general idea and a specific historic place: It's where Pourier's ancestors gathered after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, when more than 150 Lakota men, women and children were killed by the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment in what remains one of the darkest stains in American history.
"The survivors, and the ones who weren't there that day, fled to the Badlands to hide in a place called the Stronghold, and there they regained their strength," Pourier explains. "They wanted to retaliate, but what they didn't realize was that the cavalry had lined the hills with guns." Pourier recently learned from a tribal elder that the man who convinced the Lakota not to leave the Stronghold to walk into that trap was a Frenchman living among them, named Baptiste "Big Bat" Pourier -- Walt's great-great grandfather.
When he decided to give a proper name to his "Live Life Call to Action Campaign," the words came easily to him: The Stronghold Society. Pourier's nonprofit organization will host its fourth annual One Gathering Skate For Life event on Jul. 6, 2013, at the Denver Skatepark and recently launched Rockers4REZparks, a new initiative to help marshal interest in his plan to build new parks on reservations across the country from the likes of Ben Harper, Pearl Jam, Metallica and Def Leppard. Other active Stronghold Society programs include Kimimila Gathering "Age Of The Daughters" events for girls at Pine Ridge and a youth-mentoring program aimed at promoting "a healthy life in mind, body and spirit through skateboarding, music, art and design, film and photography."
"A lot of journalists come to Pine Ridge to cover the poverty angle and miss these other stories," Pourier laments. "They want to take pictures of the drunks and focus on the abuse and the suicides. And what I've come to realize is that it's not helping. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Pourier holds a better prophecy at the forefront of everything he does.
"The prophecy given to my people before the massacre at Wounded Knee was that the Seventh Generation would come together to mend the Sacred Hoop that was broken that day," he says. "This current generation, which is the biggest generation in American history, is the Seventh Generation. If we can guide them and inspire them, some phenomenal things could happen."