In 2011, Walt Pourier (Oglala Lakota) had a vision. The well-known artist and owner of Nakota Designs thought the best way to keep Native kids out of trouble and off the street is to get them on a skateboard.
“Rather than feel defeated by the narrative that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native youth, we created a movement that uses the Lakota concept of ‘skan skan,’ or ‘moving forward together,’ to give youth reasons to live,” explains Pourier, executive director of the Stronghold Society.
The overall mission of the Stronghold Society, whose motto is “LIVE LIFE, Call to Action Campaigns,” is to “inspire confidence, creativity, hope, and ambition for all youth through empowerment, arts programs, skateboarding, and athletic activities,” as outlined on its website.
A key priority for the Stronghold Society is working with top builder Grindline Skateparks to build skate parks across Indian Country. In the last decade, it has built two state-of-the-art skate parks on the Pine Ridge Reservation with help from many funders, including renowned skateboarders and musicians Jeff Ament and Ben Harper, the Tony Hawk Foundation, and the shoemaker Vans Off The Wall.
The good news has spread. Pourier has been peppered with requests from more than 30 tribes to create skate parks on their lands, too. “We all face the same issues with our youth. The kids who come to our skate parks describe them as ‘safe spaces’ and ‘sanctuaries.’ They feel a sense of belonging there, free from drugs and alcohol,” Pourier tells First Nations.
The Stronghold Society believes that skateboarding and arts engagement can save lives. Pourier has hundreds of these success stories. In particular, two skaters graduated from Yale, and a female skater wrote in a letter to Pourier, “This skatepark saved my life.”
The Stronghold Society also has hosted numerous arts and cultural gatherings. Worth noting that the seven well-attended “One Gathering Skate for Life” events in Denver and on Pine Ridge have attracted more than 30,000 people over the years.
The nonprofit organization is also focused on getting more girls interested in skateboarding through Kimimila (Lakota for “butterfly) gatherings, featuring skateboard competitions, health classes, storytelling, beading, and other traditional arts. “It’s all about empowering our young girls,” says Pourier.
How First Nations Helped
A $25,000 grant from First Nations’ Native Youth and Culture Fund has helped the Stronghold Society keep its mission rolling. The organization was able to build capacity and develop a strategic plan, or roadmap, to keep it on track and focus on its current program offerings: building new skate parks and hosting skateboard competitions and cultural gatherings.
“It has been the most amazing blessing. We have engaged 500 Native youth and families at four major events, and visited two skate park planning sites,” says Pourier, who hopes to double Stronghold’s reach next year.
Ramping up for the future
Looking ahead, Pourier has his sights set on building an indoor/outdoor skate park in Denver, complete with art studios and gardening spaces, which will also serve as Stronghold’s headquarters. “It will be open to all young people, but it will be run by Native youth.”
The Stronghold Society will continue to build skate parks on reservations. New sites have been scouted at the Wounded Knee district in Pine Ridge and Standing Rock Reservation, with plans for many more.
Kimimila and One Gatherings will continue in Denver and Pine Ridge, and down the road, will be brought to other reservations, as well.