San Diego

Tracy Lee Nelson: Skate Rat with a Rez Kid Heart

Tracy Lee Nelson.jpg

Was a time, he was a Skate Rat, Der Weinerschnitzel chili dog in hand, slaloming along a San Fernando Valley sidewalk, cruising his Brad Bowman Superman skateboard, rolling toward an impromptu session at an empty suburban pool.

Was a time, he was a typical Rez kid, eating venison stew and fresh tortillas cooked on a wood stove at his grandmother's house, messing around in the corrals, throwing a dried cowpie like it was a flying saucer, watching the dogs chase rabbits through the Mesa Grande Reservation brush.

A Greyhound bus became his cultural bridge, transporting him from paved San Fernando Valley strip malls to hillside reservation cattle trails. It was a divided life, city versus reservation, one foot in both worlds. Where others might feel disjointed, Tracy Lee Nelson, 48, a Diegueño/Luiseño Indian, found synthesis. He made it his mission to excel in both worlds. 

As a result, both the urban and Indian worlds inform his art and soul. When he was a kid, he became an artist on the skateboard, performing radical inversions on the coping of a kidney-shaped pool. As an adult, he is a skateboard artist, combining form and function in skateboard design that resonates with Indian themes. He's one of a handful of Indian skateboard artists in the country. His skateboards have been exhibited in the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., in San Diego's Museum of Man, in the Gilb Museum of Arcadia Heritage and others.

But it doesn't stop there. He's also an accomplished musician. As a kid, he screamed punk guitar, bristling with reverb and rebellion. As an adult, he prefers tasty blues licks on a Fender Stratocaster. As a punker, he played in many Hollywood punk bands in clubs like the Troubadour and Madam Wongs. Moving on from punk, he played for a time with Redbone, an American Indian band known for the hit, "Come and Get Your Love." He played with them at the 1996 Super Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. He formed a local reservation band called Native Blues. As a bluesman, he talks of poverty, discrimination, genocide, writing power songs with a down-home feel. He's cut several CDs, both with his band and with just him and his guitar.

He pursues skateboarding and music with equal passion.

He started skating in 1973; you know, just one of those things you do to hang with other kids. His first board was a Black Knight, a flat board with a black knight on a horse, wheels of clay. His wheels were always chipped. 

The skateboard quickly became his main transportation, whisking him along the valley sidewalks. He'd take a spill, scrape a knee, climb back on, and keep going. Skating entered his blood, part of his time and place, he made getting better on the board his mantra.

"I became a 24-hour skater, skating became my life," he says. He focused on tricks, walking the board, spinning 360s, doing handstands, grinding on ramps.  For his first ramp, he nailed a sheet of plywood to a sawhorse and worked it so hard he wore it out.

To build his skate reputation, he sought entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest time being on a skateboard. He went for a day and half before he ran out of gas -- a long time but another skater had outlasted him by a few hours. He tried a different way -- spinning 360s. He completed 22. The record was 27. He was close. Oh, so close. He kept working on his skills.

His skate crew often gathered at Val Surf Shop, a North Hollywood surf and skate shop where they bought equipment and skate magazines like Skateboarder. He would read the magazines, cover to cover, following his skate idols, keeping tabs on equipment innovations. Later he would be profiled in those magazines.

It was natural for him to transition to surfing. He'd ride the bus, a 6-foot-9 Mark Richards twin-fin tucked under his arm and head for the waves. It was about that time the Dogtown Z-Boys, the Santa Monica skaters made famous in film, began to assert themselves. They didn't appreciate valley boys invading their waves. 

"We (valley guys) figured we had as much right to the waves as they did. They thought I was Hawaiian," Nelson says, "so I didn't get hassled too bad. But, yeah, we had to get confrontational at times to get waves. We skated against them too, competition was fierce, and sometimes fists flew."

Tracy Lee Nelson with latest California Native design incorporating the image of his great-great grandfather Cinon Duro.

In 1976, he started competing for Reseda's SkaterCross Skate Park's team called Skate Rats. They skated in big competitions against the top skaters of the day -- Tony Hawk, Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, Lance Mountain and more. 

"We had our own jerseys, and we were getting sponsors like Rector Pads who were paying us to skate. I was making money skating," he says.

