They built a skate park in Nebraska’s poorest county
WALTHILL - The children of the Omaha Reservation begin descending on the town park in late afternoon. They arrive unannounced in twos and threes on a recent Monday, cluster in groups, chat and gossip as they not-so-casually eyeball the tantalizing thing that has drawn them to this spot, pubescent moths to the flame.
They have heard the reasons that the Tantalizing Thing is being built here, the rationale behind why workers are in the park hammering and painting just days away from the grand opening.
They know about the reservation suicides, because those kids were their classmates, their friends, their older siblings. They know that a group of elders are worried about them, and trying to help – their Pee Wee football coach, the Native woman who runs the mental health clinic next door, the tall stranger who has been walking around town asking about skateboarding.
They may sense a renaissance on this reservation, a rare Native-and-white collaboration that involves preserving the past – the hospital on the edge of town built by the first-ever Native American doctor – and improving the future by building better houses, better schools and trying to keep the kids healthy and safe.
But no time for bigger stories just now. The kids aren’t taking their eyes off the flame.
As the sun begins to set, the California workers contracted by a Missouri company that’s been paid by rich Nebraskans to build the first-ever skate park on this reservation inside Nebraska’s poorest county pack up for the day.
They rumble away in their work trucks. Within minutes, the kids are all over the not-quite-finished skate park. Kindergartners and teenagers, boys and a few girls roll up and down it, try tricks, wipe out on scooters, bikes and, for the lucky few who have one, skateboards.
Joe Starita, the aforementioned tall stranger, watches as more kids come, and more, until the skate park is packed even though it isn’t yet officially open. He notes that the workers are Mexican-American immigrants, the funding is mostly from white people and the on-the-ground problem solvers – and the kids skating – are members of the Omaha Tribe.
“There’s a lot of things right now you can question about this country,” Starita says. “But you show me another country where this could happen.”
The Tony Hawk of this particular skate park is easy to spot. He’s standing a few paces behind Starita, holding his skateboard, tall and reed thin, the image of Thurston County cool.
His proper name is John Sherman Jr., but everyone calls him Junior. He’s 15 years old. In a few days he will do something so improbable and so selfless that it will make complete strangers want to hug him.
But on this Monday, he has agreed to stop skating for a few moments to answer some questions, even if the questions are dumb.
Who is the best skateboarder here?
Junior raises an eyebrow.
“Listen, I don’t want to be a narcissist,” he says after many moments of silence.
How are the kids here enjoying this skate park?
Junior’s eyebrows arch towards his forehead. He sweeps his arm around the skate park. There are kids rolling down the half-pipe on their butts, kids running and jumping onto the railing, kids trying ollies and other basic skateboarding moves before a rapt fellow kid audience.
“Look around,” he says after more moments of silence.
OK, last question. Did you ever think this was going to happen?
“Nah,” Junior says almost immediately. “I don’t think anyone took it seriously at first.”
The idea to build a skate park in Walthill was just that for years, one lodged in the brain of Michael Grant, the Omaha Tribe’s planning director and a Walthill village board member.
Grant, the youth football coach, years ago surveyed Walthill’s kids about what they most wanted in town.
“Skate park, over and over,” he says while sitting in the town coffee shop. “Surprised the heck out of me.”
But it didn’t launch into reality until Starita heard a harrowing story from a local guidance counselor.
Starita is a former Miami Herald investigative reporter, a retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor and the author of several best-selling books about Native history. He’s written the definitive history of Chief Standing Bear.
And he’s the author of “A Warrior of the People,” the story of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte – a Walthill woman who, through incredible intelligence and sheer will, graduated from medical school in 1889 and became the first Native American medical doctor in U.S. history. She then did something so improbable and selfless that it stunned her East Coast teachers and patrons. She moved back to Walthill, bought a horse-and-buggy, became the country doctor for mostly Native patients living within a 1,300-square-mile homeland and built America’s first reservation hospital without a single tax dollar.
For years, Starita has come to the high schools in Walthill and nearby Macy and spoken to Native students about the legendary Dr. Susan, who, like them, is a member of the Omaha Tribe.
In February 2020, after he spoke, a guidance counselor pulled him aside.
On a recent night, she told him, 15 teenagers and young adults attempted suicide. Six died.
Starita thought about the alarm that would ensue if a half-dozen kids died of suicide on a single night at Lincoln Southeast High School or Omaha’s Creighton Prep or at any predominately white high school in a small town the size of Walthill or Macy.
“They would call in the Red Cross crisis unit and mobilize the Nebraska Guard,” he said. “And it happened here, and nobody outside of the reservation even knows there’s a problem.”
Starita knew he needed to do something. He remembered, on his many trips to the Pine Ridge Reservation, noticing that the skate park was always swarming with teenagers.
He studied a University of Southern California report that shows that skateboarding is good for teenagers’ mental health – especially teens living in isolated conditions like a Native reservation in rural northeast Nebraska.
He phoned Mike Grant. Grant told him about his survey of Walthill teens, and their overwhelming desire to have a skate park. Together they started to work.
Starita gathered funders. He’s a natural salesman, and this sales pitch was simple: Kids are dying. No one is helping them. A skate park will help them. Will you help? Omaha’s Lozier Foundation quickly agreed to be a major funder. The famed author Don Winslow and his wife Jean Winslow, who hails from nearby Oakland, kicked in money.
Beverly Deepe Keever, an Auburn farmgirl who became the first female war correspondent in Vietnam, kicked in money.
So did Washington D.C. journalist Erin Schulte Collier, a native of small-town South Dakota and former student of Starita’s.
