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The Complicated History of Indigenous Knowledge and Colonial Entanglements in Surfing

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KCETLink's environmental summer lineup includes Earth Focus Presents, a series of environmental documentaries. We’re pleased to present this article to accompany our presentation of the documentary "Breath of Life."

Surfer at Hermosa Beach Pier
Surfer at Hermosa Beach Pier | watch4u/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Written by white men in the context of popular culture texts like magazines and glitzy coffee table books, surfing history has overwhelmingly consisted of celebratory tomes narrating a history of the near-extinction of a sport allowed to languish by an indifferent indigenous population, but saved by white men for the posterity of all people.

Say the word “California” and images likely to come to mind involve sunny beaches peppered with bikini-clad girls and tan, ripped surfers. Advertisers and marketers of all stripes, after all, have long peddled these images to sell everything from beer to timeshares. California is as synonymous with surfing as it is with Hollywood and Disneyland.

Casual observers are likely to believe (understandably) that surfing originated in California but most surfers know that surfing was imported from Hawaii. Surfing first appeared in California in 1885 when three Hawaiian princes, away at school in San Mateo, took to the waves of Santa Cruz one sweltering July day. But it would not be for another 22 years before surfing would find its way, for good, to Southern California.

Surfing history is a topic of growing contention, given that by and large for a century it has been written by white men in the context of popular culture texts like magazines and glitzy coffee table books. The result has overwhelmingly been celebratory tomes narrating a history of the near-extinction of a sport allowed to languish by an indifferent indigenous population, but saved by white men for the posterity of all people.

A drawing by Charles Victor Crosnier De Varigny (1829–1899) —  French adventurer, diplomat and writer — during his travels through the Hawaiian islands in 1855.  From El Mundo En La Mano, published in 1878. | Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

As the story goes, in broad strokes, in Hawaii around the turn of the 20th century, surfing was a dying sport, revived by benevolent foreigners who sought to preserve a vitally important Hawaiian cultural tradition. This was accomplished by South Carolinian transplant Alexander Hume Ford, a newspaper man, with the aid of Jack London who together gave the sport the attention it needed to once again thrive in its homeland.

From there, surfing is transformed from a sport that to a significant extent defined an indigenous culture, to one with universal appeal that spread around the world, thanks to Ford and London’s intervention.

An emerging academic literature loosely referred to as critical surf studies, however, has been challenging all the prior assumptions constructing surfing’s conventional narratives. One strand of the scholarship deconstructs surf culture’s origin story by highlighting the fact that the so-called revival of the “dead” sport occurred within the context of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom government by American military forces during a time of violent U.S. expansionism on the continent and elsewhere.

Understanding surf history in the context of imperialism helps to shed the veneer of innocence undergirding these cultural narratives. One of the predominant mythologies, for example, is that surfing formed a subculture free of political constraints because surfers have always considered themselves outside the mainstream. As apolitical outsiders, the myth goes, they were social outlaws, bucking the system through their refusal to conform to society’s norms — eschewing full time jobs to pursue lives of pleasure, dressing outside socially acceptable standards, adopting a distinct subcultural vernacular, etc.

George Freeth
George Freeth | Public Domain

The surfing subculture is generally viewed by social scientists as part of the counterculture movement that swept the U.S. in the 1960s, with its roots in the earlier beat generation of the 1940s and ‘50s. The narrative of the surfer as social pariah within the counterculture is part of what scholars of settler colonialism term “moves to innocence,” where complicity in an oppressive society is denied. Because oppression is consigned to the past, no longer existing in the present, no one is responsible for their roles in maintaining the system.

A more accurate understanding of the history of surf culture in California, however, must consider the historical context of the state and its own history of genocide. Although surfing first appeared in 1885, it was fleeting. Surf culture is generally acknowledged to have been planted in Southern California in 1907, when a young Hawaiian named George Freeth was hired by land developers Abbot Kinney and Henry Huntington to give surfing demonstrations as a marketing tool to entice the sales of coastal properties.

Until then, most of the population in the Los Angeles area was concentrated inland. Coastal areas were relatively unpopulated, having been scrubbed of an indigenous presence due to the ravages of Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonialism. Those who survived the foreign diseases and the mission system had been forced to move away or into new identities under state and federal policies designed to eradicate them first physically via outright killing, and later through forced assimilation. 

Coastal lands, now largely free of a visible indigenous population, had fallen into predominantly white ownership within a few short decades after California statehood in 1850. The large ranchos that descended as Spanish and Mexican land grants were swindled out of Mexican ownership by corrupt American laws designed specifically to enable white settler ownership.

