Apache Skateboards: a new Native American iconography
The first Native-owned skateboard company is championing young concrete warriors, translating an ancient heritage onto the silk-screened deck of a skateboard.
Photography by Brendan Moore
Like Geronimo with his rifle, Native teens in Apachelypse Now T-shirts solemnly pose for the camera, skateboards proudly clasped to their chests.
Apache Skateboards — the first Native-owned skateboard company — is championing these new concrete warriors, translating an ancient heritage onto the silk-screened deck of a skateboard.
"There is nothing better than the feeling of pushing the wood under your feet, the adrenalin rush of skating down stairs, or the little accomplishment of landing a kickflip," enthuses Razelle Benally, one of two female members of the Apache Skateboards team. "There is nothing else that can replicate that feeling of accomplishment, of knowing that you put forth the effort and skill to land a new trick."
Half Navajo and half Lakota, Benally was recruited by Douglas Miles, team leader and founder of Apache Skateboards, after he spotted her dropping in the pipe at the San Carlos Skate Park one night. Ranging in age from 11 to 25, the eight team members also include Tracy Polk Jr., Douglas Miles Jr., Keith Secola, Reuben Ringlero, Irwin Lewis, Tony Steele, and Tashadawn Hastings. The team is a family affair: In addition to Miles' son, Doug Jr., Ringlero is Miles' nephew.
"I have been with Apache Skateboards since the beginning, when we took our first trip to Cali to get our first batch of skateboards," Ringlero says. Based out of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona — which Miles calls home — the team travels the country doing street-style demos, hosting skateboard contests, and teaching skateboard basics and safety at schools.
Ringlero has emceed team events throughout the country, working with tribes like the Gila River in Arizona, the Chemehuevi in California, the Red Lake Ojibwe in Minnesota, and the Jicarilla Apache in New Mexico.
"For me," Ringlero says, "it's about giving back as a skateboard company to kids who don't have many options where they come from. The cool thing about skateboarding is that you can do it anywhere — a curb, a parking lot — you don't necessarily need a skate park. It is just you and your board and you're having fun." Ringlero grew up in Komatke, Arizona, on the Gila Indian Reservation, where he now lives with his wife, Deanna, and their 3-year-old son.
"Skateboarding wasn't popular at all on the reservation when I started," he says. "Everybody was into drugs and gangs and causing trouble, and my friends and I just wanted to skate. Skateboarding has definitely grown since then. There are skate parks now in San Carlos and Gila River, and kids are starting to see the fun that we have."
Made popular in the '60s and '70s by California teens who developed daring tricks in abandoned amusement parks and empty swimming pools, skateboarding has always had an outlaw reputation. Now it has a new face — and a new design — thanks to Miles, who is turning the world of skateboarding on its edge.
Miles channeled his teenage penchant for graffiti into a successful career in fine art, creating provocative, graphic spray-painted stencils that meld pop culture images from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now with gun-toting Apache warriors.
But it wasn't until his son took up skateboarding at age 11 that Miles got back to the boards of his youth, necessity becoming the unexpected mother of Apache Skateboards.
"I could not afford the full-color name-brand skateboard that my son wanted at the mall," Miles says. "Indian people for centuries have made a world out of the things around them — pots out of clay, bows out of reeds. I don't want to get all anthropological, but I found a way to work with the tools and resources I had."
His first design was a simple anime- inspired image of an Apache warrior on the skateboard deck. Not only did his son love the board and ride it around San Carlos until it broke, but he came home and informed his dad, "Everyone wants one."
Miles realized he couldn't hand-paint a skateboard for all of the teenagers in San Carlos, so he saved up money from the sale of his artwork and found a company in California to print the first 100 skateboards.
That was in 2003. Now, in addition to the silk-screened decks, Miles creates handpainted skateboards that are part of the permanent collections of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Miles sees his deck designs, and the team, as an opportunity to share cultures — both the tribal culture of the Apache and the tribal culture of skateboarding. "Surfing was created by native Hawaiians," Miles says, "and was brought to the mainland in the '30s. Surfers and skateboarders inherently are very tribal about the way they do their thing. As tribal people, as Apache, we understand that, and it is a perfect fit."
As members of the fringe, skateboarders — like punk and hip-hop artists — have created their own language, attire, movement, sound, and art, which are often viewed as primitive, or unsophisticated, or unworthy of appreciation by members of the cultural mainstream.
Even Native art, which is lauded when it meets historic artistic standards, is often devalued when it takes a less traditional approach. Miles thinks that it's time to recognize the aesthetic power of a new kind of tribal art, one that exceeds all limitations.
His skaters are all about forging a modern tribal identity. "When I first tell people about Apache Skateboards," Benally says, "they superimpose an image of us just being Native, but we're not concerned about sticking to what's Native, or sticking to anything that will limit ourselves.
My generation has to deal with a certain identity crisis, about how to break the mold without breaking our traditions, how to balance my ancestral blood while progressing with the rest of the people in this world. It's a hard thing to do, but through Apache Skateboards I'm able to uphold my background and not forget who I am," she says.
Who she is is proof that you can't judge a boarder by the baggy clothes. Benally started skating when she was 13 years old, but she stopped at 16 to focus on school because she wanted to get into a good college. She studied mathematics and physics, then became interested in filmmaking at the end of her senior year.
She went on to become a film student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and now serves as team filmographer along with Ringlero, who got his degree in media arts in Tempe, Arizona.
