Smithsonian Hosts 'Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America'

By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

As an ample but staid crowd peers down from balconies and staircases, nine young skateboarders fasten their helmets and scrabble up the sides of a pristine half-pipe, which sits, improbably enough, smack in the middle of the Potomac Atrium at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

Punky, up-tempo music issues forth at a museum-appropriate volume, and the Smithsonian's Native Skate Jam begins. The skaters -- some in skinny jeans, some in Vans or Chucks, some in Native Skates T-shirts -- politely take turns. One leans down and discreetly applies a sticker to the otherwise unblemished surface of the half-pipe.

"You get your coffee yet?" asks emcee Jim Murphy, 44, an American Indian skater and owner of Wounded Knee Skateboards and Propaganda, which he operates from his home in Queens, N.Y.

The audience hardly responds, although the adults are eagerly snapping photos and the children are perched on tip-toe, watching intently.

"All right," says Murphy with a grin. "We'll wait for the Starbucks to sink in."

The five-year-old museum's atrium, which days earlier housed a demure smattering of canoes under an imposingly vast ceiling, is normally a bit too outsize and bare for the more-intimate collections it houses.

But this weekend, during a series of demonstrations, skaters participating in the Native Skate Jam made the museum feel more lived in. Some drove in from Michigan or flew from Arizona to promote the exhibit "Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America," which runs through Sept. 13. Participants were busy grinding on the edges of the half-pipe and landing 360s as Murphy and fellow emcee Todd Harding provided a jolly running commentary.

Audience members were kept from the roped-off skating area and encouraged to keep to the staircases and balconies. As blankets were laid along the half-pipe's perimeter to prevent stray boards from rocketing into ankles, Smithsonian project manager Betsy Gordon breezed by to whisper, "If anyone gets up on that ramp without a helmet, they shut us down," drawing a finger across her throat.

"Ramp It Up" focuses mainly on the Native American skateboarding culture of the West Coast, tracing the sport from its origins in native Hawaiian surfing to contemporary skaters, companies and events such as the annual All Nations Skate Jam. It includes four short films, 45 images, several native-designed decks and graffiti-backdrop panels by Native American artist Jak Fragua.

Gordon, who curated the exhibit, said "Ramp It Up" is the first time the Smithsonian has brushed shoulders with a skating crowd. Getting approval, she said, wasn't easy.

"I think there was an incredible amount of resistance from some people," Gordon said, "because it just didn't have any scholarly validity."

The program tells a family-friendly story of American Indian skateboard culture as one that provides a physical and creative outlet that encourages an increased sense of American Indian identity and community while also discouraging crime and drug use.

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