Nations Skate Youth

Published in Issue 21
Interview by Erika Houle

Portrait by Jill Schweber
Photo Story by Tristan Henry

While breaks, sprains, bumps, and bruises might be inevitable for skateboarding beginners, what’s undeniably more impactful is the healing nature of the sport. The lifelong friendships, the endless hours outdoors, the feeling of cruising freely down the street at whatever speed feels right. Nobody knows this better than the team at Nations Skate Youth, the Indigenous-led non-profit organization that encourages youth to find their way forward on the board. Through skate lessons, art and grip tape workshops, and storytelling as a means to inspire confidence and keep the culture and traditions of First Nations communities alive, NSY’s greatest trick can be seen in the sense of belonging they build and leave behind—one handmade ramp at a time.

Founded in December of 2020, Rose Archie, Joe Buffalo, and brothers Dustin and Tristan Henry set NSY in motion with a shared dream of making skateboarding more accessible for Indigenous youth. They’ve since hosted educational events in over 25 communities across so-called Canada, each “focusing on the positive benefits of skateboarding” and “what the future could look like if the kids had a safe space to continue skateboarding.” Watching clips of NSY at work—all cheering and high- fives and nervousness-turned-nonchalance—it’s clear to see their goals cementing into reality. From championing the construction of new parks and recycling skateboards, to providing gear and safety equipment for their participants, NSY is changing the landscape of their beloved sport to one that’s packed with new possibilities and perspectives. Not limited to skateboarding, their influence as community leaders reminds younger generations that the future is theirs, and to move through it with care, intention, and most importantly, togetherness.

Photos from NSY’s “Skate for Change” by Tristan Henry

ERIKA HOULE: What are your earliest memories of skateboarding?

ROSE ARCHIE: I went to school on the reserve in Canim Lake, BC and my grade 2 teacher’s son Joe brought a skateboard to school. Years later, I saw my sister Charmie skating and I thought it was the coolest thing.

DUSTIN HENRY: Our cousin Nathan was skateboarding a lot growing up. He was showing my brother and I tricks and stuff. He definitely had a huge impact on the reason I started. I got a skateboard for my 8th birthday and have skated since then.

TRISTAN HENRY: Nathan was the introduction to skateboarding. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would have gotten into skateboarding. I remember my dad taking my brother and I to pick him up at the skatepark in downtown Calgary, Shaw Millennium Park, and just being in awe of watching him cruise around. Other than that, I think it has to be traveling with my dad across Turtle Island in his semi truck playing the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games in the back with Dustin. My dad would always try to stop at skateparks if we had time.

JOE BUFFALO: Probably seeing all the older guys skating on my reserve. It just seemed so raw and I dearly wanted to be a part of it. I would go as far as to identify as a skater when I didn’t even own a skateboard.

EH: When you first encountered the sport, who were your mentors? How have they shaped your commitment to skating?

RA: I looked up to my older sisters a lot, they showed me the way. When we were teenagers we would put on punk shows, and this was something that wasn’t being done. Bringing community together and organizing stuff at such a young age, I got to experience the importance of creating our own space. Punk music and skateboarding have been a huge part of my life.

DH: I would say the locals in Calgary who were around at the time. Skaters was the skate shop we first started going to and it had that sense of community. That definitely made me stick with it. Big family vibes.

TH: When I think of skateboarding, I think of my brother Dustin. I feel so lucky to have had someone to always skate with and to feel encouraged by. But growing up in Calgary the skateboarding scene was really tight knit. I had lots of mentors, like Joe Buffalo, Drew Merriman, John Fearns, and Sean McAlister, to name a few. It showed me how important community is for a young kid just learning.

JB: The older guys who I saw skating treated me pretty badly, so I would have to say the group of guys who came to my reserve and built ramps there. They taught me so much in the three days that they were there. We still communicate to this day. They also invited me to their community in Edmonton and opened up a whole world for me, like the first bowl I ever saw, made out of wood.

EH: At what point did you realize skateboarding can also be a means for education, community-building, and giving back?

RA: 20 years ago, I got a job doing skateboard lessons for the City of Burnaby that inspired me to organize skateboard contests in the summer. I was new to Vancouver so that was a great way for me to meet everyone. In 2013, I attended my first all-girls skateboard contest in California, Exposure, and that inspired me to start my own similar annual contest called Stop, Drop, and Roll.

DH: Honestly, not until I started reconnecting with my own identity. It made me take a step back and I was able to look at things from a different perspective.

TH: It had to have been when I was on the first trip with Nations to Fort St. John. Just seeing the empowerment and confidence coming from the youth that attended our workshops. It was amazing watching the youths encourage each other to learn even if most of them were scared at first. Most of the youth that day left feeling like a skateboarder.

