Carissa Moore competes in the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington
Beach, California, in this July 29, 2015 file photo. The Tokyo Summer
Games, which open July 23, serve as a proxy for that unresolved tension
and resentment, according to the ethnic Hawaiians who lament that
surfing and their identity have been culturally appropriated by white
outsiders who now stand to benefit the most from the $10 billion
industry. (Kyusung Gong/The Orange County Register via AP, File)
Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian Olympic swimmer, poses in a swimming pool
in Los Angeles in this August 11, 1933 file photo. For some Native
Hawaiians, surfing’s Olympic debut is both a celebration of a cultural
touchstone invented by their ancestors, and an extension of the racial
indignities seared into the history of the game and their homeland.
Kahanamoku was a Native Hawaiian swimmer who won five Olympic medals and
is known as the godfather of modern surfing who introduced the sport at
surfing exhibitions in Australia and California. (AP Photo/File)
Olympic surfing exposes whitewashed Native Hawaiian
By Sally Ho
The Associated Press
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — For some Native Hawaiians, surfing’s
Olympic debut is both a celebration of a cultural touchstone invented by
their ancestors, and an extension of the racial indignities seared into
the history of the game and their homeland.
The Tokyo Summer Games, which open July 23, serve as a proxy for that
unresolved tension and resentment, according to the ethnic Hawaiians who
lament that surfing and their identity have been culturally appropriated
by white outsiders who now stand to benefit the most from the $10
"You had Native Hawaiians in the background being a part of the
development of it and just not being really recognized," said Isaiah
Helekunihi Walker, a Hawaii historian and activist. "There’s an element
of them taking over. That’s when there’s no more aloha."
The Indigenous people of Hawai‘i traditionally viewed the act of
stylishly riding ocean waves on a board for fun and competition as a
spiritual art form and egalitarian national pastime that connected them
to the land and sea.
White European settlers who first learned of the sport when they
arrived to the island both vilified and capitalized on the sport.
Christian missionaries disapproved of the nudity on display, yet white
businessmen later ran a whites-only surf club on Waikiki beach.
Today, white people are still seen as the leaders and authorities of
the sport globally, as surfing’s evolution is now a legacy shaped by
white perspectives: from practically Native Hawaiian birthright to
censured water activity, and California counterculture symbol to global
professional sports league.
Imagine if the Hollywood version of yoga became an Olympic sport, and
by default overshadowed its roots in India, whitewashing the original
cultural flavor into a white Californian trope.
"It’s the paradox and hypocrisy of colonization," said Walker, a
BYU-Hawaii history professor who is Native Hawaiian.
White settlers first arrived on the island in the 1700s, bringing
with them disease that nearly wiped out the Native Hawaiian population,
conquest to take over the land and its bounty of natural resources, and
racist attitudes that relegated the Indigenous population to
Though it was three Native Hawaiian princes who first showed off
surfing to the mainland in 1885 during a visit to Santa Cruz,
California, white businessmen are credited with selling surfing and
Hawai‘i as an exotic tourism commodity for the wealthy. That trajectory
has since manifested into a professional sports league largely fronted
by white athletes.
But the Native Hawaiians never gave up their sport and by the 1970s,
there was a full-blown racial clash around surfing with well-documented
fights in the ocean. The issue pitted Native Hawaiians and some white
residents who grew up among them against the white Californian and
Australian surfers who sought to exclude locals from the world’s best
waves on their very own turf.
An infamous brawl involved a trash-talking Australian surfer named
Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, who was battered and humbled by the locals.
The surfing world’s reverence for Hawai‘i and Native Hawaiians was
cemented. Bartholomew would go on to run the Association of Surfing
Professionals, an earlier iteration of the current pro league.
"I treaded lightly in light of what they went through because there
was an internalization that this is something that was stolen from
them," said Richard Schmidt, who was among the white Californian pro
surfers on the scene in that era. "You’re never a complete surfer until
you prove yourself in Hawaii."
Yet critics say the business and branding aspect of the sport and
lifestyle largely remained white-centered.
"When surfing started to become really popular, that triggered money
and that triggered business people and things we’d never thought we’d
have to deal with as people who surf in Hawai‘i," said Walter Ritte, a
longtime Native Hawaiian activist. "There’s no doubt that the control is
not here in Hawai‘i."
The effort to take back surfing’s narrative is why sovereignty
activists applied for a Hawai‘i Kingdom national team to compete at the
Olympics. Their longshot request hinges on the fact that they say there
was no ratified treaty that ever formally dissolved Hawaii’s autonomy.
The United States annexed Hawai‘i in 1898 after the overthrow of the
Hawaiian monarchy by U.S.-backed forces in 1893.
A statement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has
ignored the request, noted only that applicants must be an "independent
state recognized by the international community."
This geopolitical dynamic will be on display when Carissa Moore and
John John Florence are in the surf zone to compete for the U.S.
Neither is eager to discuss their views on the matter but they are
two of professional surfing’s biggest stars who have long competed under
the Hawai‘i flag in the pro league, as the World Surf League (WSL)
recognizes Hawai‘i as a "sovereign surfing nation." Moore as the
reigning female world champion is also the only Olympic surfer who is
"The hurt and the wounds go back really far," Moore said. "I usually
compete under the Hawai‘i flag all year with the WSL...For me, that’s
not a huge focus right now. I think that I can still represent both,
even if I’m not wearing the flag on my sleeve. I’m wearing it on my
Tatiana Weston-Webb, a white woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and will
surf for her mother’s native Brazil at the Olympics, said Native
Hawaiians deserve more recognition but rejected the idea that they are
"I don’t think that they’re being overshadowed," Weston-Webb said.
"It just depends on how you look at the situation."
Fernando Aguerre as president of the International Surfing
Association, the Olympic governing body for surfing, pledged to honor
Hawai‘i and Duke Kahanamoku, the godfather of modern surfing, during the
games. Like many surfing industry leaders, Aguerre, who is from
Argentina, invokes the legend of Kahanamoku often, even noting that he
named his son after the Native Hawaiian icon.
Kahanamoku was an Olympic swimmer who won five medals and introduced
the sport via surfing exhibitions in places like California, New Jersey,
Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. He lobbied the IOC at the 1912
Summer Games in Stockholm to include it in the Olympics, and was the
ultimate waterman, whose legacy also includes popularizing flutter
swimming kicks and spreading the concept of lifeguarding and water
rescue to the masses.
"Everything we do has a connection to Hawai‘i. I think it’s
impossible to detach Hawaiianness from surfing," Aguerre said. "The
ocean doesn’t really care about hate, war, or governments. Surfing is
that way, too."
Didi Robello, a descendant of Kahanamoku, said none of his family
members have been contacted to participate in any Olympic celebrations.
He said his grand-uncle’s name and legacy are exploited, which has
become a great source of pain for the family because the trademark
rights to the Kahanamoku name are owned by outsiders.
"We’re getting ripped off," Robello said. "It’s embarrassing."
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