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Exhibit Features Skate Culture on Big Cypress Reservation and Across U.S.

Topher Forhecz/WGCU

Native American skateboarders are the subject of a traveling Smithsonian exhibit at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Hendry County.

The exhibit features Native American skateboarders from around the country and on the reservation.
Quenton Cypress is going through a rundown of tricks at the skate park on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.

"An ollie is doing it with your nose," he said after kicking the board out from underneath him.

Ramps and rails pepper the park where Cypress and his cousin Tyrus Billie come to skate almost every day.

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

 Cypress’ board shows some heavy use. He’s only had the deck since May and the image on the bottom – of a skater wearing a Sasquatch-like outfit being arrested by a cop – is already obstructed by thick scratches and knicks.

Reservations in Florida feature skate parks - in Brighton, Immokalee and Hollywood. But, the size and use vary.

“Hollywood reservation has one ramp. It’s just one ramp... And Brighton reservation  has a skate park that is never used because we went out there one day and we tried to skate it and the concrete padding they have on the ground, there’s grass and weeds growing up in between the cracks,” he said.

Cypress said he and his cousin are among the few who use the park in Big Cypress.

An exhibit exploring Native American skateboard culture across the country is being featured at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum. The exhibit is called “Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America.”

Rebecca Fell is the museum’s Curator of Exhibits. She said it traces the history of skateboarding.

“It really is focusing on how different Native American cultures first of all were responsible for the creation of skateboarding - the Hawaiian cultures - and then how they’ve taken it into their culture and how it’s important on a lot of different reservations,” she said.

"To me, skateboarding and graffiti are two amazing ways to express your artwork." - Quenton Cypress

Fell said the exhibit looks at the current state of Native American skateboard culture as well. It features skaters from several tribes including the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Navajo.

And it highlights Native Americans who have started their own skating businesses.

The museum also wanted to give the exhibit some local flavor.

It turned to artist and skater Wilson Bowers. Bowers grew up on the Big Cypress reservation and now lives in Tampa.

Bowers is using a marker to make graffiti tags on the museum’s walls before the panels for the exhibit are installed.

He stands on a ladder scribbling phrases such as “Seminole Style” and “Skate Life.”

Now 28-years-old, Bowers got into graffiti about 10 years ago.

He’s also a skater, and some of his custom-painted skate decks are featured in the exhibit.

Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

Bowers’ work is a mix of Native American imagery and the type of stuff you’d expect from a skater kid who grew up in the '90s.

On one deck, the skull mascot of the punk band The Misfits wears a headdress. Another deck features the image of the Second Seminole War hero and leader Osceola in front of a rising sun.

Bowers himself embodies this blend. The tattoos on his forearms read “Bird Clan,” written in a graffiti-like style with a brick wall behind it.

“Our tribe's the matriarch and we take the clan of the mother,” he said. “And I just wanted something to represent that right there.”

Skater Quenton Cypress says graffiti and skating go hand-in-hand.

“To me, skateboarding and graffiti are two amazing ways to express your artwork,” he said.

It’s also a form of exercise. And at 19-years-old, something that occupies Cypress’ time and attention. Skateboarding keeps him distracted from pitfalls his peers might face such as drugs or alcohol. 

“I don’t think I would have really  fallen in with what they do considering who I am, but I don’t know what I would be doing right now. I would probably be bored, looking for something to do; probably get into trouble because it’s something to do and probably be a few pounds heavier,” he said.

Skate culture on the reservation is made up of a few devotees who aren’t as interested in basketball, the main sport-of-choice here. Just remember to bring a skateboard to the park.

“No scooters,” Cypress said.

No scooters. Just skaters.

The exhibit “Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America” runs at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum through November 23rd.

Topher is a reporter at WGCU News.