Tainted Paradise: Surfing the Tides of Nationalism and Marginalization

By Emalee J. Nelson

Surfs Up!

The art of surfing is unique to the core of its existence. Unlike many sports today, there are only a few places in the entire world where surfing is even possible. Popular spots today include off the coasts of Southern California, Australia, South Africa, Southwest France, and of course, Hawaii. It is commonly accepted that surfing originated in Polynesia, specifically the isolated archipelago of Hawaii. Through past centuries, the act of surfing transferred from a traditional pastime to cultural staple, to most recently, an international competitive sport. During this shift, cultural and social tensions marred the tradition of Hawaiian heritage.

As the sport gained popularity, a massive migration of surfers and beach-goers, especially in the latter half of the 20th century occurred. The North Shore of Oahu was one of the prime locations which gained immense popularity and an unprecedented amount of non-Hawaiian drifters. With the large influx of surfers, the pristine beaches, famed for their prime surf, became packed with men and women competing to catch the best and biggest waves. Before long, native Hawaiians, whose very ancestors created the sport, found themselves marginalized within their very own backyard. Among the first group of people to express their frustrations with the evolving demographic on their beaches were native Hawaiian surfers. The cultural and social mélange took over their beloved past time, and presented issues on the very waves they once controlled.

A Brief History

Surfing is heavily embodied in to the fabric of the Polynesian spirit. Ancient Hawaiians often turned to surfing as an outlet to express one’s physical prowess, especially among elite nobles and royalty.[1] Though males are predominantly noted for continuing on the beloved pastime, women, young children and even commoners were also allowed to surf. Women such as Princess Victoria Ka’iulani often found herself competing among the best male surfers, including her cousin, Prince Jonah Kūhiō, a rather progressive concept given the patriarchal mentality steeped in many cultures in the world during the 19th century.[2] This concept could be due to the geographic isolation of the Hawaiian island chain. “The beach was not just a physical buffer between the land and the ocean, but a cultural and metaphysical border.”[3] However, this aquatic borderland was intruded upon when the United States seized the Hawaiian Kingdom Palace and overthrew the monarchy, ultimately resulting in the annexation of the Hawaiian islands in 1898.[4]

Upon the beginning of the 20th century, there was an obvious shift of the mentality of many Hawaiians as they resided under an unwelcomed, new form of government. Fortunately, surfing remained a significant staple to Hawaiian culture, as it became one of the few traditions that survived the “destructive power of colonialism”.[5] Upon the pristine beaches of Honolulu and Waikiki, many gathered to ride the gentle waves, often attracting visitors from around the world, including writer Jack London, to witness the sport and early surfing legends such as Duke Kahanamoku and the Waikīkī Beach Boys in person.[6] Though haole (white) memberships in local, Hawaiian based surf clubs, there was not an intense cultural clash until the mid 1950s.

After World War II, a series of seemingly unrelated events occurred which forever changed the identity of local Hawaiians, especially surfers. With the rise of commercial airfare and the addition of Hawaii as the 50th state to the United States, accessibility to the islands, especially Oahu, grew substantively. With a greater influx of visitors, predominantly white, images and stories of surfing spread to every corner of the planet. It was also during this time that the sport gained immense popularity due to the rise of “beach culture”. Musical groups such as The Beach Boys, movies like Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii, the image of a cool, carefree lifestyle was broadcast to a new, massive audience, thus fostering the beginning of a falsified commercialized image of Hawaii’s sacred pastime.[7] Surfers from all over the world began their migration to the biggest and best waves Hawaii had to offer. For many, this spot was the “Seven Mile Miracle”, a stretch of beaches on Oahu’s North Shore which offered “a scene of one perfect surf spot after another”.[8] Eager to dominate the big waves of famed beaches such as Waimea Bay, Pipeline and Sunset, the new breed of surfer found themselves in unfamiliar territory. “Similar to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European explorers, these California surfers had ‘discovered’ nothing new but a place already occupied by ocean experts.”[9]

Throughout the 1960s, big-wave competitions were held along the North Shore. The most famous event, the Duke Invitational, had an ironic reputation for inviting Californian and local haole surfers. Native Hawaiian professional surfing greats such as Eddie Aikau, Ben Aipa, Clyde Aikau and others found themselves on the outside looking into the waters in which they grew up and learned to dominate that very sport.[10] As an obvious result, tensions were prominent on nearly every beach along those fabled seven miles. Native Hawaiian surfers experienced a unique type of ostracism that did not just cripple their sport, but their nationalistic identity.

