When I told my friends and family that I would be out of town on a work trip in July for a skateboarding and innovation festival in South Dakota, the first question each person asked was, “But wait, don’t you work for the Smithsonian?!”
Innoskate is the Lemelson Center’s collaboration that began in 2013 between the Smithsonian and leaders of the international skateboarding community. Together, we explore skate culture’s creative spirit and history of innovation. The unique pairing of academic research with the extreme sport demonstrates that innovation is always happening, even in the most unexpected places. The marriage of the two makes a whole lot of sense when standing in a skatepark, watching skaters of all ages, abilities, and identities make split second decisions while conquering the course obstacles.
We arrived in Pine Ridge, SD, on July 5 for Day One of the 2022 Innoskate festival (our first since London in 2019). Before kicking off the events of the day, we stopped by Ground Control, a local skateboarding group’s headquarters, to meet Kyle Mesteth, a member of the Lakota Nation and the founder and CEO of Ground Control. Kyle has dedicated himself to creating a community space for the Lakota youth on the reservation. While we toured the building that Kyle is currently converting into an indoor skatepark so skaters can practice year-round, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Ensemble arrived and began to warm up.
Over the next several hours we transformed the Toby Eagle Bull Memorial Skatepark into a full-on Innoskate festival. The park was full of skaters; the food tents had all the refreshments we could need; the Spark!Lab activities tent was packed with young inventors prototyping their very own skateparks from cardboard and other materials; and the Jazz Ensemble performed a mix of well-known and improvised songs from the edge of the park’s bowl. The magic of community could be felt in the air all day, but it was during the Star Quilt Ceremony that the day’s magic was fully realized. Star Quilts are “one of the most valued gifts of the Lakota (Sioux) people and are draped over the shoulders of the recipient to symbolize protection on their journey through life.” The Lemelson Center team was gifted a Star Quilt by Kyle during a special ceremony. A “Big Air” contest marked the end of the day, with skaters jumping over as many as thirteen skateboard decks!
Our next stop was across the state in Sioux Falls, SD, where we began set up for the next three days of Innoskate at the Levitt at the Falls amphitheater. The team at Levitt at the Falls were our primary planning partners for this Innoskate, and their enthusiasm helped us feel right at home. The Sioux Falls Skatepark Association transformed the main street in downtown Sioux Falls into a mobile skatepark; the Sioux Falls Arts Council set up an Art Alley for live mural painting by working artists; a vendor skate village took over the expanse of the Levitt Shell parking lot; and Spark!Lab filled two tents with invention activities related to art, music, and skating. From July 7-9, the city of Sioux Falls was buzzing with activity and excitement.
To mark the opening of Innoskate Sioux Falls, a panel discussion on “Innoskate 360” featured local community leaders, global skateboarding activists, and Olympic and Paralympic skateboarders, who offered personal accounts of how and why skateboarding provides opportunities and friendship. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) followed the 360 panel on the evening of July 7 with a live concert in the Levitt Shell. Charlie Young, artistic director and conductor of the SJMO, shared with the audience how touched he was by watching the skateboarders move to the jazz. He noted that jazz musicians, skateboarders, and inventors all share the same fearless creative sensibilities—and we couldn’t agree more.
The next two days continued to be full of fun and surprises. Paul “Professor” Schmitt, a well-respected skateboard manufacturer and Innoskate festival staple, brought out his collection of skate decks from across a 60-year span to demonstrate how the skateboard evolved from roller skates to the modern decks used today. Panels exploring themes of mental health in skateboarding, the experience of the recent inclusion of skateboarding in the Olympic and Paralympic games, and diversity and equity in the skateboarding community all drew large crowds despite the heat. Legendary skateboarder Bucky Lasek made a surprise visit and helped judge the Best Trick contest. Jason Lee and Chris "Dune" Pastras, the iconic skate duo behind Stereo Skateboards, donated objects from their personal collection to the National Museum of American History after the screening of their 1994 film, A Visual Sound (oh yeah, and the screening was accompanied by a live SJMO performance, no biggie). Performing artists Dessa and Meet Me @ The Altar rocked both evenings.
A moment that will live in my memory forever is watching a group of young girls meet Olympic skateboarder Bryce Wettstein. Bryce is not only a phenomenal skateboarder, she is also a phenomenal person, and her excitement in meeting the girls matched theirs entirely. The eight young skaters in the group had been working with local photographer Wes Eisenhaur and the Spark!Lab team for a few months leading up to Innoskate to create their own short documentaries about skateboarding as it relates to invention, creativity, and their personal experiences. Following the screening of all eight short films on the big screen at the Levitt Shell, the girls joined their role model Bryce for a skate session in front of the stage.
Of all the festivals and programming the Lemelson Center produces, Innoskate is definitely one of my favorites (don’t tell the others!). I admire the skateboarding community for being so eclectic yet inclusive. I also admire the skateboarding community’s spirit of risk-taking, despite the probability of failure, as it mirrors the fundamentals of invention. Innoskate Pine Ridge and Sioux Falls was an overwhelming success, with inspiring input and engagement from the communities we visited, and I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next!