Daniel Ikaika Ito, artist and guest contributor
A Native narrative illuminates a historically accurate account of an Indigenous people’s identity without the shadowy, geopolitical lens of a colonized nation. It shines a light on the origin of a culture. With the clarity it brings, there is agency for a Native population in today’s world.
He’e Nalu: The Art and Legacy of Hawaiian Surfing is a visually engaging exhibition of surfing’s Indigenous origin, its cultural significance and its influence on extreme sports. This exhibition opened at the Heard Museum in January and will be on display until July. He’e Nalu: The Art and Legacy of Hawaiian Surfing is a Native narrative of an Indigenous people’s cultural practice that has evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry and multinational pastime.
Today, there are an estimated 35 million surfers around the world, creating an iconic lifestyle sport that is recognized globally and practiced wherever there is a large body of water. No matter a wave rider’s nationality or skin color, all surfers can trace their roots back tohe’e nalu (wave sliding or surfing) and Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). The multinational surf industry and its governing bodies—the World Surf League (WSL) and the International Surfing Association (ISA)—control this Hawaiian sport’s narrative. For the most part, there is a dangerous trend of Kanaka Maoli marginalization and disenfranchisement when the story of surfing is manipulated to further an agenda or commercial endeavor.
For example, there is a storyline widely disseminated by the ISA and the surf industry that three-time Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was the first Kanaka Maoli to share surfing around the world. In the documentary “Waterman” (2020), they call Duke“surfing’s Johnny Appleseed”—whitewashing the memory of the great Native Hawaiian surfer by likening him to early American folklore with a Christian undertone. While Duke will always be regarded as “The Father of Modern Surfing,” he was not the first to take he’e nalu abroad.
In fact, it was three Hawaiian princes—David La’amea Kahalepouli Kinoiki Kawānanakoa, Edward Abnel Keli’iahonui and Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole—who introduced he’e nalu outside of Hawai’i when they surfed the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, near Santa Cruz Beach in Northern California, in 1885. Duke would surf in California in 1912 and in Australia two years later. The well-documented historical account of the three Hawaiian princes surfing in Nor Caldoes not help further the agenda of Huntington Beach promoting the nickname of “Surf City,” the global surf industry, or the Olympics, which is probably why it’s not marketed in the mass media the way the story of Duke is. Another seldom-told Native narrative is the exceptional literacy rate that existed in Hawai’i during the Hawaiian monarchy. Hawaiians—and surfers—come from an oral tradition. The Kumulipois the Kanaka Maoli creation story that was passed down from generation to generation through oli(chant), and Hawaiian genealogy and history were perpetuated through mele (song) and hula (dance) until the arrival of the Christian missionaries. The written word was first introduced in Hawai’i by the missionaries in 1820. Native Hawaiians marveled at the Westerners’ technology of mo’olelo (story) onpalapala (paper). From theAli’i (royalty) to the Maka’āinana (commoners), the Kānaka Maoli embraced reading and writing—and Christianity, because the first book printed in ‘ŌleloHawai’i (the Hawaiian language) was Ka Baibala Hemolele (The Holy Bible).
I wondered how these events would have been covered by the media if the Hawaiian Kingdom
still existed; my people maintained the high rate of literacy and the Hawaiian language was
never banned in the education system.
The traditions of Hawaiian journalism and he’e nalu have always resonated with me since mydays as a boarding student at the Kamehameha Schools in the late 1990s. Life in the dorms on campus was essentially dry dock for a surfer, because you were without your parents to take you surfing, and underclassmen were not allowed to leave campus on weekdays unless it was for a school-sanctioned activity. Therefore, in high school I would religiously read my dorm advisor’s surf magazines (Surfer, Surfing, Transworld Surfand Longboard magazine) from cover to cover in order to maintain my passion for he’e nalu. When I noticed there weren’t any Kānaka Maoli named in the mastheads of these publications or in the bylines of the articles, I made a vow to become the first Native Hawaiian editor of a surf magazine. I was fortunate to achieve this career goal at age 23 when I became editor-in chief of Free Surf magazine. I would go on to cover he’e nalu for Surfer, Surfing, Surfer’s Journal, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ESPN, always striving to bring a Hawaiian perspective to my prose. Throughout my journalism career, I was aware of events in modern surfing history when Kānaka Maoli were disenfranchised by the sport that ourkupuna (ancestors) created. I wondered how these events would have been covered by the media if the Hawaiian Kingdom still existed; my people maintained the high rate of literacy and the Hawaiian language was never banned in the education system.
