When Walt Pourier was growing up in Pine Ridge, he would skateboard around Baker's Hill next to the baseball diamond.
Pourier is now 46. And thanks to his efforts, the next generation of skateboarders in Pine Ridge will have more than a hill to ride.
On a gusty day last week, a handful of skate-park builders from Seattle-based Grindline Skateparks were hard at work in between the baseball field and a new children's playground. They are turning a broken bottle-littered patch of dirt into a skate park that will be one of the largest in South Dakota.
Pourier described the new park as a clover with three bowls ranging from 6 to 13 feet across.
Pourier estimated his organization, the Stronghold Society, raised about $55,000 for the park. Because workers are donating their time and living in campers (one has a mattress under the half-finished halfpipe), the finished skating area will look like it cost closer to $200,000, he said. People around Pine Ridge have been helping build the park and feeding workers, Pourier said.
"The community's so stoked on this that everybody's been doing their part," he said. "It's a grand idea, and you feed that grand idea - that's part of the strategy of this."
Park funding came from several skating aficionados. Jeff Ament, bass guitarist for Pearl Jam, got involved, as did Steve Van Doren, son of Paul Van Doren, founder of Vans brand shoes. Ament and a representative from Vans will be at the park's opening from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Pourier said.
The Pine Ridge skate park plan caught the attention of the Tony Hawk Foundation, a non-profit group that funds skate parks in low-income communities, enough that two board members each made $5,000 personal donations on top of the foundation's $10,000 grant. That is a first for the organization, said Peter Whitley, programs director for the foundation.
The foundation typically looks at risk factors like arrest rate, drug use, high school dropout and suicide rate when deciding where to give grants, Whitley said. From October 2008 to August 2009, there were nearly 100 suicide attempts on the reservation, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Theresa Two Bulls told the Rapid City Journal in 2009.
"(By) just about any of those metrics, it was so far above and beyond what we're usually looking at," Whitley said. "So there was no question that it was a community that needed our help."
The park should give children and teens something positive to think about, Pourier said.
"We really don't say, ‘suicide,' ‘suicide,' ‘suicide,' we say, ‘live life,' ‘live life,' ‘live life.' And that's how we want to inspire these kids," he said. "It's kind of changing a mindset. It's bigger than just building skate parks."
This is the second grant the Tony Hawk foundation has given the Pine Ridge reservation. The first grant, in 2003, went to build a skate park at the Boys and Girls Club in Pine Ridge, near the Nebraska border. That park is in good condition and children skate on it all the time, said Chick Big Crow, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club.
The skate park under construction right now replaces some old wooden structures that would fall apart every year, Big Crow said.
Twenty-four-year-old Jordan Big Crow, Chick's grandson, said the new skate park will be "amazing." He teaches skateboarding at the Boys and Girls Club.
"It's the safest place to skate. We have rules to go by, and it's just out of gang reach - it's not even graffitied," he said. "All the skaters here, not one of them is in a gang. And you can't say that about any other activity that's around here."
The park will officially be the "Wounded Knee Four Directions Toby Eagle Bull Memorial Skate Park," named in honor of Toby Eagle Bull, a 20-year-old Pine Ridge resident who died in a car collision in 2002. Eagle Bull was Jordan Big Crow's skateboarding role model and started the skateboarding interest in Pine Ridge, Big Crow said.
This is the first of a series of skate parks Pourier has planned for the reservation. He wants to build at Wounded Knee, Kyle and Thunder Valley. After that, his organization plans to expand to other reservations, using skate parks to encourage children and teenagers to think creatively with skateboards.
"People tend to paint them as dark, but that's a stereotype. These kids are the opposite of that," he said. "These movements are the call to humanity of today. We want to create movements like this. We want them to be kind of rebellious of these stereotypes. We want them to show people who they are."