Clad in Crocs, hoodies and high-tops, the youths hopped up and perched effortlessly on the edge of the skatepark, their backpacks shrugged off in a quickly-forgotten pile.
It was a springlike Friday afternoon, March 17, 2023, and River, Eli, Blake and their friends had just gotten out of school, then ambled over to Elmer-Quinn Memorial Park near the heart of the Warm Springs Reservation, home to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. There, Collective Concrete & Construction project manager Tavita Scanlan’s crew was putting the finishing touches on the new 8,000-square-foot Warm Springs Skatepark.
They surveyed the scene and played with their phones. Scanlan’s DeWalt music player pushed out a mix of cheesy pop, West African and heavy metal, which echoed off the skatepark’s sculpted small bowl, then faded into the larger bowl created by the surrounding tree-lined canyons.
Then one brought out a skateboard and something uncoiled.
They moved to a small wall in the center, near where Scanlan’s crew was adding a metal rail with a base of three metal pyramids (a nod to the three-teepee logo symbolizing the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute tribes). River Edwards, 12, stopped munching Flaming Hot Limón Doritos, grabbed the board and took a few tentative “rips.”
As he floated across the smooth, dusty surface, a smile brightened his stoic expression, like a beam of light piercing Oregon’s famous mists. He wasn’t ready to take on the six-foot-high curved walls yet, he said, but soon “might start trying to grind.”
It’s what Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Director of Managed Care Michael Collins has noticed as the project nears completion. He waves to a pickup truck that drives by to check it out, a kid giving a thumbs up out the open window.
“That’s the biggest thing: seeing that ray of light,” Collins says. “Something positive, something nice is happening in our community. It makes people feel proud about where they live, where they come from.”
The Warm Springs Skatepark grand opening and blessing is 11 a.m. on March 29. It honors what is more than just a lump of concrete, metal and wood. For Collective Concrete & Construction owner Joey Martin and his crew, it’s the culmination of two years of hard work in temperatures that dipped below freezing. For sponsors, organizers and funders, it’s an “organic” philanthropic collaboration, a happy convergence of cultures, races and ages. For the Confederated Tribes and Warm Springs skaters like Daquan Cassaway, it’s not just a place to rip and grind, it’s a wellspring of hope.
The place itself tells stories. Across the street is the tribal community center, where the annual pow-wow is held; the tribal headquarters is nearby, as is the Warm Springs Community Action Team. A stone’s throw to the north of the new skatepark’s “ride on taco” is the rippling, crisp Shitike (shi-TIKE) Creek, which flows into the Deschutes River.
The Shitike’s a favorite local swimming hole. “When it’s 100 degrees out, kids just live in the creek,” Collins explains.
On the other side of the skatepark, up a bluff, lies the silent rubble of two former homes, lost to separate fires, Collins says. One could see them as a reminder of a past that includes betrayals by the United States government, to whom the tribes “ceded” 10 million acres in the 1855 Middle Oregon “Treaty.”
The new skatepark seems to connect these dots.
“We have those, what they call it today, social determinants of health, where you see families that struggle with things in the community in their own homes: physical health, mental health, spiritual health,” Collins explains, “and sometimes it’s the children that are the ones that are left, through no fault of their own. And [the new skatepark] can be an outlet, a coping mechanism, just like any other outlet, like basketball, to release that energy.”
A Warm Springs high schooler named Daquan Cassaway traces his earliest memories of skating to Elmer-Quinn Memorial Park, where the first Warm Springs skatepark opened in 2004, Collins says, using Indian Health Service dollars. Cassaway and his buddies would swim in the creek and “hang out at the skate park to dry off,” he says.
“My cousin had a skateboard, we all got boards, and then we just started skating there every day after school.” He got a new skateboard, he recalls, when Warm Springs K-8 Academy teacher Scott Vrana made him a bet “that if I got good grades he’d buy me a deck.” Cassaway studied hard, and Vrana got that skateboard, Cassaway remembers, “and we set it up and like gripped it, and I just started skating that right away after school. And he just thought that was so funny.”
Cassaway is now sponsored by Portland skate company Tactics and is capable of highly-skilled maneuvers that include skateboarding off a roof.
He didn’t get there easily. As the first skatepark deteriorated, kids who were determined to rip started walking, skating and hitchhiking Highway 26 to a newer one in Madras.
Martin says stuff like that reflects the “credo of skating: make it happen.” The company has built skateparks all over: on the Navajo Nation, in Martin’s dad’s hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, and even Ethiopia’s first skatepark.
“Half my career I’ve been building skateparks for overprivileged, overpaid communities that don’t really harness the love and the passion and the grittiness of skateboarding,” Martin says. The Warm Springs youth, on the other hand, might “walk 16 miles to get a grind in,” he says; “They’ll pick their skateboard up, they’ll roll up their pants and they’ll walk up out of the canyon that Warm Springs is in, and they’ll either hitchhike or walk to Madras.”
“They’ll do anything to skate,” Collins agrees, relieved kids no longer need to get to Madras for a rip, grind or ollie. “We definitely were worried about their health, welfare and safety.”
Cassaway says he skates for himself, his grandparents, Bernidine and Jamie Wattlamett, and his uncle Clay Jack. “It means a lot, really — I just don’t know how to explain it,” Cassaway says of the new skatepark, with a teenager’s shyness and a skater’s lingo. “It’s like having a really old skateboard and getting a new one and just being really hyped on it.”
“I feel like it’s going to help Daquan a lot,” his friend Ponce says, because “the way he skates, and like the obstacles he likes to skate, that park is literally him.”
Can a skatepark be a musical instrument? And does improvising — and having fun — in the creative process lead to a better outcome?
If the Warm Springs Skatepark is any indication, yes.
