Joe Buffalo survived residential school. Then he became a professional skateboarder

The Cree professional skateboarder is a residential school survivor, the son of a residential school survivor and lived through years of substance abuse. 

Buffalo, who is Cree from Samson Cree Nation, went pro with Colonialism Skateboards

Joe Buffalo has been through a lot in his life. But one thing that always stayed with him, that never let him down, was his skateboard. (Ty James)

This segment originally aired on October 11, 2020.

Joe Buffalo isn't supposed to be here.

The Cree professional skateboarder is a residential school survivor, the son of a residential school survivor and lived through years of substance abuse. 

He wouldn't say he's overcome it all — sobriety has been a conscious effort for almost three years — but he's amazed by the progress he's made. 

And he did it all with his skateboard by his side.

"It's always been there, when you don't have anything else left," Buffalo said. "That's what it was for me. Even when I ran out of dope, and I didn't have a penny in my pocket, I had my skateboard there and that made me really happy." 
Buffalo is Cree from the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alta. (Joel Dufresne)

Buffalo's first memory of skateboarding was in Fort Smith, N.W.T. He watched his relatives build a quarterpipe, skate it, and then burn it. 

"I was just like, 'these guys are so punk rock, oh my God,'" Buffalo said. "Immediately, skateboard culture was something I wanted to be a part of, even though I didn't own one."

That following summer, he got his first skateboard. But he couldn't stand on it, so he put his knees on the bolts and used his hands to propel him forward.

Buffalo said he kneeboarded everywhere — including 17 kilometres down the highway from Maskwacis to the neighbouring town, Wetaskiwin. 

Buffalo was a multi-sport athlete. He loved skateboarding, but he was also skilled at hockey. He even thought he had a chance of making it to the NHL — so his mom gave him a choice of schools to go to in order to get noticed by some scouts.

But they weren't just any schools — they were residential schools.

"This is what my friends ... and all my other relatives that had gone to these schools [were telling me] — 'this is where the scouts go,'" Buffalo said. He attended two residential schools for a total of five years.

Buffalo moved to Ottawa in his late teens — and it was there that he started to take skateboarding seriously. He helped build a skatepark for high school credit, and in his off time skated a lot. 

Sponsors started to take notice. But once he moved to Montreal, his substance addictions caught up with him. As he became increasingly erratic, his sponsorships became more sporadic. 

"I was just not dealing with a lot of my unresolved childhood traumas that all stemmed from going to these institutions," Buffalo said. "When I try to go apply myself into society and what's out there for us ... I wasn't f--king built for this, man."

Buffalo describes that 10 years in Montreal as a blur. He moved to Vancouver in 2009 but things didn't improve. He continued his struggle with substance abuse — overdosing three times in one summer alone.

He knew what he had to do to get clean. "Alcohol was my only reason for going looking for this stuff so I had to quit the booze, man," he said. "There wasn't going to be a next time." 

In the nearly three years since he quit using, he finally went fully pro — underneath Regina-based Colonialism Skateboards. He even has his own pro model skateboard. The graphic underneath is of Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, or Chief Poundmaker.

Poundmaker was one of the negotiators of Treaty 6 and was known as a peacemaker — a leader with immense power in his words and perseverance in the face of impending change.

"Ever since I found out I was related to him, I was blood relative to this man, I was like, 'what the hell? This makes so much sense,'" Buffalo said. "This is why I have the strength that I have."