The accompanying gallery of magazine covers is titled ‘Ahahui Haku Mo’olelo, which means Hawaiian Journalism Association. I view historical events through the lens of a surfer and journalist—it’s how I “associate” the world as a Kanaka Maoli. The kaona (hidden meaning) behind that title also pays homage to my Kanaka Maoli collaborators in this artwork—Art Director Janelle Kalawe and Copy Editor ‘Iwalani Kūali’i Kaho’ohanohano—dear friends with whom I have had the pleasure to closely work at various media organizations throughout mycareer. Furthermore, I offer mahalo (thanks) to haole photographers Don James (via Duke Aipa), Jeff Divine and Mike Latronic for allowing us to use these surfing images for ‘Ahahui HakuMo’olelo. These people supported my vision as an editor-in-chief for the four magazine covers featured here that are in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i and provide a Native narrative of historical events in modern surf history when Kānaka Maoli were and continue to be disenfranchised in surfing.
A Large Swell
Holo ‘o Ben Aipa
Lāua ‘o Eddie Aikau
Me Ke Kū’ē
Ben Aipa and Eddie Aikau Paddle Out at Sunset Beach in Protest
‘A’ole Kono ‘ia Nā Kā’e’a’e’a He’e Nalu Hawai’i I Ka Ho’okukūkū Moho Kūhelu Mua ‘o Duke Kahanamoku
Hawaiians Not Invited to Inaugural Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship
Eo ‘o Hakman Ma Paumalū
Hakman Wins at Sunset Beach
Ko Kahikilani Mo’olelo
The Story of Kahikilani
Kā Duke Nīnauele
The Duke Interview
Nui Lō’ihi Anei Nā Papa He’e Nalu?
Are Surfboards Too Long?
Ho’opakele’ia Ka Po’e Haole
E Eddie Aikau
Eddie Aikau Saves Haole People
Ho’ākoakoa ‘ia ka Po’e Hawa’i a me ka Po’e
Pāpa’a o Nūhōlani Ma Lalo o ka Malu
Brings Hawaiians and Bronzed Aussies Together for Peace
Ke Ola O Kahi Kia’i Ola Ma Ka North Shore
Life of a North Shore Lifeguard
Nā Me’e o ka Wā Makahiki
Heroes of Makahiki Season
Ke ‘ano Kūpono E Ho’oponopono Ai
How To Ho’oponopono
He ‘alemanaka Malama Manuahi Ko Loko
Free Moon Calendar Inside
Nīnauele: Kealoha Kaio
Interview: Kealoha Kaio
E Kūkā Kama’ilio me kā Eddie Kumu A’oa’o
Talk Story with Eddie’s Mentor
Broken Section of a Wave
Lawe hewa ʻia
ka lanakila a
Dane Kealoha Robbed of World Championship
Nā poʻo o backdoor
ka mea nāna i haku i ka inoa
kapakapa ʻo pig dog
Pig Dog Innovator
I.S.P. vs. A.S.P.
nā politika kāʻeʻaʻeʻa heʻe nalu
hoʻonele ʻia nā Hawaiʻi
Pro Surfing Politics Disenfranchise Hawaiians
Ma Hea Kahi I ʻike ʻia Ai Ka Hae Hawaiʻi Ma Ka Makamua
O Nā Hoʻokūkū
Heʻe Nalu Ma Ka
Where Was the Hawaiian Flag
in Surfing’s Olympic Debut?