Santa Monica lifeguards in 1935. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library
Santa Monica lifeguards in 1935. | Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library

Beneficiaries of this land-clearing process, Kinney and Huntington could cultivate the new beach-centered culture they envisioned, with the help of George Freeth. Unwittingly part of this colonial project, Freeth is also famous for single-handedly pioneering the art of lifeguarding, necessary for the beach lifestyle that now characterizes Southern California and surf culture.        

From the very beginning, surfers have been blissfully unaware — or perhaps unconcerned — that their beloved sport was founded on a history of indigenous erasure, in both Hawaii and California.

In other words, from the very beginning, surfers have been blissfully unaware — or perhaps unconcerned — that their beloved sport was founded on a history of indigenous erasure, in both Hawaii and California.

Scholars have argued that surfing has been used in service of U.S. imperialism coupled with capitalism since its earliest days in the islands. Surfing was instrumental in building Hawaii’s tourist industry, begun by Ford. It’s long been known that in Hawaii tourism has rendered an unsustainable economic system that alienates the indigenous population from its own homeland. Surf tourism plays out similar scenarios increasingly in many other places in the world, to the extent that it is sometimes called surfing colonialism.

But another strand in the surf scholarship also points to surfing as a source of indigenous empowerment and knowledge. Hawaiian scholars Isaiah Helekunihi Walker and John Clark disproved the myth of surfing as a dead sport that haoles (foreigners) were destined to revive. They demonstrated that while there had been a definite decline in the practice, to characterize it as “dead” was too extreme. The claim of surfing as a dead sport opened the door to a familiar dynamic in the colonial process: white saviorism. In his book, “Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii,” Walker went further, arguing that during the early days of annexation Native Hawaiians expressed resistance to colonization and asserted sovereignty through the act of surfing.

The sport we know today as surfing descends directly from the Hawaiian tradition, but narrowly reflects only one aspect of the ancient practice. In Hawaii, the art of he’e nalu, translated literally as “wave-sliding,” encompassed a variety of ways to ride waves. He’e nalu certainly included the riding of long, wooden boards in the standing position, but other forms included riding boards on the knees or belly, body surfing, and riding waves in outrigger canoes.

Sometimes erroneously referred to as the “sport of kings,” he’e nalu was widely practiced throughout the Hawaiian islands, by royalty and commoner, men and women, boys and girls alike. Exceptional skill in wave-riding could elevate one’s place in society, and demonstrate mana, or spiritual power. Old chants and songs spoke of he’e nalu as a pastime of the gods, and even as an aspect of human lovemaking.

One scholar, Karen Amimoto Ingersoll, wrote a book (based on her dissertation) advancing a “seascape epistemology,” a distinctly Hawaiian method of knowing the world. Indigenous knowledge is a very broad term that can mean many different things, from knowing about the medicinal qualities of plants, to comprehending the cycles of celestial bodies and their relation to farming. As a form of indigenous knowledge, a seascape way of knowing understands the ocean as an integral aspect of land. It recognizes that Native Hawaiians are inseparable from their relationship with the ocean just as they are from their relationship with the land.

The Native Hawaiian practices of he’e nalu, fishing, and ocean navigation required intimate understanding of waves, tides, winds, animal behavior, weather, and every other facet of the natural world imaginable. These relationships are historically part of their collective identity, and still inform who they are as people recovering from the seismic changes wrought by foreign invasion.

But wave-riding for pleasure was not limited to indigenous Hawaiian culture. In Peru, descendants of the Mochica and Chimú in Huanchaco still ride their ancient craft, named by the Spanish “caballitos de totora.” The craft, single person vessels constructed from bundled reeds and ridden standing up with a paddle (like today’s standup paddleboards), probably were first designed specifically for fishing, eventually evolving into a pleasure sport. Historians have traced Huanchaco’s surfing tradition back 3,500 years.

The new scholarship on surfing will undoubtedly uncover other indigenous wave-riding traditions, while it also reveals the ways indigenous peoples engage in the sport today. For indigenous people, surfing — a highly territorialized phenomenon — is inevitably intertwined with assertions of sovereignty, even outside Hawaii. This is especially true in Australia, where for Aborigines surfing is a reclamation of culture and a resistance to domination.      

The indigenous knowledge embedded in the practice of surfing is at its core the recognition of the right relationship between humans and the environment, but also of the right relationship of humans to each other. Everyone who surfs, Native and non-Native alike, can grasp this knowledge as the guiding wisdom for an intelligent relationship of human to ocean, and environment more broadly. But without acknowledging the history of human relationships built on domination — and work to transcend it — surf culture will stay stuck in shallow narratives constructed by marketing sound bites designed for nothing more than to sell products and continue exploiting other peoples’ lands.

Caballitos de tortora - Surfing in Huanchaco, Peru
Caballitos de tortora - Surfing in Huanchaco, Peru. |  Ambiental Turismo/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

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