The Politics of Play: Surfing as a Trans-Indigenous Expression of Thrivance

by Caleigh Cornell and Lydia Heberling

The sport of surfing has captured the global imagination: from the beach blanket films of Gidget, to Point Break and Blue Crush, from surf apparel to beach bodies, the images and styles of mainstream surf culture circulate the globe as significant capital and cultural revenue. The visuals of surfers playing across waves, promoted by publications like The Inertia and Surfer magazines, and by apparel companies from Almond Surfboards to The Seea, suggest the ways in which surfing offers its consumers a unique, playful, spiritual, and social bond with the ocean and a global surf community.

But surfing is also deeply political, as we have seen most recently in the hotly-debated campaign to include women surfers in the Mavericks Invitational big wave surfing competition, held at Half Moon Bay on California’s central coast. The resistance to their inclusion in the invitational event that these female surfers encountered reveals an active and deeply entrenched gender bias against women in the competitive surfing sphere, even in 2016. Moments like this in contemporary surf culture point to the ways in which surfing, whether as play or sport, is necessarily linked to a politics of power that is always being negotiated, both in and out of the water.

The politics of surfing extend into Indigenous communities and spaces as well. In fact, one might say that modern Western surf culture grew out of the Native Hawaiian political struggle at the beginning of the twentieth century. For Hawaiians battling the impacts of colonialism, the ocean had become a space of “autonomy, resistance, and survival,” and surfing an expression of freedom from their colonized condition on land. As more and more “haoles,” or Westerners, began surfing, even the surf zone became a contested site of colonial negotiation, resulting in confrontations in the water and further removals of Native Hawaiians from prime coastal lands. When the activity was exported to the shores of Australia and California (and beyond) in the mid-twentieth century through global circuits of economic and cultural exchange, the result was a double erasure of Indigenous peoples: not only were Native Hawaiian cultural practices around surfing appropriated and erased, but the presence of coastal Indigenous communities in these predominantly Western European places was further displaced and erased as well.

If the ongoing project of colonialism aspires to displace or erase the presence of Indigenous peoples from spaces desired by imperial economic powers, it fails to account for the resilience of Native peoples and the creative, playful ways in which they assert their presence and express their survivance. From Hawaii to California, from British Columbia to Australia to India, Native women and men are surfing, inscribing Native bodies into lineups and waves across the globe and challenging dominant assumptions about Native invisibility and erasure. This has led us to ask: in what ways is surfing a decolonizing activity? How has the visibility of Native peoples surfing disrupted dominant power relations, and how might surfing unite multiple Indigenous communities toward building a trans-Indigenous decolonizing movement? If the ocean truly is, as Tongan writer Epeli Hau'ofa writes, a medium that connects people, then surfing is a form of play—an expression of cultural thrivance—with vast and largely untapped political potential for Native peoples.
To think about how this can be, you could honestly close your eyes and pick a spot along most surf-able coastlines and analyze it as a microcosm of decolonial potential. As Native and mixed-race women who live and surf in Southern California, we chose one of our own home breaks to consider: San Onofre State Beach, on the border of San Diego and Orange Counties.  Famous for its world–class waves and vibrant surf culture, San Onofre contains a complex, layered history of settler-colonial and military presence. The beach is currently a state park, surrounded by Camp Pendleton Marine Base and adjacent to the San Onofre Nuclear Generator Station. Were you to paddle out for a surf at San Onofre today, you would likely hear the distant echoes of artillery blasts as you gaze at the nuclear waste containers on the sandstone bluffs above you. What you will not see is any suggestion that this place was once inhabited by the Acjachamen people.

The Acjachamen have always considered themselves ocean people: their subsistence depended largely on fish, their villages inhabited the liminal space between land and sea, and their customs and traditions were centered around both land and water. Waves of genocidal colonial policy, starting with the Spanish in 1769 and continuing through Mexican and U.S. governments, dislocated them from this land and threatened their survival. Their home was located on the same stretch of coast that we now call San Onofre, but it has not been truly theirs since the Spanish Mission era, and the only trace they left behind is a sacred site and burial grounds called Panhe.

