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The shaka was born in Hawaii. At the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, the statue of Hamana Kalili commemorates the man's life and contribution of the shaka to the world. But is using it as non-Hawaiian surfers  a form of cultural appropriation? Photo: Polynesian Cultural Center

The shaka was born in Hawaii. At the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, the statue of Hamana Kalili commemorates the man’s life and contribution of the shaka to the world. But is using it as non-Hawaiian surfers a form of cultural appropriation? Photo: Polynesian Cultural Center


The Inertia

On a blustery March afternoon in Greenwich Village, I sat in a classroom pondering one of the strangest questions I’d ever been posed: what is my culture? During my two year stint at NYU for grad school, this was my favorite class. Oddly, it had nothing to do with my degree, at least not on the surface. I was studying international relations. This was a sociology course. Interdisciplinary perspectives on the new immigration – long title.

As I pondered this question as a white male from Southern California I came to two conclusions: 1) Defining your own culture is tricky, it’s much easier to look around and describe your culture relative to others, and 2) Determining what “belongs” to whom is slippery.

“American,” I thought. “Hamburgers and hot dogs. Boom. Culture.” But upon deeper introspection I thought about how even what might be considered the most obvious facets of American culture are imported to some extent, with home grown elements, of course. And how American culture is in fact made up of a smattering of different cultures – some of which people ascribe to uniquely, and some that they ascribe to collectively.

But as difficult as it is to properly nail down, questions about culture and race are important ones, especially in surfing. This class stirred in me some reflection upon symbols and mannerisms I use to represent myself and who I am that I tie to my own culture.

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In class we talked too about cultural appropriation, i.e. taking an element of another culture and passing it off as your own. And it took me until now to wonder whether or not the shaka, the perennial hand sign exchanged by surfers the world over, could actually be culturally appropriative.

Shaka mahalo, Kobe. Shaka mahalo.

Shaka mahalo, Kobe. Shaka mahalo.

A while back I wrote a piece on the history of the shaka. Origin stories abound, but they all converge around the fact that Hamana Kalili, a celebrated waterman in the employ of the Kahuku sugar mill, lost his three middle fingers in an accident, leaving only his thumb and pinky to wave. Somewhere along the line, locals began to imitate him. And later that got incorporated into broader surf culture, not just isolated on the Hawaiian islands.

That transition is key. Because appropriation has everything to do with using a symbol with little regard if not disdain for the people who originated it.

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According to Dr. Isaiah Walker, a history professor at BYU Hawaii that specializes in Hawaiian and Polynesian history, “California surf culture has historically been at the forefront of appropriating Hawaiian culture in the post-war period – from aloha shirts, to ukuleles, grass shacks, surf kahunas, tiki charms, and more.” 

“Surfers proliferated it via Gidget and other pop culture venues,” Dr. Walker says. “This trend has always fascinated me because American surfers were simultaneously inclusive of things Hawaiian and often exclusive of authentic Hawaiian people and culture.”

In other words, yes the shaka is a form of cultural appropriation, but only insofar as the majority that display their thumb and pinky finger (myself included, until recently) probably have no idea where it comes from.

To dwell on that for a bit, it really is quite amazing that a simple hand signal of such humble origins has made its way around the world, even outside of surfing.

Barry O ain't afraid to throw a shaka.

Barry O ain’t afraid to throw no shaka.

Therefore, perhaps the most salient argument to be made is not to encourage others to put the kibosh on the shaka, nor to do so yourself, but instead be aware of and circulate the truth about its origins, so that the OGs get the respect they deserve.

It’s pretty amazing how many global phenomena have roots in Hawaiian culture, the shaka being just one example. “Hawaiians are impressively inventive for such a relatively small society if you think about it,” Dr. Walker says. “I mean they invented surfing (in its various forms) the ukulele, steel guitar (which inspired the electric guitar), the shaka, SUP, SUP-squatch, outrigger canoes, double-hulled sailing vessels, hula, slack key guitar, and so much more.”

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But the shaka in particular is a funny thing. It’s like a symbol that you’re a card carrying member of surfdom, have some connection to Hawaii (maybe as surface-level as having visited once), or saw someone do it and thought it was cool.

Some cultural appropriationists are of the mind that if something doesn’t belong to your culture, you should promptly knock it off. But as it pertains specifically to the shaka, that’s an impracticality.

Surfing and throwing a shaka have come too far. But it’s not too late to honor the origins of the most popular hand sign in surf, and to remember that Native Hawaiians were throwing shakas way before they were cool.

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