Very occasionally, the seemingly endless scrolling I do on Instagram reveals something worthwhile. One was a recent post from Australian surfer Dave Rastovich and his wife Lauren Hill for their Waterpeople podcast, featuring Professor Isaiah Helekunihi Walker of Brigham Young University, Oahu.
His book, “Waves of Resistance – Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai’i” (2011, University of Hawai’i Press), provides context for the formation of the Hui O He’e Nalu surf club in 1976. “Da Hui,” as the club is sometimes referred to in Hawai’i (to borrow the pidgin style of speech), formed “to preserve Native Hawaiian control over the waves of the North Shore,” Walker writes in introduction.
Professor Walker then identifies the key historical events that fueled Native Hawaiian activism, starting with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and leading, ultimately, to statehood for the former kingdom. The disruption to Hawaiian society by American interests was profound, and in many ways traumatic. Hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians died in the first 50-years of contact, first with Captain Cook, then with many thousands of sailing ships. Simple diseases that Europeans had evolved to survive wreaked havoc among indigenous populations.
A popular notion, Professor Walker notes, is that American missionary disapproval of the Hawaiian art of surfing led to its virtual demise. According to some historians, surfing almost faded out completely only to be saved by Duke Kahanamoku and then continued on by the Americans and Australians.
While it is true that Hawaiian life was forever changed by annexation – he’e nalu, the ancient art of surfing – never went away for the Hawaiian surfers who survived the impacts upon their culture. Duke Kahanamoku did of course spread Aloha and surfing knowledge via his many wave riding demonstrations around the world and Olympic swimming victories, and his influence upon all us haole surfers is immeasurable. From Duke’s personal 16-foot plank, to the Hot Curl, the Fish, and the three-fin Thruster, modern surfing owes its existence to Hawai’i and to Kahanamoku.
But in Hawai’i, apart from Duke Kahanamoku’s international efforts as an ambassador of surfing, ka po’ina nalu (the surf zone), Walker writes, always remained “a place where Hawaiians felt free, developed Native identities, and thwarted foreign domination.”
A renaissance of Native Hawaiian cultural practices occurred in the 1970s, perhaps most visibly in the formation of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the construction of Hokule’a, the traditional voyaging canoe that proved unequivocally that Polynesian seafarers intentionally explored and populated the entire Pacific. The Hui O He’e Nalu was also formed in this period in response to ever-increasing professional surfing events that closed access to the best waves of Oahu’s North Shore to non-competitors.
Stories of the Hui in their black shorts terrorizing visiting surfers are woven into the lore of the North Shore and perpetuated in films like Blue Crush and North Shore. And although punch-ups and intimidation have occurred, the balance sheet of wealth and real estate holdings (the ultimate manifestations of power) on the North Shore definitely favors non-Native “Hawaiians.”
Devastation wrought by foreign diseases, the usurping of Hawaiian sovereignty supported by bayonet-wielding U.S. Marines in 1893, and the subsequent development of modern Hawai’i, left many Hawaiians destitute in their own land. Yet “Hawaiian-ness” remained, and remains, in culture and in the art of surfing. And there are of course a great many Hawaiians who, like their ancestors, utilize every new technology and operate effectively in contemporary, cosmopolitan society.
Focusing only on the negative impacts of Westernization risks characterizing indigenous peoples as mere victims lacking agency in their own affairs. But whether or not the transformation of the world was inevitable – from local and unique, to global and homogenous – violence permeates history. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The question of how, or if it’s even possible, to address the wrongs of the past gets tangled up in politics. Black Lives Matter is deemed “Marxist” by some on the right, as is the prospect of teaching Critical Race Theory (often completely misunderstood by the people most opposed to it).
Regarding Hawai’i and the wider Pacific, can we not move in the direction of appreciation and preservation of culture and creation? The climate crisis is the natural consequence of industrialization. As perfectly illustrated in the book “Guns, Germs, and Steel – The Fates of Human Societies” (1997, Norton Books), Western (i.e. European and European-American) domination of the world is not the result of inherent superiority, but of circumstance.
Now is the time to incorporate older and less energy-intensive ways of living; to take note of the successful, local, strategies of indigenous people to sustain our living planet; to utilize science and technology to greatly reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. And just as Hawaiian surfers banded together to assert their birthright in ka po’ina nalu on the North Shore in the 1970s, so can we demand a more-just and healthy society. And also go surfing in reverence and gratitude for the great Hawaiian artform.