Thrashing Colonialism: Skateboarding, History, and the Power of Education
Micheal Langan, owner of Colonialism Skateboards. Photo by Troy Fleece.
Most skateboarders have a least one good story about a security guard. Micheal Langan, who is of Cree and Saulteaux ancestry, a member of the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, and the founder of Colonialism Skateboards, is no exception.
When skating one day in downtown Regina, a security guard approached Micheal and asked him to leave the premises. “This is private property,” the guard proclaimed. Micheal responded by combining skateboarding’s anti-authoritarian “skate or die” attitude with an anti-colonial sensibility, informing the guard: “this is my land, Treaty 4 territory!” The guard was confused but Micheal had a realization. Skateboarding can be another way of being out on the land, of asserting ongoing Indigenous presence, and of challenging colonial ignorance.
Riding is resistance. Every kickflip, nose grind, or ollie in an occupied territory like Canada is an act of thrashing colonialism.
In 2015, Micheal created Colonialism Skateboards, an independent company that makes skateboard decks with Indigenous content, to highlight Indigenous people’s perspectives, history, and culture. He has released nine graphics to date, covering a range of issues from the history of the pass system to residential schooling.
I recently had the chance to meet Micheal in Regina to talk about skateboarding, history, and the power of education.
Michael Langan, University of Regina, Treaty 4. Photo by Sean Carleton.
Sean Carleton (SC): Can you explain to our readers what the main message/vision is behind the Colonialism Skateboards?
Micheal Langan (ML): It’s all about education, sharing knowledge about Indigenous peoples, and our history. I have always been interested in my own history and the history of these lands but growing up I was not connected to our teachings. I was taught to be ashamed of myself as an Indigenous youth – it was not cool to be brown – and so much of our history was hidden. That all changed for me when I read James Daschuk’s book Clearing the Plains which really opened my eyes – about John A. Macdonald’s starvation politics, the pass system, and the larger history of colonialism in what is now known as Canada. Clearing the Plains blew my mind and I wanted to share that education with everyone.
I also took an Indigenous studies class at Saskatchewan Polytechnic and I started to learn more about the history of Indigenous-settler relations. I wanted to share what I was learning, to help other Indigenous people understand the historical and ongoing oppression, and to spark a conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples about the past and its connections to the present.
As a young person, I thought I could best share this knowledge by talking with people I know and skate with. Skating the parks of urban Regina, you always chat with other riders. Usually the talks revolve around the best skate spots, new tricks, and cool gear. In particular, skateboarders are pretty proud of art on the bottom of their skateboards. I had a thought: what about combing art and history about colonialism as skateboard graphics? That way, when you are riding you can talk to people about this important history. You can have those conversations, spark an interest in Indigenous history and culture. When you are riding you can be out on the land, reclaiming your identity.
SC: Can you talk more about the inspiration behind some of the skateboard designs – it seems likes you draw a lot on history, why?
ML: After reading Clearing the Plains, I wanted to share the lessons of history with other people. I was motivated to open people’s eyes to the real history of these lands and the ways that Canada has sought to erase Indigenous peoples. I love books and history and wanted to find a way to get other people interested in learning about the past and create awareness about what is going on today.
SC: What was it like collaborating with Kent Monkman to release “The Scream” deck series during Canada 150?
ML: (Laughs) It was a trip. I really respect Kent’s work and what he is doing with his project (Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience). I just contacted him, told him about my work, and asked if he would be interested in collaborating. He was down. He asked me to think about what graphic might work best, and I choose “The Scream.” As an intergenerational survivor of residential schools, I wanted to showcase this powerful image of Indigenous children being torn away from their families in an effort to destroy Indigenous communities and build a new nation. That was how Canada was built and I wanted more people to really understand this. I wanted to showcase the destruction, but also the fact that children ran away and resisted. This is a difficult history, but it is an important one. This was a special collaboration and I wanted Canadians to do some self-reflection during Canada 150 and thought this was the perfect graphic to get that across.
When the boards were delivered I was assembling them outside on the sidewalk and an Indigenous dude walked by. He was the first person to see the series all assembled and he said, “that is what happened to me. That is my history. I went to the schools.” That was a powerful moment for me. I wanted other people to feel that history.
SC: This must be difficult work?
ML: Yeah, it is hard work, for sure. It is important and painful at the same time. Sometimes I have to take breaks and step away from the project for a while, focus on myself and get my head right, you know? Indigenous peoples carry this history all the time. It is hard to shut it out. But the positive responses to the boards make it all worth it in the end, to know I am sharing knowledge and creating space for people to better understand themselves and their history. When I see people riding the decks in the park, I take great pride in that. These stories need to be told and it is a good feeling to see other skateboarders, teachers, and everyday people using the boards to spread the word, in different ways.
SC: Teachers are using the boards in their classrooms?
ML: Yeah, that is cool. A lot of teachers have contacted me to let me know they are using the boards to teach students about the issues the boards cover, like residential schools or the pass system. The boards – and the write-ups that come with them – are like resources, they have the power to teach people about the past and get them interested, you know. I am back at school right now (at the University of Regina) to become a teacher, so the fact that the boards are being used for education and reaching people outside of skateboarding is positive for me. That’s the way forward.
SC: What are your future plans and goals for Colonialism Skateboards?
ML: I have a number of new decks in the works. First up will be two boards focusing on the history of Indian Tuberculosis Hospitals, including a collaboration with historian Mary Jane McCallum. Not many people know about the TB hospitals, but my grandma and relatives were caught up in these institutions, particularly at Qu’Appelle. They were terrible places, they experimented on us like animals. With the recent class action lawsuit happening, I wanted to create more awareness about these institutions – spark a conversation about that history. I am also working with Kent (Monkman) again and hope to have a board with the clothing company Section 35. There are just so many ideas right now. As long as people are enjoying the project, I want to keep it going, keep the power of education strong.
Check out Colonialism Skateboards: www.colonialism.ca.