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Surfing and Indigeneity

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Native Like Water's Marc Chavez teaches Native youth how to surf at Scripps Beach in San Diego.
Native Like Water's Marc Chavez teaches Native youth how to surf at Scripps Beach in San Diego.

I am a person of Native American heritage, and I also happen to love surfing. I began board surfing as a young adult thirty-six years ago, but in reality I grew up riding waves as a kid born and raised in coastal Southern California. I spent lots of time on the beach, bodysurfing and riding various types of bodyboards. At twenty-two I moved to Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii, which unbeknownst to me at the time was—and still is—the epicenter of global surf culture, and it was there I learned to surf. Being Native American and a surfer sometimes seems like a contradiction in terms, and there is virtually no literature on how surf culture intersects with Indigenous peoples in the continental United States. But I have made it my personal mission as a scholar to begin this conversation, and here I share with you some of my ever-evolving thoughts on it. 

Human cultures the world over have always depended upon the ocean for life. They utilized craft of all kinds to fish and to travel, and undoubtedly there was an element of enjoyment associated with those activities. But only one culture in the world developed a type of ocean craft whose sole purpose was the riding of waves: the ancient Hawaiians. They called their unique sport he’e nalu, or wave sliding.

Not that they were the only peoples to ride waves for fun, or even the first. Ancient Peruvians have a tradition of wave riding at least 3,500 years old, on reed boats the Spanish called “caballitos de totora” (literally, little reed ponies). But historians think that the reed boats—which are single-person vessels ridden standing up and with a paddle, similar to today’s stand-up paddle boards—were developed primarily for fishing. Those paddlers, however, would had to have learned how to negotiate breaking waves, literally surfing them in to the shore, and once that skill was mastered, it’s easy to imagine that they could’ve ridden their little reed ponies purely for fun.

Gilio-Whitaker at home surf break at San Onofre State Beach.
Gilio-Whitaker at home surf break at San Onofre State Beach. Photo credit: Pauly Chambers.

Nonetheless, Hawaiian surfboards are likely the only watercraft in the world that evolved strictly for sport. 

Surfing was imported to Southern California in 1907 by an adventurous Hawaiian named George Freeth, in service to a new wave of beachfront development, after a couple of early Southern California developers recruited him to give surfing demonstrations to attract property buyers. Freeth also pioneered the modern art of lifeguarding, making the ocean safer for the hoards of newly transplanted people and the burgeoning sport.       

The modern sport of surfing is widely recognized as the product of indigenous Hawaiian culture, even though an entire genre of films launched it into mainstream popularity in the late 1950s and 60s, permanently cementing an image of surfing as a hallmark of (non-indigenous) California lifestyle. If it sounds like a form of cultural appropriation, that's because it was. At least I think so, as I wrote about in a chapter of this forthcoming book.

All the Real Indians Died OffI also think it’s fair to say that surfing is not a sport that is commonly associated with non-white people, at least not in the US. That’s why it might seem incongruous to think about American Indians as surfers. But you’d probably be surprised to find out that there is a hidden demographic of American Indian surfers among the surfing population in California, and other places.

It might be tempting to ask how American Indian people come to be surfers. A more relevant question, however, would be why the prospect of Native American people who surf seems so surprising? This gets to the heart of an issue Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and I write about in our new book that looks at the common misconceptions and stereotypes about American Indian people, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.

In the book we discuss the idea that most of the misnomers we can identify stem from the entrenched American narrative of the “vanishing Indian.” A key element of that myth is that Indians exist as relics of an extinct past, which forecloses on their ability to be both modern and authentically Native. That is to say, that if surfing is a sport claimed by modern dominant society (however fraudulently), then surf culture is another arena of modern life that obscures (and arguably erases) the identity of Native people who surf because of its predominantly white orientation.

Indians who surf, in other words, are a classic case of Indians in unexpected places—that which directly challenges the stubborn stereotypes that keep them locked into an unchanging past.


Johnny Rice
Native surfing legend Johnny Rice, from exhibit at Santa Cruz Surf Museum. Photo credit: Boots McGhee

Those of us who are American Indian and surf are hyper-aware of surfing not just as a modern cultural phenomenon, but of its indigenous roots, giving us a different lens through which we view the sport. For example, the renowned late Potawatomi surf legend from Santa Cruz Johnny Rice brought a distinctly indigenous perspective to his view of the sport when he compared it with the concept of the four sacred directions of Plains Indian culture.

In another example, Purepecha Indian Marc Chavez created an entire organization called Native Like Water that connects Native American youth with the ocean through surfing (among other things). The organization’s objective is to perpetuate indigenous world views about the human links with the natural world while reinforcing the importance of indigenous and science-based education.

I have worked with Mark’s program, and I work in other ways with Native youth to teach them about how we as Native peoples do not have to give up our Nativeness in order to experience the joy of surfing. I do this by reminding them that we are cousins to the Native Hawaiians, and by emphasizing that we can interact with surf culture on our own indigenous terms. Inevitably, that involves the knowledge that the spaces where surfing takes place have always been indigenous places. Surfing is a way to metaphorically reclaim and re-indigenize those spaces.


About the Author 

image from www.beaconbroadside.comDina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.