Surfing history is Indigenous history.
Most surfers have some understanding of this, as you don't need to be a surf historian to know that modern surf culture emerged from European contact with Native Hawaiians, who had been standing up on waves for several hundred years.
Many surfers are also aware of the older documented tradition of wave riding by Indigenous people in Huanacho, Peru, that dates back nearly 3,500 years.
One surfer who has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and modern surfing culture is Dina Gilio-Whitaker.
A descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes of the upper Columbia River plateau and lecturer of American Indian studies at Cal State San Marcos, Gilio-Whitaker has written extensively about the intersection of surfing and Indigenous issues through the lens of settler-colonialism.
When Gilio-Whitaker and I first started our conversation about surfing's relationship with Indigenous cultures for Indigenous Peoples' Day, it was obvious that we could only barely scratch the surface of this incredibly complex, sprawling topic in a single web piece.
So please consider this a jumping off point for anyone looking to better understand surfing's Indigenous connection and follow the links below for more resources.
In your writing, you've pointed out that modern surfers often incorrectly refer to traditional Polynesian surfing as the "sport of kings." How do you think surfing in the traditional Polynesian context is often misunderstood today?
There is a common misconception among early surf writers that the only people who were allowed to surf in ancient Hawaii were the ali'i, or royalty. According to Native Hawaiian historiography this is completely false.
Virtually everyone in Hawaiian society engaged in the act of he'e nalu, or wave riding in all its forms. Surfing had a much more expansive understanding that included bodysurfing, bodyboarding, knee riding, outrigger canoeing, and riding standing up on a board.
That said, there were certain types of boards that were reserved for ali'i, the very long olo boards. The smaller alaia boards were for everyone else who rode standing up, and paipo boards were the body boards.
Another critical dimension of this is the role of women in ancient Hawaiian surfing. As Isaiah Walker has written about this, women were central to surfing in the mo'olelo, or stories about surfing.
Those stories were often about courtship and sexual relationships, and they imparted different kinds of lessons about women's mana (power), but also about the importance of respect in social relationships.
Due to the power of Hollywood exports like "Gidget" and Orange County's nascent surf industry, surfing culture became synonymous with both California and whiteness in the postwar era. What are some of the ways that Indigenous people have pushed back against that narrative?
The "browning" of the surf lineup in the last few years is a direct rejection of surfing's image of whiteness. We see organizations like Brown Girl Surf and City Surf Project up in San Francisco, and down here we have Black Girls Surf, Textured Waves, Latinxsurfclub in Newport Beach/Costa Mesa and Native Like Water. I'm sure there are others in different places.
For Native people in California, however, it's beyond just diversifying the waves. It involves highlighting the fact that all this coastal landscape where surfing occurs is Indigenous land that was wrongfully taken.
You helped write the California State Assembly Bill that declared surfing the official state sport, and in it you acknowledged the history and ongoing relationship that Indigenous people have to the California coast. Why did that feel important to push for in the bill?
When the bill was first conceived, in its skeletal form it talked about how surfing influences California's culture and economy and it named several well known spots like Trestles, Huntington Beach, Malibu, and Steamer Lane. It is critical to acknowledge the fact that long before there was surf culture these were Indigenous homelands for countless thousands of years. I call this "unerasing."
This is one of the small things we can do to be accountable for the history of unspeakable violence and injustice that California is founded on, by being brutally honest about our history. So unerasing California Indians was the goal for the contribution I made to the bill.
If you read it, it talks about surfing being an Indigenous sport from Hawaii; it gives the indigenous place names and the names of the original people associated with some of those famous surf spots, and points out how Panhe as a Native American sacred site was central to the success of the Save Trestles campaign in 2008.
The significance of the bill is that altogether, the language constitutes an Indigenous land acknowledgment and from the research I've done, it constitutes the first and only Indigenous land acknowledgment written into any bill in the US at the state or federal level.
This is a small but meaningful act of justice and accountability of California toward its Original People, and something surfers can be proud of being associated with.
Since surfers depend on clean, healthy oceans to do what we do, on some level every surfer is an environmentalist. What do you think California surfers can learn from Indigenous cultures, which existed in harmony with the land and coast for thousands of years?
California Indians are the original stewards of the land. Everything they did in their lives revolved around ensuring a healthy environment because they understood that what you do to your environment you do to yourself.
This is why Indigenous cultures are fundamentally sustainable cultures. And those cultures of sustainability are rooted in very different philosophies and assumptions about the world, which is why there was no conception of land as property like our modern society is based on.
The concept of land as property gives way to an extractive and exploitative relationship to land, which is ultimately what is responsible for the mess we all find ourselves in now, with environmental degradation everywhere and climate change.
What books, films, or other resources would you recommend to surfers looking to learn more about the connections between Indigenous cultures and surfing?
There is a growing body of scholarly writing about it (much of which is accessible to non-scholarly readers), which can be found in texts like The Critical Surf Studies Reader and numerous others, and there is a new book coming out specifically about Indigenous and other people of color in surf culture, but that's still a ways out.
I recommend checking out Native Like Water's website, and this video about NLW. Another good little video is called The Complicated History of Surfing, which is based on the awesome book by Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves. And of course Isaiah Walker's book Waves of Resistance: A Hawaiian History of Surfing, John C. Clark's Hawaiian Surfing and Pacific Passages by Patrick Moser.