It was about that time, pool skating became the hot thing. Word of an empty house with an empty pool would spread through the skater grapevine. Still too young to drive, they'd skate or ride the bus to the pool and skate, sometimes ditching school to do so, scrambling over fences when they got there. "It was better if a lot of kids showed up, because if it got busted, we could scatter in different directions, make it harder for the cops to catch us," Nelson said.

It was crazy time with skateboarding taking off, getting bigger and bigger. New tricks were being invented all the time, and skaters were always pushing boundaries, seeking more air, faster speeds, higher jumps.

All through his growing up years, Tracy and his mother, Martha Duro, often took the bus or the train to San Diego County, then got picked up by his aunt for the drive up to Mesa Grande Indian Reservation to stay with his grandparents. He loved the trips home, kicking back in the shade of an oak tree and helping his grandfather, Reganaldo Duro, with the cattle. It was his time to be with the people, reconnect with the bird songs, the peon songs, the death songs, the social songs that today remain part of his musical sensibility. He listened to the stories voiced by elders, the laughter of the children, the lowing of local cattle, the coyotes yipping on mountain tops. It sounded of belonging. He'd see the contrast between city wealth and Rez poverty, the divide that he continues to draw attention to in his songs. He'd stay a week or two, then head back to his skater life in the valley.

Tracy's family moved closer to West Hollywood and he attended North Hollywood High. He'd see Paula Abdul in the hallways before she was Paula Abdul, the celebrity. He had a friend Tim, a quiet guy who skated a little, but kept to himself a lot, and drew. He had a habit of scratching images into his desk, strange characters Tracy had never seen before. He did see them later on the silver screen in a movie called "Nightmare Before Christmas." Turns out his high-school buddy was Tim Burton, the film director. "I often wonder whatever happened to that desk," Nelson says. He had another buddy, Pelegro, who liked this girl. They went to a party at her house. But the girl was singing with her New-Wave group, The Go-Go's. Belinda Carlisle was good looking, but New Wave just didn't cut it with the Punkers. They left the party. The Go-Go's went on to be probably the biggest girl group ever.


As he was building a name as a skater, he also played guitar. A friend gave him a guitar that got him started. At nights, when it was too dark to skate, he practiced guitar. Punk rock was in -- The Circle Jerks, The Germs, The Angry Samoans, The Dead Kennedy's, Fear. He played Punk.

Self-taught, he learned the obligatory rock stuff like Stairway to Heaven, but gave vent to his rebellious side by joining Punk bands like Johnny and the Dingbats and Madd Vampires, banging the strings in sweaty mosh-pit clubs, shredding the night. But over time he found Punk music wanting, stuck in the confines of three loud chords. Tracy branched out. The blues of B.B. King, the bittersweet licks of the soul, always attracted Tracy. One day, as Tracy entered a video store to pick up a tape, a homeless guy out front hit him up for money. When Tracy declined to give him any, the panhandler got huffy, "Ah, hell, go back from where you came from, damn foreigner." 

Tracy thought, "Indians still get no respect." The refrain stayed with him and he went home and wrote his first bluesy song -- "Native No Respect." Over time he abandoned Punk to embrace Rez blues, the music he still enjoys playing to this day.

As it happens, Tracy got older. He got a real job with Pacific Titles, a media company that did film titles for the industry. He became a special effects artist. He fathered a son, Blake, who lives in Hollywood, also skates and plays guitar. He got married, started a skateboard company called Full Blood Skateboards, that was doing well, but ownership of the company went to his ex-wife in a divorce settlement.

His latest venture, Native California Skateboards, is another example of his combining both worlds. His latest design incorporates the likeness of his great-great grandfather, Cinon Duro, a much-respected Kumeyaay religious leader. Nelson painted his grandfather using a well-known photograph as the model. Tracy is an accomplished artist.

He's all about providing Indian kids with a strong sense of identity, he says. He wants to rescue kids from the self-loathing that sometimes comes with being Indian. Nelson is convinced that replacing low self-worth with pride will steer them clear of drugs and alcohol abuse. It worked for him. Tracy has been clean and sober his whole life. Now there's something. A punker who didn't drink or smoke. He credits his dedication to skating for keeping him clean. It's a formula he hopes will help others. 

These days, Tracy lives on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in North San Diego County on land his father gave him in Poomacha, where he continues to make music and create skateboards.

At 48, Tracy can still carve a pool on a skateboard.


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Top Image: Tracy Lee Nelson doing a pool coping inversion back in the day.

About the Author

I’m Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian and live on the Pala Indian Reservation.
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