Skateboarding often gets a bad rap; "long-haired slackers in baggy pants." Right?
But the upcoming Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian says otherwise, celebrating, instead, the positive contributions of American Indian skate culture. After all, rebelliousness can be the stuff of creativity in filmmaking, graphic art and design.
Skateboarding is one of the most popular sports on Indian reservations. There are Native American skate teams, as well as Native American-owned skateboard companies. The exhibition, which opens this Friday, is a multimedia feast that includes skating footage, archival photographs of Native American skateboarders and Native American-designed skate decks (the platforms of skateboards, for those who were wondering). I emailed documentary filmmaker Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo) to discuss some of the finer points of both skateboarding and filmmaking.
What do you think are some positive effects that skateboarding has had on Native American youth based on your experiences?
I think that the effects skateboarding has on those who manage to become skateboarders transcends race, gender, ethnicity, social class, etc. Not everyone who begins or tries to skateboard actually becomes a skateboarder. For some it's just a passing phase, or a hobby or a trend, but for some it becomes a part of their identity. For me the impacts have been very positive only because I chose to focus on the positive aspects of skateboarding. I was lucky enough to have some natural ability that helped me to learn tricks and to ride, and eventually become good, not great, but just good, slightly above average for my time which was the early 90's. Because of skateboard magazines, I was exposed to a wide variety of art, music, photography and youth culture. If you sift through all of this, you will find stuff that is self-destructive or negative just like all activities and lifestyles. Skateboarding is a microcosm for the world; there is much that is good and bad, and it's up to the individual to find a balance that hopefully is positive. I have seen aspects of skateboard culture destroy people, and I've seen it make them better people.
Do you think there’s a certain aspect of your personality that inspires you to film others?
I think that everyone films others when they feel the need to snap a picture to capture a moment or facial expression, or scene. These images, whether they moving or still help us to remember, or translate, the feelings or intentions that prompted us to capture or create these images. In my case, I tend to want to take a picture, or moving pictures, as an openly defiant act of resistance to the imagery that is not created by people from our communities. When I say community, I mean both the Native community and the skateboard community. There are plenty of capitalist goons who use these communities and cultures as a platform to showcase their mediocre art, photography and ideas, when they are not of these communities or cultures to begin with. These types are culture vultures, the lowest form of scum! This is pathetic and very difficult to clarify for most outsiders who can only catch a glimpse into the communities and cultures that we might be a part of. So few can actually say they know our experience, because they have experienced it too, so it's easy for the uninformed to believe that people or organizations are legitimate, just because they create material or product that utilizes Native Culture or skateboard culture.
What kind of connection between skateboarding and Native American cultures did you wish to reveal with your experimental film "4wheelwarpony?"
The film "4wheelwarpony" is a very intimate portrait of skateboarding in my home community. This context is that of specifically White Mountain Apache Skateboarders and their experience since the 1970's. Skateboarding has a special legacy in our hometown, and I am proud to say that we have always had good skateboarders, and that skateboarding has managed to thrive in some form on our reservation for as long as I have lived, maybe even longer. I think that is special as a lifelong skateboarder, and as a contemporary generation X'r, or whatever I might be classified as. It's just nice to have a real story and recent history in your community that goes well beyond bad Hollywood adaptations of skateboarding in films, or video games and the "extreme" marketing craze of the last several years. That's not to discount those who are new to skateboarding, but to illustrate that some places and communities have roots. In our case, the White Mountain Apache Skateboarders, our roots run deep.
We are still living on the aboriginal territory of our ancestors; our traditional culture and language is still intact, and the stories of our collective experience still live with us. When it comes to skateboarding, we also have our recent contemporary history of skateboarding culture as it evolved on our reservation over the last 30 or so years. Many of the older skateboarders of the 70's had younger brothers and cousins that became skaters in the 80's, then the 90's and so on. What "4wheelwarpony" is trying to convey is that we are of both an ancient culture that predates American, but also we are of skateboarding culture. The irony being that like our traditional culture, skateboarding is also an indigenous American culture that has evolved into what it is today in less that 50 years. In that way, we have two incredible cultures thriving side by side in our specific community until they are inseparable from one another. I don't think I could remove the skateboarder from myself, or my identity as a White Mountain Apache. I just know I am. Though I always have to stress that not everyone becomes a skateboarder, or can. I don't know what ingredient that is, but I do know through my own life experience that not everyone has it. In the same way that everyone who writes is not a poet, or novelist. Not everyone can be a filmmaker, doctor, mathematician etc.
Why do you think it’s important that Native Americans get a chance to get their voices heard in film?
It is important because until recently, people of color, not just Native Americans, have had their images distorted by those who have oppressed them. As a result, so much of what is distributed about us is misinformed or distorted. So we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to reclaim our images, stories and perspective.
What do you hope audiences take away from your films?
I hope they see that there is an effort made at honesty.
Do you have any desire to make feature-length movies in the future?
Just about everyone I know entertains that idea, but the reality is that few will be able to do that, but more importantly, do it well. Just like skateboarding! I think I show some promise and have some technical ability, and I hope to accomplish it one day, but only time will tell. But that won't mean that I will have become a filmmaker. I've proven that on a local and national level, as a hobbyist and as a working professional, so I know I'm a filmmaker already. My own personal question is will I be a filmmaker with the ability to create a variety of film styles effectively? There are skateboarders who can ride different terrain and have their own preferences or areas where they feel most comfortable. The same goes for filmmaking—I am confident in my creative ability so far, but I know I am still growing as a filmmaker and hope to do so for as long as I am able.
So most of what I’ve read just discusses your filming of other skaters. How are your own skating skills these days?
That is always so subjective, so let me try to create something to illustrate where I was. A sport like basketball has all these levels! You have young people that are really good at their local level or school, then the few kids good enough to play at the college level, and those very few who make it to the pros. If skateboarding was a sport like that, then I may have been able to ride for a very small out-of-the-way community college, and may not even have been a starter.
I did know and ride with guys I see in the magazines today, and that's neat, but I knew even back then that those guys had something special that was beyond my ability.
I was at my skateboarding prime between the ages of 17 to 21, I was good then and I am 33 now. These days I still skateboard, but it's different because now I have responsibility. I have my family, a mortgage, a profession and those are my priorities. So when I skateboard today I am always conscious of the reality that if I get hurt I put all those I just mentioned in jeopardy. Still, I can't bring myself to let it go completely. I have to ride my skateboard because it's such a part of who I am, and what helped to create who I have become. So I try to stay within my ability, but that's hard because the old ego always pushes you to try and do things that used to come effortlessly in your heyday. So these days I skate two to three times a week if I am lucky, and when I am working I might take gaps that are months long, and when that happens I have to try very hard to regain my strength, endurance and mental focus to get back to a level that is comfortable and enjoyable. That can take weeks or months to regain, so it's even more precious than it was when I was young, if that makes any sense. One thing I dreamed about when I was young was the prospect of skateboarding with my own child, and I am happy that my 13-year-old son has become a skateboarder on his own, and now I skate with him. That is very surreal for me.