Team Hawaiʻi just won multiple gold medals at the ISA World Junior Championships in Ecuador, including the overall national team division. Although the surfing was remarkable, it was as team Hawaiʻi stood on the podium awaiting their national anthem that I held my breath with anticipation.
Technically, Hawaiʻi does not have a “national” anthem anymore. After the Hawaiian Kingdom was illegally overthrown and later occupied by the United States military in 1898, Hawaiʻi became a territory of the United States. And in 1959, Hawaiʻi was annexed as the 50th state — the Aloha State. Thus, they could have played the Star Spangled Banner for team Hawaiʻi. However, that seemed unconscionable since the USA has its own ISA national surf team and the Hawaiians were indeed representing a different team or “nation.”
An orchestra of horns and voices singing Hawaiʻi’s original national anthem, Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī, interrupted my contemplations. Unexpectedly, and just as quickly, I was overcome with emotion. For that brief moment, I felt like a member of a living Hawaiian nation. This threw me for a loop. How could such nationalistic sentiments for a nation long-overthrown still exist? As if history took a different course, I reveled in this reflection. Perhaps, in this alternate realm, the Queen was actually restored to power as President Grover Cleveland had promised her in 1893. Or maybe Prince Jonah Kuhio’s foiled plot to restore the monarchy by force actually succeeded. The possibilities seemed endless and entertaining. The official National anthem of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī was composed in 1876 by King David Kalākaua. For Hawaiians, it is also a mele (song) of pride and respect for the Hawaiian kingdom. It is an ode to the moʻī (king), aliʻi (chiefs), and lāhui (people/nation). It is very nationalistic. It is very Hawaiian.
While Hawaiians have been actively pursuing justice and political autonomy over the last century, I find it interesting that the surfing world has always recognized Hawaiʻi’s independence. This is not only true for the ISA, but the ASP, the NSSA, and other surfing entities. Even individual athletes identify their nationality as distinctly Hawaiian. Uniquely, the surfing world functions under the premise that Hawaiʻi, the 50th state, is a separate entity from the United States. How is this possible?
Maybe it is because Hawaiian surfers maintained control over the poʻina nalu (surf zone) — even in the early 20th century, shortly after the annexation to the United States. As I theorize in Waves of Resistance, the surf zone has been an autonomous Hawaiian realm, a place where colonial powers were less able to conquer. This was most notably the case in Waikiki at the turn of the century — where famous surfers like Duke Kahanamoku, Prince Jonah Kuhio, and others contended against a segregated “whites only” Outrigger Surf Club in the early 1900s. Made up of the same elites who imprisoned Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani a few years prior, these Outrigger elites were thwarted by strong, resistant Hawaiian surfers. Likewise, in decades to follow, Hawaiians asserted themselves often, preserving a distinct Hawaiian space. Hence the surf zone remained sovereign in Hawaiʻi nei.
Surfing is still an essential marker for Hawaiian identities today.
Such identifications stem from the fact that surfing, or heʻe nalu, was one of few cultural practices to survive an era of cultural decline throughout much of the 20th century. Hawaiians are very aware and proud that the origins of surfing are inextricably Hawaiian. Perhaps the recognition of Hawaiʻi as autonomous by the surfing world is linked to such identifications.
Whatever the reasons, I am proud that surfers recognize Hawaiʻi as an entity of its own. As Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī played four times over at the ISA awards ceremony, I, along with many of my countrymen, reveled in the moment and enjoyed the glimpse of Hawaiian nationhood. It made me proud to be a Hawaiian and a surfer. Hoʻomaikaʻi i ka hui heʻe nalu o Hawaiʻi (Congratulations team Hawaiʻi!)! I cannot wait to hear Hawaiʻi Ponoʻī sung again next year. Aloha.
For more on similar topics see Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in 20th century Hawai`i.