“Where are you from bro? I’m a local, show some respect!” I half-heartedly laugh every time I encounter this at my favorite surf spot, a place where the river flows into the sea. My violation had sparked a call to the hierarchy based upon the assumed proximity of my residence to the coast. As a member of an Indian tribe located in San Diego County, localism is an interesting concept to me. For my transgression, I’m quickly and sharply told my place. This feels familiar. Did I violate the unwritten rules of the sport and disturb the advantages afforded to someone who believes where he/she laid his/her head at night enables superiority over another? If that’s the case, then I belong at the top.
Years ago I left the reservation and discovered surfing. I was hooked. Like many beginners, I took my lessons from the lineup. However, there was always something a little deeper to the aggression for me. I got better at surfing and swam a little closer and closer to the main peak. One such incident left me numbed and confused. As the aggressor paddled towards me calling me a ni**er, I wondered if it was me he was coming towards. I have skin that colors easily, and growing up on the reservation with an Indian father and an Irish mother, I was used to being called “white boy” on the rez and “chief” when in town. They were words used to place me on and off the reservation. Being called a ni**er was surprising, and while I struggled to comprehend the moment, the aggressor paddled upon me, stabbing the nose of his craft into my thigh and board, enraged at my trespassing upon his territory. Washed in defeat, and with a new ding in my board, I paddled away.
I had been put in my place. The result an aggressor hopes for when enacting a sense of localism. This interaction wasn’t based on surfing ability as much as it was a violation of color. What was the lesson this person was trying to teach me? It wasn’t that I snaked his wave or sat on him at the peak. I merely tried to join the shuffle of surfers grabbing the better waves. Since then, I’ve discovered the “local” has many faces but the act is always the same. I wonder to myself during these moments about my place. I sit, silent and still on the surface, while on the inside a fire burns.
An internal debate rises in me each time somebody regulates the lineup. I wonder if I should try to explain that if we are using the adage of “I’m from here,” then maybe I should have more agency in the water? Rather than silently allowing this person to enact local(ism) upon me, forcing me to conform and adopt his values in the ocean, maybe I should scream at him: “Can you stare back towards the land between sets to see where your past has stood? I can. I can trace the drops of water as they fall into a creek behind my father’s house, winding their way down the river that bears the name of my tribal people; creating the sandbar we are surfing. Can you really claim local(ism) when I share the name of the water? My history flowing towards us as you talk about being from here?”
I grew up in the foothills of the mountains where the water began. At one time my tribal territory stretched along the coast from near San Juan Capistrano to Carlsbad, inwards to the valleys of the coastal mountains. Presently, we are tucked into the reservation where our tribal name literally translates to “place where there is water.”
The sand that gets pushed out into the sea during the rains comes from where I sleep. Our native language describes us as the Payomkawichum, which translates to People of the West. The Mission just along the river inland from where we are surfing held our people and changed our name to Luiseño, claiming that by which we were part of, the San Luis Rey River.
Not to belittle the experiences of others, or one’s sense of belonging, but thoughts of a fight run through my mind every time a local screams at me, or stabs at my color. The urge to tell my story lingers on my lips, hoping its departure would penetrate their salt-crusted ears. Another set has come, taking with it the surfer who felt the need to remind me of where he’s from. I look back towards the land and splash the water; it’s brown from the rains pushing sediment from the mountains.