Catching A New Wave

Paralleling with the history of virtually any other sport, the growing demand of participation, from not just native Hawaiians, but elite competitors around the world, begged for bureaucratic involvement for the betterment of the sport—and the surfers, too. The International Professional Surfers (IPS) was created in effort to create a global governing body of professional surfers, led by Hawaiians Fred Hemmings and Randy Rarick. Eventually, this morphed into the Association of Surfing Professionals (APS), which offered joint ownership and control of the sport, ultimately fostering “Dream Tours”. In what was essentially a barnstorming effort, the tour set out to showcase the “world’s best surfers on the world’s best waves”.[11] In 2015, the organization underwent another name change, producing the current governing body, the World Surf League (WSL).

Today, the WSL maintains the annual tour of professional surf competitions. For those not lucky enough to live near the worlds biggest waves, each event is broadcast live online. Starkly contrasting the social and cultural rifts of a mere few decades prior, the scene looks much different. Competitors of the league, coming from Hawaii, Southern California, Brazil, France, Australia, South Africa (just to name a few), emulate a scene of familial ethos combined with intense, yet friendly competition. Set in a backdrop of some of the world’s most exotic beaches, competitive surfing today shows the positive effects bureaucratization can have on sport. However, even with the most effective of regulations, the effort made by surfers in recent years towards embracing the diverse demographic on the waves proves to be the central theme of the sport’s divergence from its once apparent marginalizing force.

John John Florence wins the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. Photo courtesy of John John Florence.

John John Florence wins the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. Photo courtesy of John John Florence.

This past year, the WSL crowned 24-year-old phenom John John Florence as their Men’s Champion. Born and raised on Oahu’s North Shore, this Hawaiian is conquering the surfing world on his own terms. After becoming the youngest surfer to compete in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing at 13 years of age, with a 4’11”, 85-pound physique, he has since won nearly every prestigious surfing competition around the world, including “The Eddie” Quicksilver Big Wave Invitational, the revered, rare event which runs at Waimea Bay only when the swell produces 30-40 foot waves.[12] In his (almost literal) backyard, Florence, with a saltwater drenched mop of bleach blonde hair, hoisted high his trophy in celebration. Surrounded by his surfing colleagues and the Aikau family, the North Shore native was cherished and lauded for his remarkable performance, thus showing the power of the aloha spirit and its impact on surfing and Hawaiian culture.

Surfing, like many events in the ‘extreme sport’ category, is not held in a traditional venue, and it certainly is not played by traditional athletes. Though there has been much discussion on the athlete’s role in social and cultural issues, surfing today offers an exceptional example of the remarkable power of embracing diversity for not only the betterment of the sport, but for the betterment of a society, as well. On the very beaches where racial marginalization once tainted Hawaiian paradise, surfing’s progressive attitude has since produced top-quality competition with exceptional sportsmanship. Perhaps a few other sports could benefit from riding this wave to shore, too.

Emalee Nelson received her MA in History at Texas Tech University. Her research focuses on issues of women, race, and sexuality in sport. She can be reached on Twitter at @emaleenelson and by email at emalee30@ymail.com.


[1] Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Waves of Resistance, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 16.
[2] Ibid, 16-17.
[3] Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, “Hui Nalu, Beachboys, and the Surfing Boarder-lands of Hawai’i.” The Contemporary Pacific 20 (2008): 89-113.
[4] Ibid, 95.
[5] Ibid, 94.
[6] Walker, Waves of Resistance, 32.
[7] Nick Ford and David Brown, Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment and Narrative of the Dream Glide. (New York: Routledge. 2006), 68.
[8] Walker, Waves of Resistance, 33.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid, 35-36.
[11] “World Surf League – History”, World Surf League, accessed December 12, 2016, http://www.worldsurfleague.com/pages/history.
[12] Jesse McKinley, Bruising Surf at Rare Big-Wave Event in Hawaii, The New York Times, Dec. 8, 2009, accessed Dec. 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/us/09surf.html.

One thought on “Tainted Paradise: Surfing the Tides of Nationalism and Marginalization

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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