The Omaha Tribe pitched in, and so did the Nebraska Community Foundation, and soon they had the money to hire American Ramp, a Missouri company that specializes in designing and building skate parks.
One night, Grant gathered the pre-teens and teens in Walthill, and together they met a special guest: The CEO of American Ramp, who had driven seven hours to meet them.
He talked to the kids about what they wanted in a skate park. He put up three big pictures of three different skate park designs. He gave each kid a few green stickers and one bright orange one.
Put the greens on the objects you want in a skate park. Put your orange on the design you love most.
“They picked the design they wanted,” Grant said. “They picked the objects they wanted. And that’s the skate park we are building.”
“This reservation doesn’t have a history of strange white people showing up and asking them what they want. They generally show up and tell them what they are going to get,” he said. “This flips the script. And that’s what we are trying to do.”
Flipping the reality of childhood on the Omaha Reservation is no easy feat.
Dr. Belinda Hinojos is a psychologist at MorningStar Counseling, a mental health provider headquartered in Lincoln with offices on Nebraska Native reservations – including the office Hinojos is sitting in, right across the street from the Walthill skate park.
Hinojos has studied historical and intergenerational trauma,but that didn’t prepare her for what she found when she started working on the Omaha Reservation in 2020.
“Here you can’t escape it,” she said.
Here, some grandparents were ripped from their homes and sent to boarding schools where their native language, customs and religion were both metaphorically and quite literally beaten out of them, Hinojos said. Cruelty begat more cruelty.
Here, many use alcohol as a coping mechanism. Substance abuse levels are sky-high. And here, she said, nearly four out of every five kids have a child protective services caseworker, because they have been removed from their homes or are living with a guardian who isn’t their biological parent.
Many pre-teens and teens that Hinojos sees are depressed. Many are severely anxious.
And she and many other adults have fought and clawed to pull children back from the brink after the spate of suicides in early 2020 – months before the COVID-19 pandemic made things even bleaker for many.
You might expect that, set against this darkness, Hinojos, who daily commutes 200 miles from her Lincoln home to her Walthill office, would view a skate park as the faintest of flashlights.
She does not. A skate park will get kids out of the house and into the sunshine, she said. Exercise releases endorphins, improves your mood. A skate park, and the other children in it, can function as a social support network, fostering a sense of belonging.
Plus: Think about skateboarding itself, she said. You try to learn a new trick. You fall down a lot. You get up. Those are lessons that Walthill’s children can apply to their lives.
There is one more reason that the psychologist thinks the skate park may be a huge help in Walthill. It’s because her office is across the street. She watches the children of Walthill descend on the Tantalizing Thing every afternoon.
“I see this hope and this excitement in the younger kids. I haven’t seen it here before,” she said. “And I see kids with skateboards! I haven’t seen that here before, either.”
Several days pass, and Saturday dawns sunny and cool and perfect for a skate park grand opening set for 11 a.m.
At 11 a.m., Junior makes a skater hero’s entrance, rolling slowly down the sidewalk toward the skate park wearing a white T-shirt, black jeans and holding sunglasses that he will soon don to complete the outfit.
The dozens of other kids already assembled not-so-casually eyeball the 15-year-old they all think is the best skater in Walthill – that they all look up to.
The speeches begin.
“This is your skate park,” Mike Grant, serving as master of ceremonies, says to the children of Walthill, who listen quietly. “This belongs to you. Respect it. Take care of it.”
He announces plans to build a Boys and Girls’ Club next to the skate park next year. The kids and adults cheer.
“Our community is the best, no matter what people say,” Grant says. “And you guys are the best thing that is happening in this community.”
Starita talks about the history of Dr. Susan, how she believed in the latest medicine, and also in old-fashioned fresh air and sunshine.
“We are trying to give you some good medicine right now,” he says.
The kids continue to listen patiently, but in truth Junior, a 13-year-old named Moises Del Angel and the rest of them are increasingly desperate for the raffle.
A Lincoln skate shop has donated three brand-new skateboards to be given away today, as soon as the speeches end. As the last one does, Moises edges nearer the skateboards, trying to get a better look. He asks how much they are worth. They are $140, he is told.
Moises does not have $140. Like most kids here, he does not have a board – he’s been borrowing Junior’s, and every day after school Junior has been teaching him where to put his feet and how to do basic tricks.
Moises audibly schemes ways to use all of his savings to buy it off a kid who wins one. Maybe $20 will do the trick, he thinks. He has saved $20, all the money he has, to buy a skateboard.
Finally, the raffle begins, and Mike Grant calls the first name.
“John Sherman Jr.!” he yells. “Junior!”
Some kids laugh. Some throw up their hands in mock horror at the unfairness of the Tony Hawk of Walthill winning the first free skateboard. But then the crowd grows silent. Cute kindergartners and gawky middle schoolers freeze in place. They watch as the best skateboarder they know grabs the board, holds it briefly aloft and begins to walk.
He walks right toward the crowd of young kids. He beelines to one.
He bends slightly, extends his arm and hands the brand-new skateboard to Moises Del Angel.
The one they call Junior has just melted every adult assembled at this city park, every adult that aches for the future of these kids, every Native elder and stranger who has fought and clawed to lower their depression and steer them into the future and build them a skate park that can tantalize them, too.
He has just told the assembled guests something profound about the Omaha Reservation, explained the line running between Dr. Susan to himself and far beyond into the hazy future, and he has done so without uttering a single word.
Junior does not own a cell phone. He does not own a computer with wireless Internet access. He has just given away the nicest skateboard in all of Thurston County. He has done so because that is who he is.
“I was praying for Moises to win,” Junior says before he skates away. “I mean, why not?”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.