Editor’s Note: This piece was done in conjunction with our partners at the World Surf League in celebration of Indigenous People’s Day
Talking with Brian Keaulana is like speaking to a king or a president (if only our current POTUS would carry himself with as much dignity). Brian has a natural sense of calm, understanding, and humility that is absolutely undeniable. Raised in Mākaha, he’s one of the foremost experts in big wave safety and has worked tirelessly to ensure the well-being of others in waves of consequence, from big wave competitions to big-time movie sets. These days, he’s more reflective of where we are as a country, and the Hawaiian people’s place in today’s society. And I couldn’t help but get a sense of optimism from Brian, excited about the Hawaiian youth and the future of the Kingdom. On the occasion of Indigenous People’s Day, I spoke with Brian about the craziness we find ourselves in, how he’s handled it, and what that bright future might look like.
Wild times we find ourselves in, Brian.
It’s craziness. If you look at the truth and infighting and separation of how politics is skewing with science, it doesn’t seem like the truth is being told, there’s no trust in the system right now. People never really trusted the system, but now, parents have died, grandparents have died, people are losing their jobs, the economy is down and trust is down.
What’s the pulse over there? How are Hawaiians handling everything?
It’s different. You cannot control the outside world. What you can control is your own destiny, your own world. In the past, we (as Hawaiians) dealt with pandemic on the largest scale: the common cold and measles were brought here by colonists, the majority of the Hawaiian nation suffered through these and still survived. I just had a discussion with my family, how our way of thinking as Polynesian people is more as stewardship, we never thought of owning the land. We take care of the land and ocean and it takes care of us. There was this relationship and it’s been sustainable: we never went hungry. So we can make it through this. And you need to appreciate where you are in life. I have my moments but I was just taught something important by one of my elders: I said, “I wish we could go back in time and experience what our ancestral hunters experienced.” The elder said, “Why do you say that?” And I said, “Because it seemed like a better time.” And he told me, “No not really, we have everything we could ask for now.”
Well, even now, being brought up in Mākaha, anything we asked for we could receive: my grandmother would ask for red fish, We’d go get red fish. The environment we live in is so thriving. If you just ask, it’s so abundant, you could get it. You want to go surf, go surf, eat pig, you can eat pig. Everything is in abundance. It’s not monetary necessarily, but everybody is just living a fruitful life. It’s practicing that part of our culture, even in our church group, helping neighbors out, not expecting anything back, the act of giving, spending time. That’s the richness we’ve always had and why I feel we can get through this. It’s a great, rich time and you can control your own destiny.
You are in control. Any habits you have you build. If I want to be a top athlete or top surfer, surf every single day, building habits, smart habits, and dive into every single aspect of building those smart habits. All those things (bad habits) are marketed to us, what society is “supposed to be.” But we can control the way we live. Food can be grown freely, that’s why we can get our own food. What more do you need? Do we need a boat, a bigger house, those habits are for trying to impress others, not yourself.
What changes have you seen in native Hawaiians in your lifetime?
When I look back at my grandmother and grandfather, they were born in the Kingdom of Hawaii. We had monarchs. People think it was a fairy tale. But we had a royal king and queen. My grandma and grandpa were born into that kingdom. My father was born into a territory. I was born in the U.S. Three generations, it’s not been that long. Not everyone understands that. One of the biggest things in Hawaii today is that Native Hawaiians are now more educated in that fact. That’s the big difference and one of the things we talk about. The language was taken away, now it’s resurged back in homes throughout the islands. It’s back in the young generation. That knowledge bypassed my generation. They used to speak it in school but then the schools only studied English, and that’s detrimental to culture. I see the wrongness in that. They tried to educate us into a different mode. But these days, as indigenous Hawaiians, we’ve gotten more educated. More young people have become lawyers and doctors.
So you’re still seeing a lot of pride in the Kingdom of Hawaii among the younger generation?
Very much so. President Clinton made the apology (in 1993 for the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarch), the subject got shelved for a while but now the facts are coming out. There have been a lot of hardships as indigenous people work to get educated on facts. When people look at Hawaii all they see is a marketable place: blue sky and palm trees. When you see all the Hawaiian people houseless, homeless, water rights taken away, that’s the hard part being under the occupation. Until all the facts come out, it’s a slow process, but yes, the Kingdom of Hawaii still exists. Indigenous people are always put aside and taken advantage of and I think young people are just working to understand all the facts. So we can cry and pout, and get mad, but life is fruitful, the ocean is enjoyable, we still share kindness. Land wasn’t something that was part of our barriers – we sailed from island to island, connected by water, water is where we live and breathe, navigating around the world.
So you’re hopeful?
The generation right now, the generation after me, went to Hawaiian language schools. It’s great, they’ve become professors, scholars, doctors, lawyers – our warriors in language are educated in so many different ways. It’s a powerful way that our next generation is working to educate themselves.
You’ve become close with so many water people all over the world with your travels during your career. Do you look back and take pride in having carried the Hawaiian culture, or aloha spirit, with you wherever you went?
I told my son this, we all leave legacies, my whole thing, I want people to be better than me, more skillful than me. I try to treat everyone like my parents treated people. They didn’t just raise me but they raised everyone around me in that village in Mākaha: brown, white, my father and mother would love and care for you as family should. For me, that’s why I love our ocean community. I’m home no matter where I go, family whether it’s Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, I still consider those as brothers and sisters. I want to share that mentality and I want it to spread around the world – that is the legacy I would leave behind. I don’t claim ownership, more stewardship, of my culture.
Mākaha has that way about it. It seems like it’s such a part of whoever grew up there.
It’s an old culture that was passed down from grandfather to father to me. Whoever was around us, we would just spread that light. I think it has more global purpose these days. I think that Mākaha has been that nucleus of fun, family, friendship, and survival. Life is ever-changing. It’s a learning process how you share that with one another. You plant that seed and we’re waiting for the fruits to bear. Giving the seed to the youth and then they can teach us – then I become the student.
Editor’s Note: Brian Keaulana is the founder of the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group which is now offering classes online to help you become safer when enjoying the ocean. Find out more about classes, here.