"It's been a long time since tule boats were built on the beach here," says Dr. Stan Rodriguez, a Tribal Councilman for the Santa Ysabel Band of the Iipay Nation, the Director and President of the Kumeyaay Community College and a commissioner for the Native American Heritage Foundation. "But what we're seeing now is a resurgence of the practice, a cultural renaissance, and I'm excited to be here to support it."
The tule boat is a watercraft with a rich history in California. Utilizing reeds commonly found in local wetlands that replenish quickly after harvesting, coastal California Indians would collect and dry the tule, fashion it into seaworthy vessels, and paddle the boats to fishing areas or along trade routes up and down the coast. Dr. Rodriguez has played a leading role in the revival of tule boat building in Southern California. In 2004, he learned the traditional methods of tule boat building from Kumeyaay mariners in Northern Baja, and he's shared this wealth of cultural knowledge through regular classes, workshops, and ceremonial gatherings ever since.
Today on the beach at Lower Trestles, the site of this year's Rip Curl WSL Finals, Dr. Rodriguez is leading a new group of students as they reconnect with the art of tule boat building. As part of its We Are One Ocean initiative, and in an ongoing effort to recognize and celebrate the Indigenous people who have long stewarded our beloved surf zones, the World Surf League has brought together a coalition of partners to learn from Dr. Rodriguez including WSL PURE grantee Native Like Water, whose grant will create an Indigenous Narrative Ocean Stewardship Program that reintegrates youth and adults into ocean recreation and conservation, as well as Acjachemen Tribal members, San Onofre Parks Foundation, California State Parks, and Shiseido. Wearing glasses, a single gray braid, and a T-shirt the 64-year-old Dr. Rodriguez kneels down to demonstrate how to wrap lengths of fibrous cord called "tonap" around bundles of reeds to form the boat.
The Indigenous folks in the group share their boat-building ancestors' profound connection to the ocean-except rather than seeing the Pacific mainly as a means of fishing or travel, they view it as a source for surf. There are wave riders like Marc Chavez, the founder of Native Like Water, Reg Macarro, a Payómkawichum and Ojibwe surfer from Temecula, and Andy Nieblas, an Acjachemen surfer and professional longboarder. All are here to not only celebrate the millenia-spanning Indigenous history along the coast, but to help write the next chapter of that history by bringing their traditions into a modern context.
"This is one of the biggest prayers that I've had," said Chavez. "The recognition of our Indigenous people at this great break that we share. I'm really stoked to have our Kumeyaay folks here, our Luiseño folks here, our Acjachemen folks here-this is what it's all about."
"It's cool to be able to represent our culture, to show that we're still here today, we're still practicing our traditions," says Nieblas, who plans to attempt to surf a tule boat one day soon. "To be building these boats on our land, which also has one of the best waves in the world right out front, it's just phenomenal."
While it's been a long time since tule boats were built at Trestles, the watercraft were probably a very common sight on this beach before the Spanish mission system began in the 1700s. Before then, the long river valley that terminates at Trestles' cobblestone points was called Panhe, and served as one of the Acjachemen people's largest villages. Walking from the parking area off Cristianitos Road down to the beach at Trestles today, it's easy to see why Panhe-which roughly translates to "place by the water"-was such an appealing village site. Not only does it offer fresh running water provided by San Mateo Creek and easy ocean access for fishing and travel, but an abundance of boat-building materials sits right by the beach in the form of long tule reeds rising from the coastal marshlands.
Tule boats aren't just a California phenomenon, of course. Their use by Indigenous groups has been documented as far south as Peru, where Native people have famously ridden waves on tule boats called "caballitos de totora", or "little horses of the cattail'', for more than 3,000 years. And while a tule boat wave-riding tradition is not as well documented here in California, it would be unlikely that local seafaring people didn't dabble in a form of wave riding for recreation-or at least enjoy the push of a wave on their way to the beach after a day of fishing.
"Making the connection between presumed wave riding practices in California, as we're revitalizing that and rediscovering it, helps connect the mainstream surf culture with Indigenous cultures," says Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos. "It brings context and history to these very particular places and makes visible Indigenous people in their homelands. So we're reversing some damaging historical processes here, and for me, that's the value in all of this ."
Thankfully, today's tule boat building demonstration on the beach at Lower Trestles is not an isolated event. Just two weeks ago, Dr. Rodriguez led a group of over 100 people in building and launching 50 tule boats in San Diego-likely the largest collection of tule boats together in Southern California in more than 200 years. And by sharing his boat building knowledge with a new generation of ocean goers, Dr. Rodriguez is ensuring that these traditions will continue and evolve along the coast.
"This knowledge had almost gone dormant, and by revitalizing this practice, we're not only bringing back our maritime culture-we're sharing a different way of looking at the world, a different way of doing things," says Dr. Rodriguez. "Western thought is that nature is everything except for humans, but we as Native people know that we are a part of nature, and that what we do to nature ultimately affects us. Today, I think anyone can find value in that perspective."