JB: I’ve always wanted to give back, I just didn’t know how to. Once I sobered up I had the capacity to be clear and focused, and to be trustworthy. Skateboarding was and is such a positive outlet for me. I wanted to share that with the youth.

EH: From giving away boards and building your own ramps, to going on tours and promoting the development of new skate parks, you’ve achieved so much in the short time since NSY started, and all while navigating a pandemic. Can you share more on how those projects have come to life, and what that’s meant to you?

RA: I grew up hitchhiking 1.5-2 hours with my sister to skateboard and I think about how dangerous and unnecessary it is for youth to be doing that. This is my reason for promoting the benefits of skateparks in communities. Thanks to Adam Hopkins for showing me how easy it is to build ramps and how much work and passion goes into it. Adam was a big part of sharing his knowledge with Nexw7áýstwaý, known as The Squamish Nation Trades Centre, as they offered to help Nations make ramps for our summer workshops. This was an amazing project to be a part of and having Indigenous students help us build ramps was so special.

RA: After hearing about the fire in Lytton and the findings of the 215 children in Kamloops, I wanted to give back to those communities in that area, so I suggested we leave the ramps, give all kids skateboards and new shoes, and do a workshop to help us all heal together.

DH: Nations is a space that was created for the youth and it will always be for them. That’s how we made so much happen, because it didn’t really exist yet in so-called “Canada.” People see the importance in our youth and have given so much love and support for us to be able to create these spaces and build more opportunities for our future leaders. So I would say there are a lot of people out there that are helping us grow further into what needs to happen, which is taking care of our youth. It is a community effort.

TH: Everything we’ve done since starting has been made easier by all the ongoing support we have gotten. It goes a long way when you’re not the only person who sees the big picture of what we want to achieve. Being able to do what we do with Nations Skate Youth is a dream come true.

JB: The first real tour we ever did was in Alberta. Coming from the prairies, I felt called to go back to where I came from. We got busy planning right before the pandemic started and I knew I could rely on my connections there. It’s hard to describe what that means to me, it simply fills me up with joy.

EH: Are there any particularly memorable responses you’ve received?

RA: What always makes me tear up is when you hear a story of how Nations inspired someone to be proud to be Indigenous.

DH: There’s always special moments from any workshop or event we have done. I would say the last stop of our first tour, summer 2020 in Alexis First Nation, was very emotional. That tour in general was very emotional because it was our first big one.

TH: For me, it’s always the response I get in our workshops. A lot of the time youth are very shy in the beginning and are not willing to step on a skateboard at all. But with some encouragement from their friends and teaching them some tricks, they build confidence. By the end of the day, they are usually the last kids to leave. It’s always so rad to see a youth pushing themselves even though they might be scared because when they succeed the look on their face is priceless.

JB: So many! Seeing a kid overcome fear. It could just be dropping in, but to see them go: “I never thought I could do that!” Or when we teach kids and they go and start teaching their friends.

EH: What affirmations or pieces of advice do you find yourself returning to, while teaching?

RA: Letting the youth know they’re the future generation and how important that is and what it means. We empower the older youth in the workshops to take on that leadership role and it’s awesome to witness them step up and help us out. Always a good reminder that there is no right or wrong way and that goes with everything in life.

DH: Show them that it is not just about skateboarding. Taking the time to sit there and exchange a few words can be very impactful. Showing them leadership roles in the many different aspects of skateboarding. Rose has been very consistent on giving the kids the cameras these days. Creating their own memories that we are just kind of curating [laughs]. I think it is such a good way to show the many avenues skateboarding brings. Some kids love being in front of the camera and some love being behind.

TH: I think the biggest piece of advice isn’t even skate related, but, in every workshop, we tell the youth to be proud of who they are and where they come from. This is something I feel like I needed to hear growing up. With these youth being our future leaders I think it’s so important to feel proud of their heritage and families’ traditions.

JB: Bend your knees, stand shoulder-width apart, and breathe! Because kids will hold their breath a lot.

EH: Can you tell me more about your art workshops, and why the connection between the practices is important to you?

RA: Just recently, we started getting into grip tape workshops and bringing beading into the mix with some of our events. Any kind of art form is healing and allows us to really get to know someone. I keep saying it’s important to learn culture and traditions and to hold them close, so having opportunities to do that is keeping us aligned with our values.

TH: Art is a medicine like smudging or drumming. Having a creative outlet in my life has been a great way to balance myself and a way to express myself in a positive way. Sharing my knowledge of grip tape art has been a great way to see how youth express themselves creatively. I am always amazed how different youth look at grip art and I think giving them creative control really helps them open up.