"Skateboarding and filmmaking go hand in hand," Benally says. "Skateboarding is a very spectatorial sport, a very visual sport. I want to capture on film that feeling of landing a trick, that feeling of the wind in your hair as you push faster and faster, to show it to others."
As she frames her shot, watching a team member stand above the obstacle he is about to 360 flip, Benally wonders what is going through his mind. "I try to capture that feeling of Ollieing off, and the emotion behind the trick. Because it is a special thing, and not many people on this earth are going to know that feeling personally. It is my job to provide the visual image to capture the emotion."
Benally and Ringlero can be found behind the lens, and riding the ramp, at the team's big annual event — the Apache Skate Blast — held every spring at the San Carlos Skate Park. Miles' mom cooks fry bread and beans for the sponsors, and the team hosts a punk rock concert for the participants.
"Our idea is to get skaters far and wide to come and skate and have a good time," Ringlero says. "Hopefully every kid can go home with a prize. A couple of major companies in the valley have made donations, and that's how we get skaters far and wide, not just Native skaters, to see what the reservation has to offer and what talent we have."
They hope to foster the talents of other kids by example. "We're not your stereotypical Indians," Benally says. "We're not your stereotypical kids in general. We're all different, and we're using those differences to create inspiration and influence for other people who may not know they have options. When we travel to different reservations, the kids may be able to draw well, to paint; they may be into graffiti.
But in the society they live in, those talents go unnoticed. When we come to those places, we let them know that those talents are worth something. Because we all have those same talents, and we're doing something with them."
"Apache Skateboards is unique," she says, "because we are combining diverse backgrounds, talents, and different means of expression into one embodiment. We are all, to some extent, artists and poets. We all skate, we all care about progressing ourselves and each other. We push each other to skate better, to make better films, to live better, to live more interesting lives. You're not going to find another team like us."
Miles himself can't contain his enthusiasm for his team. "I can't express how proud I am of them, but it is very nerve- wracking because they are still kids. It's like herding cats. But I wouldn't take anything for it, because they are artists in their own right. And they inspire me to no end. They are Apache Skateboards."
But he has concerns, too. About recognition and acceptance of new Native art forms. About ensuring that Native Americans are able to own their new imagery, without being culturally hijacked. About tribal concerns for legal liability standing in the way of building new skate parks. But people are taking notice, and skate parks are getting built.
"I think a lot of what we do will impact how Native Americans are going to be viewed in the 21st century," Miles says. "People are going to say 'Wow.' It is about a new Native American iconography, a totally different way of looking at Native American youth in the 21st century."
To see more of Brendan Moore's photos of the Apache Skateboards team, visit www.brendanmoorephoto.com.
The Artwork of Douglas Miles
According to Davison Koenig, curator at the Dada Contemporary gallery in Tucson, Arizona, the opening reception for Apache Chronicles: The Artwork of Douglas Miles was one of the most successful they have had to date. "The energy and excitement were amazing, and people were blown away by his work," Koenig says. The exhibit, which ran through March 28, showcased Miles' ability to capture a raw, new Apache identity. After the reception, Miles conducted a painting demonstration in the parking lot on a piece of found metal from a local mining town. "Douglas walked [the attendees] through his process and approach, and the assembled crowd gasped when he finished his painting," Koenig reports. "A couple then pulled up their brand-new Toyota Tacoma pick-up and Douglas obligingly stenciled a painting on the tailgate. The evening was without doubt a smashing success."
459 N. 6th Ave., Tucson, Arizona
120 NW 9th Ave., Portland, Oregon
Skateboarding goes with filmmaking like polyurethane wheels go with concrete. It is as much a visual performance as a physical sport. Amateur videos of Native skateboard teams proliferate on the Internet on websites like YouTube, but skateboard films are growing up. Films like Lords of Dogtown (2005) and Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) about classic California skateboarding have been successful on the Indie circuit, and now Native films are dropping into the field.
4-Wheel War Pony
Directed by Dustinn Craig (2008)
Shown at the 2009 Native American Film + Video Festivalat the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center inNew York City, this short film explores how skateboarding on the White Mountain Apache Reservation links cultures past and present. Growing up on the Fort Apache and Navajo reservations in Arizona, Craig began his directorial career making skateboarding videos of his friends. His documentary Home continues to screen through 2010 as part of the Heard Museum exhibit HOME: Native People in the Southwest. He is also a producer and director of Episode 4: "Geronimo" of the PBS miniseries We Shall Remain: A Native History of America, which premieres on May 4. Visit www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain/ and www.heard.org for more information.
Walk Like A Warrior: The Apache Skateboard Story
Co-directed by Douglas Miles and Franck Boistel (2008)
The Apache Skateboards team rolls past stereotypes about skateboarding and Native Americans and presents both in a bold and innovative way. Walk Like a Warrior will be screening on May 7 at 7 p.m. as part of the Native American film series "Bringing the Circle Together" at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles. Douglas Miles will speak following the screening. For more information, visit the website.
All Nations Skate Jam
Los Altos Skatepark
National championship of Native skaters held each year in conjunction with the Gathering of Nations Powwow
Apache Skate Blast
San Carlos Skate Park
San Carlos, AZ
At the foot of a rocky mesa, skaters battle under the fierce Arizona sun and punk bands like JFA, The Sirens, and Dephinger perform.
Sac City Throw Down
Sacaton Skate Park
Hosted by the Gila River Indian community, the event features concurrent skateboard and BMX competitions as well as music from local Native bands. This year's event took place in March.