“How fun is it to just ch-ch-cht,” Scanlan says, merrily making noises as he surveys a new feature with tiny metal saw cuts that offer skaters a way to grind their rhythms. It was improvised, not found in any plans.
Martin credits the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs for granting the spaciousness for such creativity. “They trust us,” he says.
“Rrrrr,“ Scanlan says, pointing to other features in the park. “Clackclackclackclack.”
“In 2021, we began a conversation with the [Warm Springs] Tribal Council in conjunction with local Portland skatepark builders Collective Concrete,” Tactics.com explains. Those involved often use the word “organic” to describe the coming together of tribal officials, skaters like Cassaway and Ponce, Scott Koerner and Sam Goldberg-Jaffe of Tactics, Collective Concrete, and The Skatepark Project, whose mission is to help underserved communities create safe and inclusive public skateparks for youth.
“It has been inspiring to watch the Warm Springs community come together to rebuild their skatepark, and we were honored to lend our support during the process,” said Benjamin Anderson Bashein, Executive Director of The Skatepark Project.
At one point, the atypical Portland construction crew puts down their work tools and takes a “skate break.” “There are tons of different melodies here to choose from,” Raymond Hertz cries gleefully as he cruises. “Just one more kick turn!”
It’s all fun and games, but for the young people who will rock it here, it’s as serious as your life. If youth are to find their melodies amidst the quick-moving chord changes, snare drums, cymbal crashes and bass pools of life, they need an outlet.
An instrument, a ball, a skateboard.
Indie rock band Portugal. The Man’s lead singer and songwriter John Gourley, whose foundation helped fund the project, sees a link between skateboarding, music and young people finding their path.
“What is the pocket? It’s hitting a roller,” Gourley says. “Sticking that smooth landing, a full 180, right at the bottom of the beat. That’s the way I picture the bass and guitar. Everything just riding together and sticking that landing.”
Unlike the band’s bassist, Zach Carothers, who helped steer a legendary dust-up with Alaska Republican Sarah Palin over a Wasilla, Alaska skate park decades ago, Gourley’s not a skater. Yet “just being around skateboarding has helped me visualize music,” he says.
Collins uses a different word to describe finding that pocket, sticking that landing. Balance.
“Our biggest thing here in our community is we always try to teach our children our culture,” he says. “We want them to be comfortable with their culture here and know who they are and where they come from. But we also understand that they’re youth and have to understand the times and modern technologies as well. So it’s always important to tie tradition and culture with today’s modern technologies. So the word that we think of the most here is probably balance.”
“Skating brings balance to these kids’ lives. It’s kind of a metaphor: what they really have to do is skate, physically and have balance. Then, as they’re skating and making positive choices, that helps them balance, knowing that there’s a balance. Balance is probably the word of the day.”
On March 17, artist Winnona Garrison shared brightly-colored pencil sketches of indigenous skateboarders and wild roses as she looked at the monolith where she plans to start painting.
She’s painting a waterfall and wild roses, she says, because wild roses soaked in water, or rose water, are traditionally understood to have protective powers. “It’ll kind of protect the kids around here,” Garrison says.
Some donated protective equipment will also help. As part of this project, The Skatepark Project is providing pads and helmets, plus 100 skateboards and 25 BMX bikes to youth in the community; an anonymous donor in Bend is adding another 50 skateboards.
The skaters, of course, insist that the “slams” make you stronger. On the side of the park, a wall is painted to read, “If you’re not getting hurt you’re not skating hard enough.”
When River and his friends line up to talk, watch, dangle upside-down and skate, a minor fall elicits a chorus of cheers and jeers, and a plaintive “Boo hoo!” Locals also tell of wipeouts caused by a hole in the ramp at the old skatepark, whose metal frames are being repurposed in the nearby Warm Springs community of Simnasho to make a second new skatepark.
Ponce remembers he was “just not paying attention, kind of talking and riding down it and I fell right into the hole. Like, my wheel got stuck in it. That one was just like, ‘damn, I really fell because of this hole. They need to fix that.’”
“I hit the hole, then I hit my head on the corner, then I did the splits,” Blake Culps, part of the scrum of youngsters who came to hang at the park on March 17, says.
Garrison watches and listens to the boys, then smiles, adding, “There’s [also] quite a few girls who like to skate.”
Abby, 14, is one. “It’s nice,” she says of the skatepark, walking over from the community center across the street. “Good it’s getting fixed up and stuff. The old one was kind of boring.”
Another thing that’s getting fixed up in Warm Springs, then, is the area’s “skate family.”
“All the skaters consider each other family,” Collins says. “They make decisions, they laugh, they joke, they play, carouse. They skate forever; then you see them all lined up, they’ll sit there on the edge of the ramp, drink their water or soda and eat their hot Cheetos and you see them laughing and joking and razzing each other. That is probably the best thing you can get out of it.”
Camaraderie and carousing. Sticking, stoking and steezing in space, a safe space.
“I always thought of [skateboarding] as a very inviting community,” Gourley adds. “We call it safe spaces today. It’s a place where you’re allowed to be reckless, to be wild, to draw outside the lines. It gives all that crazy bottled-up energy a place to explode, and it’s very freeing.”
Maybe a Warm Springs skater will win an Olympic medal. But for the Warm Springs skate family, the Daquans, Nachos, Rivers and Abbys, this one’s already a win (though still a little short of its fundraising goal and accepting donations).
“They really blessed that place,” Ponce says. “I think it’s good for everyone,” Cassaway adds.
Sponsors of the Warm Springs Skatepark include The Skatepark Project; Tactics; Jefferson County; Collective Concrete & Construction; Ginew; The Ford Family Foundation; The Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation; Dehen; The Roundhouse Foundation; Portugal. The Man + PTM Foundation; Visit Central Oregon.