In Hawaiian culture, surfing has always been more than a sport. So important was it that prayers and chants for good waves connected the art of he’e nalu (wave riding) to Native Hawaiians’ spiritual world. While surfing may have been imbued with spiritual power for Hawaiians, it also became the source of a kind of political power at a time when America’s military occupation threatened the existence of Hawaiian culture.
At the turn of the 20th century, Native Hawaiians were in the throes of American domination. It had been only 125 years since the arrival of the first Europeans and only 60 years since foreign missionaries had succeeded in coercively Christianizing most of the Native Hawaiian population, with devastating impacts on their culture. In a few short decades foreign diseases reduced the Native population of perhaps 500,000 people to 40,000. Haole (roughly translated as foreign, or white) businessmen maintained a stranglehold on every aspect of Hawaiian life since the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian independent state in 1893.
Despite the devastating impact of American domination it would be a mistake to assume that Native Hawaiians had lost everything. True, important traditional practices had been abandoned due to Christian conversion, but aspects of the culture still remained, having gone underground in isolated areas. Hula is a prime example. Similarly, the art of he’e nalu (literally translated as “wave sliding”) had all but died.
Once a central element of Hawaiian life that waned under missionary control, by the turn of the century surfing experienced a resurgence as disillusioned Hawaiians once again took to the surf to assert cultural pride. Famous Hawaiian surfers like George Freeth and the legendary Duke Kahanamoku spread the sport to foreign lands, beginning the surf craze that would overtake the U.S. mainland and Australia.
Meanwhile, haole elites began to learn the arts of surfing and canoe paddling from Hawaiian watermen. In 1908, news writer and Chicago transplant Alexander Hume Ford founded the Outrigger Canoe Club to teach Hawaiian aquatic sports to wealthy non-Hawaiians. By 1915, the whites-only club grew to a membership of 1,200 of Hawaii’s most politically powerful men. Sanford B. Dole, a former president of the post-overthrow Republic of Hawaii and other pro-annexationists like Lorrin Thurston (prime architect of the overthrow) and J.P. Cooke were among the club members.
They claimed superiority over the Hawaiians at their own sport and even segregated some of Waikiki’s beaches. Outraged by the racist arrogance of the Outrigger Canoe Club members, Hawaiians formed their own surf club, called Hui Nalu. The clubs competed against each other in fierce surfing and paddling competitions. Tensions in the water built for years.
The po’ina nalu (surf zone) became a battleground, and fistfights were common. Conventional historians have written about the passivity of Hawaiians to the early days of American colonialism, but Hawaiian historians have shown the opposite. Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, for instance, wrote that, “In essence, the conflict between the two clubs was a continuation of the political battle that had taken place on land a few years earlier. But this battle had a different outcome. As Outrigger annexationists were unable to snatch this Hawaiian space from the firm grip of Hui Nalu surfers in the early 1900s, Hawaiians continued to reign in the po‘ina nalu.”
The battles between haole and Hawaiian surfers continued into contemporary times. One incident is legendary in the modern surf community. As surfing gained popularity in California and Australia throughout the 1960s, surfers migrated in droves to the islands for their world-class waves, elevating tensions among surfers in and out of the water. The emergence of pro contests in the 1970s heightened tensions when Hawaiians were passed up for awards.
Australians—like haole elites a couple of generations before—boasted openly about their superior surfing prowess, at a time when the modern Hawaiian sovereignty movement was catching fire among Hawaiian youth. In 1977, Aussie pro surfer Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew was brutally assaulted by a group of Hawaiian surfers after he published an article in Surfer Magazine in which he made comments about Hawaiian surfing styles that Hawaiians found offensive.
A 2013 ESPN documentary called Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, recounts an infamous meeting several weeks after the assault. Bartholomew was summoned to account for his actions. A meeting was held in a conference room in what is now the Turtle Bay Hilton on Oahu’s North Shore, the room full of angry Hawaiians. There, fabled Hawaiian big wave surfer Eddie Aikau explained the history of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, a history then unknown to Bartholomew. Here’s how he described the gathering:
“You could call it a meeting or you could call it a trial. I was so ignorant, I didn’t know, and the lessons began. I was understanding why the Hawaiians were angry. They had lost their land and surfing was one of the last bastions of their culture Ieft and that’s what we had taken.”
Aikau is credited with having defused a potentially explosive situation. He and the other Hawaiians decided Bartholomew had atoned for his wrongdoing.
The incident is usually recounted as part of modern surfing’s history. But in the context of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, it can be seen as a teachable moment for non-Hawaiians. Hawaiians have never passively accepted American military occupation, and as long as the occupation continues, the po’ina nalu will always be a zone of resistance.