Skateboarding and Social Work: Tristan Henry Makes Big Moves in Health and Hope for Youth
“It's crazy seeing the changes, how skateboarding can really affect the youth’s life.” says Tristan Henry, a wolf clan member of Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin First Nation near Dawson City, Yukon. He also has Norwegian ancestry on his mother’s side. When he first moved to Vancouver in 2015, he aspired to own a skate shop, and he worked in skate shops to gain experience. The city called to him because there were a number of skate distributors there and he wanted experience in distribution.
As he learned more, he realized he wanted to approach things differently. “The more I found out about the skate industry, the more I realized that I would probably be bankrupt,” he explains. To pivot, he worked some odd jobs and upgraded his education at Native Education College, somewhere he felt welcome and could learn from amazing teachers.
One of his teachers and also his partner lead him to pursue the family community counselling program after he did his upgrading. His partner was a social work student when they met. She works at a women’s focussed center and learning about her experiences got him excited about a new career path.
He wanted to do youth work and now he works as a cultural wellness worker, bringing in cultural programming to decolonize a clinical environment. He works out of a special room full of medicines where his clients feel at home. “It's kind of a dream job. I'm bringing in culture, I'm growing, and I'm learning so much myself,” he beams. He’s been there for over a year and he’s finding time flies doing work he loves.
“It's just persevering, just really pushing through your own limits in some ways.”
In contrast, dyslexia, undiagnosed ADHD and a speech impediment made school challenging when he was growing up. His teachers talked down to him and he felt isolated. He didn’t graduate, something he long regretted. Upgrading was completely different. He fell in love with algebra and he started to enjoy creative writing, too.
“It really shows how different it can be when a teacher is actually really there for you and has the time to really break it down and isn't rushing.”
Thinking about Indigenous students considering leaving their home communities, he says, “You just have to be open to change. I think that's the biggest thing, because you're leaving your comfort zone. It can be really scary at times.” Moving from the small-town vibe of Calgary to the bigger city of Vancouver was an adjustment, but he found many opportunities for Indigenous learning and cultural experiences.
“Be proud of who you are, and where you come from.”
If he could give his younger self a message it would be to be patient with himself and to take pride in his identity. He felt pulled between his mom’s side of the family and their cowboy lifestyle and his father’s traditional First Nations family background. “In some ways, I was ashamed to be Indigenous,” he recalls. Hearing a message about pride in his youth might have changed things for him. Now he’s working hard at reconnecting with that side of himself, feeling like his cultural identity has been a missing piece of the puzzle.
To balance his mental health, Henry enjoys beadwork and the patience and mindfulness he’s learned from the practice. When he’s beading it feels like spending time with his ancestors. He also likes skateboarding to take him out of his comfort zone and the vulnerability he acquired from falling in front of others. It’s a good outlet for him in anxious, stressful times.
Going for walks helps him, too, creating space between home and work. If he needs to talk about things at home, he has a supportive partner to comfort him and sometimes just saying the things he’s upset about out loud can make a difference.
His family inspires him to keep going, between his aunties, his grandma and his great-grandparents. “Once I started my reconnection journey, it showed me why I have all these amazing qualities and all these amazing things that were passed down from generation to generation,” he smiles.
While he’s experienced hardships, focusing on positive things like family helps. “I feel so grateful every day to have those connections with my family and it's a reason why I do what I do, and it’s made me the person I am today,” he continues. The music and life story of Buffy Sainte Marie and her experience of reconnecting with her culture later in life gave him hope, too.
In the work he does, Henry likes to share hope with communities. A group of his friends got together and came up with the idea that would become Nations Skate and it started with going to Prince George to teach skateboarding. Since then, it’s blossomed and grown, far exceeding Henry’s initial expectations.
“We're going to communities all across Turtle Island trying to use skateboarding as a tool to empower Indigenous youth,” he grins, reflecting on how skateboarding made a difference and created community in his life. Three years later, they’ve given out many skateboards and had so many impactful community visits, including a visit to his own home community, something the youth still talk about.
Another way he’s impacted youth through skateboarding was the creation of a book that shows Indigenous representation in the skateboard community. It was funded by a grant from Van’s and contains fashion, art, skateboarding, culture and photos of Indigenous youth skateboarding from their workshops. Another nonprofit has popped up doing similar work who started a magazine and that’s warmed their hearts to share space with people who are passionate about the same things.
“It feels like a little fire. Now, it's becoming bigger and bigger. We really hope that Nations Skate will inspire other communities to start something similar. It's hard for us to be everywhere at once. It shows how skateboarding really does make an impact on Indigenous youth,” Henry beams.
Seeing the changes, and how skateboarding can really affect the lives of Indigenous youth drives Tristan Henry to give back in community through his nonprofit, seeing that it is medicine for the soul. Doing cultural work in a clinic, he’s working in the field of healing, too. From the skate park to the medicine room, he’s making big moves and going for it with all he’s got. He might not have started the skate shop of his dreams, but he’s got hope for youth in store.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.