Associate Editor

Huntington Beach, before it was Surf City USA. Photo: City of Huntington Beach

The Inertia

As of late, I’ve found myself frustrated with the played out portrayal of surfing as a mechanism through which one can achieve enlightenment and inner peace. Compounding days with minimal surf in the forecast are partially to blame. Along with crowded lineups that make sessions feel less meditative and more Darwinistic.

As it happens, the history of surfing is rife with diverse narratives that are more complex if not disingenuous beneath the surface. The idealistic search for the perfect wave has played a role in promoting surf tourism that hasn’t always led to positive outcomes for the small far flung towns and villages in close proximity to fine surf. What’s more, emerging research suggests the sport’s halcyon days were far from idyllic. A recent article written by Dina Gilio-Whitaker for KCET reveals as much. The piece in its entirety is highly recommended. Here’s a taste:

“An emerging academic literature loosely referred to as critical surf studies, however, has been challenging all the prior assumptions constructing surfing’s conventional narratives. One strand of the scholarship deconstructs surf culture’s origin story by highlighting the fact that the so-called revival of the ‘dead’ sport occurred within the context of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom government by American military forces during a time of violent U.S. expansionism on the continent and elsewhere.

“Understanding surf history in the context of imperialism helps to shed the veneer of innocence undergirding these cultural narratives. One of the predominant mythologies, for example, is that surfing formed a subculture free of political constraints because surfers have always considered themselves outside the mainstream. As apolitical outsiders, the myth goes, they were social outlaws, bucking the system through their refusal to conform to society’s norms — eschewing full-time jobs to pursue lives of pleasure, dressing outside socially acceptable standards, adopting a distinct subcultural vernacular, etc.


“The surfing subculture is generally viewed by social scientists as part of the counterculture movement that swept the U.S. in the 1960s, with its roots in the earlier beat generation of the 1940s and ‘50s. The narrative of the surfer as social pariah within the counterculture is part of what scholars of settler colonialism term “moves to innocence,” where complicity in an oppressive society is denied. Because oppression is consigned to the past, no longer existing in the present, no one is responsible for their roles in maintaining the system.

“A more accurate understanding of the history of surf culture in California, however, must consider the historical context of the state and its own history of genocide. Although surfing first appeared in 1885, it was fleeting. Surf culture is generally acknowledged to have been planted in Southern California in 1907, when a young Hawaiian named George Freeth was hired by land developers Abbot Kinney and Henry Huntington to give surfing demonstrations as a marketing tool to entice the sales of coastal properties.

“Until then, most of the population in the Los Angeles area was concentrated inland. Coastal areas were relatively unpopulated, having been scrubbed of an indigenous presence due to the ravages of Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonialism. Those who survived the foreign diseases and the mission system had been forced to move away or into new identities under state and federal policies designed to eradicate them first physically via outright killing, and later through forced assimilation.

“Coastal lands, now largely free of a visible indigenous population, had fallen into predominantly white ownership within a few short decades after California statehood in 1850. The large ranchos that descended as Spanish and Mexican land grants were swindled out of Mexican ownership by corrupt American laws designed specifically to enable white settler ownership.

“In other words, from the very beginning, surfers have been blissfully unaware — or perhaps unconcerned — that their beloved sport was founded on a history of indigenous erasure, in both Hawaii and California.”

Beyond the surfing’s early history in California, Gilio-Whitaker takes on the myth of the “modern revival” of surfing in Hawaii with aplomb. Be sure to check out the full piece on KCET’s website here.

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