WALTHILL-The children of the Omaha reservation begin descending on the city park in the late afternoon. They arrive unexpectedly in twos or threes on a recent Monday, huddle in groups, chatting and chatting as they gaze not so casually at the tantalizing thing that has drawn them to this place, hairy butterflies to the flame.
They’ve heard the reasons the Tantalizing Thing is being built here, the reason the workers are out in the park hammering and painting days away from the grand opening.
They know about the suicides on the reservations, because those kids were their classmates, their friends, their older siblings. They know a group of elders are worried about them and trying to help them – their football coach Pee Wee, the Native woman who runs the mental health clinic next door, the tall stranger who walks around town and poses questions about skateboarding.
They can sense a rebirth on this reservation, a rare Native-white collaboration that involves preserving the past — the edge-of-town hospital built by the first-ever Native American doctor — and improving the future by building better homes. , better schools and trying to keep children healthy and safe.
But no time for bigger stories right now. The children do not take their eyes off the flame.
As the sun begins to set, California workers hired by a Missouri company that was paid by wealthy Nebraskas to build the first-ever skate park on this reservation inside Nebraska’s poorest county pack their bags for the day.
They rumble in their work trucks. Within minutes the kids are all over the not quite finished skate park. Kindergartens and teenagers, boys and a few girls roll around there, try tricks, wipe themselves off on scooters, bicycles and, for the lucky ones who have one, skateboards.
Joe Starita, the aforementioned tall stranger, watches more and more kids arrive, and more, until the skate park is packed even though it’s not officially open yet. He notes that the workers are Mexican-American immigrants, the funding comes mostly from white people, and the problem solvers on the field — and the kids skating — are members of the Omaha tribe.
“There are a lot of things right now that you can wonder about this country,” Starita says. “But show me another country where this could happen.”
The Tony Hawk at this particular skatepark is easy to spot. He stands a few feet behind Starita, holding his skateboard, tall and thin as a reed, the image of Thurston County cool.
His real name is John Sherman Jr., but everyone calls him Junior. He is 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 this Monday, he agreed to stop skating for a few moments to answer a few questions, even if the questions are silly.
Who is the best skateboarder here?
Junior raises an eyebrow.