EH: Do you have any personal favorite skateboard graphics?

RA: I buy any board with a girl’s/woman’s name on it, I like to show the younger girls what’s possible.

RA: Elissa Steamer is a legend and a fav of mine since day one. I rode lots of her boards growing up. My friend Breana Geering’s board for Girl Skateboards is a must-have.

DH: Breezy’s first pro graphic for Girl Skateboards by our friend Charlie is amazing. Everything about that board is so special. I also really love Frog Skateboard graphics made by my friend Chris.

TH: I love the board that my brother did for Alltimers that highlighted our family’s traditional beadwork with moccasins and mukluks made by our great grandmother Annie Henry. It’s just so empowering to see a skateboard with my family’s beadwork on it. But also seeing the impact it has made on our family in Dawson City. It’s truly something so powerful, it is continuing our family’s traditions in a way that can speak to generations to come.

JB: My chief Poundmaker graphic of course, as I am a descendant of him. My childhood dream was to have him on my board. I went pro with it in 2019.

EH: Can you describe your ideal skate spots?

RA: The best spots I have skated are all in Barcelona, Spain. Ideal spot is smooth ground and a DIY/artsy vibe to it.

DH: Mini spots! I really have fun skating things that are small. And where multiple people can skate at the same time.

TH: I love a good garage mini ramp especially if it has pool coping and a couple extensions. One that is wide so you can grind as long as you want but also has to be steep enough so you can dip grinds and boost air. This comes to mind because growing up in Calgary winters would last 7 months of the year. Garage mini ramps were where most of the sessions would happen in those months. To me there is nothing better than a chilly garage with space heaters on all counters and it’s filled wall-to- wall with friends waiting to get the next drop in.

JB: A street plaza is a dream spot. The more it looks like an urban area the better. That’s what I grew up on. I’m not a fan of skateparks, I like skating the streets.

EH: If you were to show a newcomer only one influential skate video, what would it be?

RA: The new Vans video, “NICE TO SEE YOU.”

DH: “Credits” by Shari White.

TH: I would show them Blind skateboards first video, “Video Days.” The whole vibe of the video is having fun with friends. But the main reason I would show them is because of Mark Gonzales’ part. He is the definition of fun and he also skates to jazz which fits perfectly. Growing up seeing this video changed the way I looked at skateboarding and made me realize not to take skateboarding so seriously.

JB: “Underachievers: Eastern Exposure 3.”

EH: Under what circumstances do you feel most inspired by skateboarding?

RA: Anytime I can laugh and be myself. I love being the cheerleader and getting friends stoked. It’s a bonus when there is music and dancing involved.

DH: When I take time away from it. Growing up, I dedicated so much of my time and energy towards skating, I feel I need to recharge and do other things to get inspired again.

TH: I feel the most inspired when I’m skating with friends. It doesn’t even matter where we’re skating, I always like skating the most when there’s no pressure to impress each other.

EH: In teaching about the importance of togetherness, have there been moments that were real lessons for you?

RA: It’s true that it takes a whole community to raise a child and going to communities and seeing this in action reminds me to always be inclusive, so we can create that togetherness without judgment, bias, and ego.

DH: I would say just learning how to be more inclusive through workshops. Teaching and learning how to bring people together. If someone gives you their time, that is a gift. I am still learning how to be present. This is something I learned from my favorite film director, Alanis Obomsawin.

TH: For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had a community that I felt supported or even validated in. Since creating Nations, it has taught me a lot about myself and my needs. I finally feel like I have a community that supports me and gives me validation.

JB: The kids are constantly teaching us things, like showing up for yourself. Nations taught me how to listen and work on my communication and patience. I wasn’t always the best in those three.

EH: What do you envision for the future of NSY?

RA: Creating more opportunities by breaking down barriers that will give youth access to skateboarding, art, photography, music, and other creative outlets. I look forward to traveling to the remote communities that are far from everything and continuing to learn about different nations across Turtle Island.

DH: Visiting more communities and growing our team at Nations Skate Youth. I just want to see our youth be given more opportunities. I want our future leaders to know how important their voice and presence is. That is why I wanted to start Nations, to have more of our youth in leadership roles and showing others it is possible to do whatever your dreams are.

TH: Being able to keep traveling to different communities across Turtle Island. We have also gotten some Nation Skate Youth boards, so I’m excited to start using them in the upcoming grip tape workshops.

JB: Many more Turtle Island trips. I look forward to traveling to all these communities and spreading the love of skateboarding.

Special thanks to Vans for helping this story come to life <3
Read this story in print Issue 21

See more stories from Dustin Henry
See more from Erika Houle