The wave of land development and economic growth in the early twentieth century brought surfing to the shores of Southern California. As Dina Gilio-Whitaker (a descendent of the Colville Federated Tribes and active Native surfer-scholar) has written, surfing arrived in Southern California with a Hawaiian surfer named George Freeth in 1907, who had been hired by land developers like Henry Huntington (think Huntington Beach, or Surf City, CA) and Abbot Kinney to give surfing demonstrations as a way to entice the land-purchasing public to purchase the large available swatches of open coastal “property.” This was an early instance in which the practice of surfing became appropriated and bound up in larger settler-colonial projects of land ownership and development in California. After the Mission era, the Acjachamen peoples’ land had become part of Rancho Santa Margarita, a Mexican land grant, which was sold to James L. Flood and his business partner, Jerome O’Neill (of the present-day O’Neill surf company), who then sold it to the U.S. government to build Camp Pendleton Marine Base in 1942. Whitaker explains that at the time of these land purchases, California Indians had experienced a 90 percent decrease in population, a result of the settler-colonial policy of genocide against them, and the remaining survivors of California coastal tribes like the Chumash, Tongva, and Acjachamen watched helplessly as their lands were “hocked to the white masses.” Unable to actively advocate for rights to their homelands, the Acjachamen watched their legacy of displacement take a new turn as the relationship between land development and surf culture intertwined and solidified.

Using the kind of rhetoric that reproduces settler-colonial claims of discovery of terra nullius, or empty lands, surfers claimed to have “discovered” the “empty,” pristine beaches at San Onofre as early as the 1920s. By the late 1930s, a select group of “local” surfers, or “real ’Nofre guys,” had claimed San O as “their” beach and cultivated a gatekeeping attitude of localism. This group of surfers also began to ritualize certain Native Hawaiian and Californian practices as they developed a communal ethos. They would surf and forage for shrubs, shellfish, and other local foods by day, and have bonfires and play the ukulele in the evenings under palm branch coverings. In doing this, the surfers not only enacted another level of colonial erasure of Acjachamen presence at San Onofre, but also appropriated Hawaiian cultural practices like surfing and music to construct a “Native” persona that, ironically, signaled their “right” to be there.

The ripples of surfing’s colonial beginnings at San Onofre reverberate even today in annual surf competitions like “The Gathering of the Tribes,” where surfers pay homage to San Onofre's surf-campy "beginnings" with various "tribes" or surf teams participating in a friendly competition that rewards surfers with “locals’ rights” to beaches and breaks in the region. These are just a few examples of how modern surfers have carved out a settler-colonial spatial history and cultural ethos at San Onofre that is dependent on the appropriation of traditional Acjachamen and Hawaiian practices and the subsequent erasure and marginalization of both.

But as loud and visible as modern surf culture is at San Onofre, there has been a consistent slew of Native critiques leveled against it, and these critiques are building into a decolonial tsunami of voices and actions that demand recognition and response. We offer snapshots of two critiques (in and out of the water) that, when held together, exert pressure on the dominant narrative of San Onofre.

One of the earliest Indigenous critiques of surf culture’s settler appropriation of California coastal spaces and perpetuation of the erasure of the California Native comes from performance artist James Luna’s 1993 film, The History of the Luiseño People: La Jolla Reservation, Christmas 1990. Luna, who was himself a Native surfer from the Luiseño band of Indians just south of Acjachamen land in Southern California, employed an ironic use of the 1959 classic surf rock song “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny,  distinct with its Hawaiian slide guitar and Hawaiian rhythms, to subtly critique the impact of surf culture on Indigenous visibility and (dis)association with Native lands in Southern California. By using Hawaiian slide guitar, he challenges the appropriation of Hawaiian cultural practices like surfing and music by repurposing Hawaiian musical forms to center his Native critique. Luna’s film is an important text that helps decolonize dominant surf narratives that map spaces like San Onofre, as it teaches us how we might learn to recognize and recover Indigenous stories and expressions of survivance and thrivance.

