Early one morning this past April, a group of surfers boarded a vessel in a San Diego harbor bound for a nearby point break. Their destination was a commonly-surfed stretch of cobblestone coast and it was an average day of swell, but the morning was anything but ordinary.
The surfers were participants in Native Like Water, a local nonprofit that aims to reconnect Indigenous youth to the coast through surfing and ocean education, and the vessel was the San Salvador, a replica of the Spanish galleon that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego on September 28, 1542. As they neared the shore, above which sits the Cabrillo National Monument, the dozen or so Indigenous wave riders lept overboard to greet playful little runners lapping up on the beach.
"To me, that moment really felt like we were taking back the narrative," says Marc Chavez, the founder and director of Native Like Water. "These ships and monuments are symbols of colonialism, and so for Native people in California, they're normally a reminder of what our communities have been through. But we're exploring something else-what does it mean to take this symbol and flip it on its head? What happens when we use it for fun and enjoyment in the ocean? It's opening a totally new chapter."
Aboard the San Salvador with the surfers was a cameraman, who was documenting the journey for an upcoming film called "Haagua", which is being produced with support from the World Surf League's PURE grant. According to Chavez, the name is an amalgamation of the word "water" in three languages-Kumeyaay (spoken by the local Indigenous people of present-day San Diego), Nahuatl (spoken by the Nahua people of mesoamerica), and Spanish-and hā, or "breath" in Hawaiian. The blending of cultures is part of the DNA of Native Like Water, which has brought together Indigenous youth from California, Mexico, Hawaii, and beyond for educational programs for more than 20 years. The organization wants to tell a surf story unlike any other through the film-one that Chavez hopes will shift the broader surf culture with the support of pro surfing's governing body.
"Our aim is to show what thriving looks like for Native people," says Chavez. "We're trying to provide a positive narrative for our community to swing the pendulum away from the despair that our community has faced and show what Native joy can look like. It's a narrative that will be helpful for showing our community that we belong and can thrive in these coastal spaces, and it's also important to show the non-native community that we're still here."
Today, the WSL celebrates International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, but their collaboration with Native leaders extends far beyond a single day in August. The WSL PURE grant is part of a larger commitment by the league to celebrate the Indigenous and First Nations culture at each tour stop around the world and to collaborate with Native leaders to more deeply ground competitive surfing in the places where it occurs. While the WSL has expanded this commitment in recent years-including more land acknowledgements and opening ceremonies at events, education sessions and sacred site visits with WSL surfers and staff, and an investment in storytelling around Native surfers and organizations-the notion of celebrating Indigenous and First Nations cultures in World Tour surfing goes back decades.
Mālia Ka‘aihue remembers participating in a Hawaiian opening ceremony for a pro surf event some 20 years ago. She's a Native Hawaiian, holds a PhD in political science with a specialization in Indigenous studies, and lives in Makaha with her husband, longboarding champion and Nā Kama Kai founder Duane DeSoto, and 8 children-including surfing wunderkind Pua DeSoto. Today, she continues to collaborate with the WSL and shares her culture through opening ceremonies at contests in surfing's mother islands.
"The [opening] ceremony is about honoring the ancestors, as well as the akua or the gods of the ocean and of the sport of surfing, and really calling everybody forward so that everybody's ancestors are there and present and we can create the context of a safe space for everyone to perform and compete," says Ka‘aihue. "We always give a hoʻokupu or offering to the ocean, which is usually a plant and ‘awa drink or lei. It's calling everyone together, all of the energy in one space at one time, to lift up the event, surfers, and participants as well as to honor the people of that place."
Ka‘aihue hopes that non-native ceremony participants and viewers not only take away an appreciation for Hawaiian culture, but are also inspired to think more deeply about their relationship with their own homeland.
"What is your mountain? What is your ocean? What's the name of your river or stream? Build a deep connection with your land, because when you have that connection, you show up differently-not just at home, but wherever you go in the world. We are global citizens of the Earth, and we all need to embrace our responsibility as stewards of the land rather than viewing the land as a commodity."