On December 15, 1965, haole contest promoters chose not to invite any Kanaka Maoli competitors to the inaugural Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of O’ahu. At the time, this event was billed as the most prestigious surf contest, with 24 of the world’s best surfers invited to compete at this one-day event. A teenage Jeff Hakman won the event, but the story behind the story was the protest by Native Hawaiian surfers Eddie Aikau and Ben Aipa, who paddled out during the event and surfed Paumalū (Sunset Beach) all day. The Kānaka Maoli demonstrated that their surfing ability was on par with the proclaimed “Best in the World,” which made Duke very happy.
Kānaka Maoli took offense to Australian pro surfer Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholemew’s article “Bustin’ Down the Door,” which appeared in Surfer magazine in 1976. His article proclaimed that the haole surfers—the Bronzed Aussies—were dominating Hawaiians in the fledgling professional surfing tour. Furthermore, Rabbit was involved in a physical altercation with legendary Kanaka Maoli surfer Barry Kanaiaupuni at a surf contest. These incidents resulted in violence and death threats for Bartholemew and the Bronzed Aussies on the North Shore in 1977. Hawaiian big wave surfer and Waimea Bay lifeguard Eddie Aikau led a ho’oponopono (process of correction) at Kuilima between the Hawaiians and Aussies in order to stop the violence and make peace. Aikau’s act allowed the Australians to compete in surf contests on the North Shore without fear of violence, essentially saving their lives and allowing professional surfing to flourish.
Kanaka Maoli professional surfer Dane Kealoha was robbed of the 1983 World Championship of Surfing due to a beef between the outgoing International Surfing Professionals (ISP) and the incoming Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) governing bodies. Kealoha led the ASP rankings as the tour was winding down that year, and the shift of pro surfing’s focus was on the North Shore of O’ahu. The ASP banned all of its competitors from competing in the ISP events in Hawai’i, but Kealoha and a handful of Hawaiians still competed in their home waters in 1983. Kealoha won two out of three ISP surf contests that year, and subsequently he was stripped of his ranking and points by ASP Executive Director Ian Cairns. As a result of the bureaucracy, Kealoha was never crowned a champion. Cairns was one of the Bronzed Aussies who was reprimanded by Hawaiians in 1977 on the North Shore, and many people believe it was Cairns’ opportunity for revenge to prevent Kealoha from bringing home what would have been Hawai’i’s first surfing world championship. Banning a Kanaka Maoli from competing in he’e nalu at their ancestral home—and the birthplace of surfing—is a form of institutionalized racism. Disenfranchised and angry by the injustice, Kealoha stopped competing professionally after 1983. His impact on the sport of surfing is still felt today, as he was the first competitor to surf Backdoor—the dangerous right-breaking wave at the Banzai Pipeline—in competition. Furthermore, Kealoha also invented the widely used “pig-dog” stance, which allows a surfer to get low and stable on their surfboard when getting barreled on their backhand.
In 1912, Kanaka Maoli Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku advocated for surfing in the Olympics. Since the inception of modern surf contests in the 1960s—when Duke was still alive—Hawai’i was always recognized as its own nation in professional and amateur surf competition around the world. This distinction allowed competitors from Hawai’i to compete under Hae Hawai’i (the Hawaiian flag) and honor the birthplace of he’e nalu and surfing’s ancestors. In 2016, after decades of pushing by the International Surfing Association (ISA), surfing’s governing body, the International Olympic Committee announced that surfing would debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics. In the process of the ISA’s Olympic endeavor, however, a Hawai’i surf team was not allowed to compete at the ISA World Games or the Olympic Games. For the first time in her career, five-time World Surf League World Champion Carissa Moore surfed under the American flag at the Summer Olympics, held in Tokyo, Japan, in 2021 (postponed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic). The Kanaka Maoli surfer won the Olympic gold medal. It was bittersweet for Hawai’i to watch one of its Native daughters win gold at surfing’s debut in the Olympics only to see the United States flag instead of the Hawaiian flag on the winner’s podium.