A more recent expression of Native thrivance at San Onofre takes place on the waves, where Native people are re-inscribing their visibility and re-centering Native Hawaiian traditional practices. In 2013, Dina Gilio-Whitaker and Ajachamen teacher Jacque Nuñez held a surf camp with a group of twenty Native children and their parents from Nebraska, many of whom had never before seen or experienced the ocean. Among other activities, Whitaker and Nuñez brought the kids and their families down to San Onofre for surf lessons at the surf break, Churches, the very same spot where the annual “Gathering of the Tribes” surf contest is held, directly pushing against the space’s embedded colonial history and cultural appropriation. Before the children put on wetsuits, Whitaker and Nuñez gathered them into a circle, and Nuñez gave a blessing and reminded everyone of the significance of the space as the home of her Acjachamen ancestors. Then Whitaker explained that surfing is an Indigenous sport, connecting it to their cousins the Native Hawaiians, and invoked the sacredness of the ocean and the ability to be Indigenous and be surfers. Nuñez and Whitaker's surf camp not only utilized a trans-Indigenous framework to connect the group’s various tribes with the Indigenous roots of surfing, making multiple Indigenous communities visible at once, but it also reimagined San Onofre as an Acjachemen space and the coast as a Native coastline.

There are many, many more instances of Acjachamen and other Native people actively asserting their presence in the water and on the shores at San Onofre, including graffiti art, political and environmental coalitions, and legal struggles. When Native people surf, they re-inscribe visibility of Native people in traditional Native spaces and re-center Native Hawaiian traditional practices.  The tides are turning as Natives at San Onofre, and around the world, are redeploying surf culture and the act of surfing as healing, trans-Indigenous expressions of cultural “thrivance” to re-center Native visibility along coastlines, and to directly resist spatial embeddedness of power relations and oppressive dominant narratives. While doing so, these same instances honor and re-center the Native Hawaiian roots of the sport, further assist in the reemergence of Native Hawaiian visibility, and ultimately help connect and empower Indigenous peoples worldwide.

i. Isaac, Jaimie. “Boardercrossings: Surfing, Skateboarding, and Snowboarding Share Synergies with Indigeneity, its Connection to Art, Land and Water.” Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, May 21, 2016, University of Hawaii, Manoa, Honolulu, HI. Presentation.
ii. We want to thank Dina for her willingness to work with us and allow us to build on the scholarship she has already done on Indigenous surfing. She has been an inspirational mentor.
iii. Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “How American Surf Culture Was Built On a History of Indigenous Erasure.” The Inertia, 1 Dec. 2015. Accessed 1 May 2016.
iv. “Surfing History.” San Onofre Foundation, ND. Accessed 1 May 2016.
v. McHugh, Kathleen. “Profane Illuminations: History and Collaboration in James Luna and Isaac Artenstein’s ‘The History of the Luiseño People.” Biography, 31.3: (2008), 429-260. Accessed 25 January 2016.

Lydia Heberling
is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Washington, where she studies American Indian literatures and U.S. literatures of the West. She has presented her work on decolonizing Indigenous literatures at the Western Literature Association, North American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the Modern Language Association conferences, and won the Wertheim Prize for best graduate student paper at the 2016 American Association of Australasian Literary Studies conference. She also served as the Graduate Editorial Assistant for Studies of American Indian Literatures in 2015-2016. Lydia started surfing in San Diego, CA in 2008 and it has since become a central (and centering) part of her identity as both a mixed-race woman and a scholar. She hopes to continue the work started by Krista Comer and Dina Gilio-Whitaker (and others) who have written about surfing as an analytical node where issues of race, imperialism, and environmentalism intersect, in order to explore how surfing acts as a decolonial expression of thrivance for Indigenous peoples. 

Caleigh Cornell is a descendant of Eastern Cherokee of North Carolina, and she is currently a lecturer in the American Indian Studies department at San Diego State University where she teaches writing and United States history courses from an American Indian perspective. At SDSU, Caleigh was nominated by students for the 2015-2016 Favorite Faculty Member Award. She also teaches summer courses for high school students from local Southern California tribes as part of the Tribal Learning Community and Educational Exchange, a program housed at University of California at Los Angeles Law School in partnership with American Indian Recruitment Programs, in which the goal is to provide accessible higher education for local Native community members. Caleigh began surfing when she was 10 years old, and she has been hooked ever since. She grew up surfing along the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, where she is from, and her love for surfing led her to choose San Diego, a wave wonderland, to attend graduate school. Caleigh earned her Master of Arts in English in 2014 from San Diego State University, and her thesis focused on decolonization in contemporary Eastern Cherokee women's poetry. She hopes to continue bridging her passions for surfing, teaching, and writing in future work on surfing as a decolonial expression for Indigenous peoples.

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