While Ka‘aihue will be the first to say that the relationship between the surf industry and the Hawaiian people and land is far from perfect, she sees collaborating with the WSL as an opportunity to highlight the issues facing the people of Hawaii, and to improve the representation of Hawaiian culture at surf events around the world. After all, surfing is a Hawaiian cultural practice, regardless of where it takes place.
"Working with the WSL to promote narratives that take care of the host culture and community during their Hawaii events is really important," says Ka‘aihue. "But there's also a larger responsibility to honor the Native Hawaiian people in all spaces that practice heʻe nalu [wave sliding], because that contributes to the health of the Native Hawaiian people. Then it's no longer an appropriated sport being bought and sold, but it becomes part of the deeper cultural practice of wave sliding, and every surfer has an opportunity to be part of that culture."
Outside of Hawaii, this year surf audiences have been exposed to Indigenous coastal cultures through opening ceremonies, commentary, and video pieces at events in Bells Beach, Margaret River, Jeffreys Bay, Huntington Beach and beyond.
"Visiting surfers, staff, and WSL partners have prioritized making stronger connections to the world's oldest continuing cultures across Australia," says Simon Zuvich, a Yindjibarndi man and surfer who helps organize ceremonies with the Wadandi Elders at Margaret River. "Most importantly, the WSL has created a space for our voices as Indigenous people to share how surfers are innately connected to Aboriginal cultures both in the water and out."
"Our spirit is born of this country," said Wadandi Elder Sandra Hill in a video produced by the WSL for the 2023 Margaret River Pro. "It's all about heritage. It's all about oceans and the forest. We are very grateful that you choose our land, our country, our heart, our mia, to come and perform."
Hill also offered advice for visiting surfers who want to be good stewards of the land: "Having respect for the land you're on, the land you're visiting. Looking after country like you would your own home. This is your home while you're here, that's why we're welcoming you to our home."
For some Native people in these locations, it's a long-running collaboration with the WSL-the Wadawurrung people have led ceremonies at the Bells Beach event, such as the iconic face painting of the men's and women's event winners, for more than 15 years. For other Indigenous peoples, it's a more recent relationship.
"I am feeling very, very happy to be part of showcasing our culture," says Mogapi Lion Sebe, a performer in African Drum Beats, who played music as part of the Jeffreys Bay event. "This is the Eastern Cape, a Xhosa province. This is the birthplace of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, so it has been an honor to teach people of our culture, our tradition, our norms. It feels happy. I feel very proud of my culture."
In recent years, the WSL has also worked in partnership with the traditional stewards of present-day Southern Orange County, the Acjachemen Nation. Members of the Acjachemen Nation were critical in the fight against the Trestles toll road, which would have not only harmed the iconic wave but destroyed the sacred village site of Panhe. Today, they're locked in a different battle-this time with the federal government, which has denied Acjachemen Nation the recognized status that would allow them better access to health care, education grants, and the ability to repatriate the remains of their ancestors from universities, museums, and construction sites.
"The Office of Federal Acknowledgement's application process is very long, and it's not set up for tribes to succeed," says Heidi Lucero, the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation Chairwoman. "But we're bound and determined to make our way through that process."
Adding to the important work Lucero does for her community, she also helped lead this year's Acjachemen welcome ceremony at the US Open of Surfing just a few weeks ago, which included a group prayer and an offering of sage to honor the ocean.
"I think surfers and Indigenous people definitely have a shared interest in protecting our coastlines," says Lucero. "We're dealing with things like pollution, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and more. I know the WSL cares about these issues, too, and we can work together to educate people. Many of these issues can seem beyond our control, but when we educate people little by little about what's going on, we have a much better chance of solving these problems."
"In the years I've been working with WSL, part of my work has been to educate them on the very different values that shape most Indigenous cultures, those rooted in relationality, reciprocity, respect, and responsibility," says Dina Gilio-Whitaker, WSL's Indigenous Engagement Advisor in California. "It's been really heartening to see how the organization has taken these ideas seriously in their work with communities. They provide a living example of what a meaningful paradigm shift can look like in the corporate world. I'm really proud of the work WSL and WSL PURE is doing."
To learn more about the Native stewards of your home coastline, click here.