Surfing community cannot shy away from Land Back

This past Monday marked the return of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and a year since the holiday’s first formal acknowledgement by a sitting U.S. president. While this acknowledgement was decades in the making, proclamations such as this and other honorary measures generally pay lip service to the rights of Indigenous Peoples while the groups themselves still face pushback against Land Back, a campaign to return Native land back to Native peoples, and other land reparation campaigns like it.

Surfing is one of those unique sports that has an integral connection to the land. In the past year, the World Surf League has used its international events as an opportunity to incorporate land acknowledgements into various tour spots, including Lower Trestles on Acjachemen land and Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of O’ahu. At the WSL Finals this year, Kumeyaay educator Stan Rodriguez hosted a tule boat build, a demonstration wherein he used harvested materials to create an original California watercraft.

The WSL also hosts grant programs, panels and other events that showcase Indigenous engagement with the sport. These are moves primarily geared to shift narratives surrounding the use of Indigenous land by the surfing community. What these moves don’t do is take responsibility for — or at least grapple with — the richest of the surfing world moving onto Indigenous lands and exacerbating issues of socioeconomic inequality, houselessness and environmental displacement. 

The surfing origin story is one that generally emphasizes a revitalization by white foreigners who brought the sport “a new life” in the ’50s and ’60s. Hawaiian scholar Isaiah Helekunihi Walker in his book, “Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii,” comments that this revival is a mechanism of white saviorism. The “revitalization” is also an erasure of surfing as a tool of resistance for Native Hawaiians that were facing occupation by American fruit and sugar plantation owners.

In California, surfing arrived with the instruction and demonstration of Hawaiian George Freeth in 1907. Freeth was hired by Southern California developers Abbot Kinney and Henry Huntington (ring a bell?) to entice the public to surf and buy property along the coast. At the time, the coast was relatively unoccupied by white settlers — the Indigenous Peoples along the beaches were almost entirely wiped out by genocide and the mission system. 

The land and the water surrounding the California shoreline became a fable of opportunity and a birthplace of the beach lifestyle. 

The same myth was built in Hawai’i, along with an increasingly unsustainable and exploitative tourism industry. Pipeline on the North Shore is just one example of a “world-class wave” that exists among the Hawaiian islands. When a winter west/northwest swell comes in, it draws thousands of tourists and surf competitors to the North Shore to witness its glory.

Many of those visitors, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, decided to use the island as their own personal refuge. From 2019 to the beginning of 2022, the median cost of a single-family house on O’ahu increased from $789,000 to $1.15 million, and a quarter of all homes sold in 2021 were bought by out-of-state buyers, including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Larry Ellison.

The prices have shut out Native Hawaiians, who account for just around 10% of the island’s total population but over a third of those without permanent housing. The government is trying to partner with nonprofits to house low-income families in some of the 76,000 unoccupied units across the islands, but it is just one piece of the puzzle.

At the end of the day, land acknowledgement is not enough when it comes to the influence large organizations like the WSL can wield on improving conditions for Indigenous Peoples. The wealthiest are again leveraging property as a means to make themselves richer and push other populations out.

Surfing is one part of the Hawaiian tradition of he’e nalu, which translates to “wave sliding.” Not just a practice for island royalty, anyone — regardless of social status — could participate in wave-riding and strengthen their spiritual connection with the ocean. Now, Hawaiians of all kinds are being pushed further out of their ancestral homeland, and further away from the beaches this sport arose from, by the very same people who began the process years ago.

If the World Surf League, or anyone in the surf community, really wanted to give back to  Indigenous Peoples whose land was pulled out from under them to the former’s benefit, then land acknowledgment and donation can’t be the end. Returning the land, decommodifying it and investing in its recovery from the degradation it suffered while stolen — all while working with the consent of Indigenous Peoples — is the next step that should be lobbied for to truly honor the sport and its creators.

Lauren Mattice is a first-year law student exploring issues surrounding the surf community. Her column, “Wave Check,” runs every other Monday.