Surfing and “indigenous” are terms you seldom hear used in the same sentence, especially in the context of the continental United States. When we talk about Hawaii surfers understand about Native Hawaiians, who are usually referred to by the euphemism “locals.” Any surfer who’s ever been there is painfully aware of the tension between “locals” and haoles, and those with even the most cursory of historical knowledge know that the tension stems from a history of American imperialism against the independent nation of Hawaii.
Those with more advanced knowledge understand the reasons why the tension persists. People don’t respond well to military aggression, especially when the historical fallout is the inability to live in your own homelands or to be adequately housed and fed due to unending foreign invasion. To say nothing about the history of forced assimilation, land theft, and environmental degradation caused by a century and a half of economic imperialism from big agriculture, tourism, and militarism.
There is a name for unending invasion: settler colonialism. Settler colonialism happens when invaders engage in wholesale population transfer from the original country or empire, forcibly displacing indigenous populations over a period of decades or centuries. If you are not of unambiguous indigenous ancestry (that is, you have more than a family rumor of an Indian princess great-grandmother), you are a settler no matter how long ago your ancestors came. One cannot become indigenous. Like plants, you are either indigenous or you are an invasive species, choking out indigenous life.
Everything in the U.S.—every social institution, every ideology, everything that can be owned—is a result of settler invasion and conversely, indigenous erasure. American surf culture, with its roots in fin de siècle California can exist only because of the complexity of multiple colonialisms: Spanish, Mexican, and American.
Of the three, American colonialism has been the most destructive to California Indians. Under the Spanish mission system massive Indian depopulation and land loss occurred due to foreign diseases and brutal enslavement. The Mexicans attempted half-heartedly and ultimately unsuccessfully to restore Indians to their lands after breaking up the missions.
Under the Americans, an official policy of Indian extermination from the first days of California statehood proceeded unabated for decades, fueled in the long run not by gold fever, but by the greed for land. Enter George Freeth, 1907. Freeth is widely credited with bringing surfing to California from Hawaii, and thus with the birthing of surf culture. Freeth himself was an indigenous Hawaiian. Surf historians have referred to him variously as Hawaiian, hapa haole, and simply haole by virtue of the fact that he was racially mixed, with more white ancestry than Hawaiian.
Settlers are programmed to eliminate indigenous peoples by a wide variety of techniques. One technique is through equating blood with culture where less indigenous “blood” means less cultural identity, regardless of upbringing and cultural competency. Yet based on Hawaiian genealogy and kinship systems (called moʻokūʻauhau), one either is or isn’t Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian). In turn-of-the-century Hawaii George Freeth would have been considered by Native Hawaiians as simply Hawaiian. But I digress.
By the time George arrived in California the not-yet-ended genocide of California Indians had resulted in a 90% population decrease in under just half a century of American rule, with the 1900 census counting only 15,000 Indians left. There were countless others, however, who had assumed other ethnic identities to avoid being murdered or having their children kidnapped and hauled off to government boarding schools. But they were still there, watching silently. Chumash, Tongva, and Acjachemen survivors stood by helplessly and watched as their coastal Southern California lands were being hocked to the white masses by land pimps like Henry Huntington and Abbot Kinney. Kinney employed George Freeth to give surfing demonstrations to help plant the seeds of beach culture. This would increase land sales by drawing people away from the inland areas to wide open coastal lands.
What are now the havens of a century-old surf culture—a drop in the bucket of time—were for millennia indigenous places. San Clemente was Panhe. Newport Beach was Kenyaanga. Redondo Beach was Engvangna. Malibu was Humaliwu. One of the most effective techniques of settler erasure of the indigenous is the remapping and renaming of indigenous places.
Contrary to colonial history-telling, history does not start when settlers arrive. The next time you get pissed off when someone you don’t know shows up to “your” neighborhood surf break try remembering that the only reason you are there is because a whole lot of indigenous people before you were murdered and cheated for their land.
And that those who survived are still there being denied access to their ancestral places due to the maintenance of settler erasure and socioeconomic inequality brought on by capitalism.
And that 90% of their sacred places—their village and burial sites—are gone, obliterated because development is God in Southern California. And surfing has everything to do with it.
Colonialism is the condition of possibility for American surf culture in Hawaii and California. As surfers increase their social awareness and historical knowledge let us learn from the past so we don’t trample all over indigenous cultures in other countries with our colonial expectations. We can do better.