The Connection Between Indigenous Cultures and Ocean Sports

Wednesday August 22, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Anybody who knows me knows that I am a person who weaves in and out of numerous cultural spaces due to the complexities of my multicultural identity as well as the influences of places where I grew up and have lived, such as southern California, Hawaii and New Mexico, not to mention my education in Native studies. My Native American roots combine with my roots in southern California and Hawaiian beach/ocean sports culture (especially surfing and sailing) and New Mexico's Indian country (and the University of New Mexico) to form a somewhat bizarre and seemingly incongruous combination of circumstances and interests. But really, there are important connections. One might ask, how is surfing and other ocean-based activities related to Native Americans, or more broadly, indigenous cultures?

The simple answer is that surfing and sailing are indigenous activities. Most surfers know that surfing didn't originate in California, but in ancient Hawaii and likely even greater Polynesia. Known as the "sport of kings," surfing is often attributed to the Hawaiian ali'i (ruling monarchy) but there is evidence that even the commoners and women participated. Few people know, however, that there is an even more ancient history of surfing in pre-Columbian Peruvian Indian cultures, based on archeological evidence showing images of people surfing waves in reed boats as far back as 3,000 years.

Indigenous cultures who lived near the ocean made full use of it, not just for necessities of life like food but also for the pure enjoyment it brings. Like everything in nature, the ocean is a spirit-- a living, breathing being with whom humans have a relationship. It is deeply connected to the soul of a people, and in modern times the ocean has been the nexus that connects the almost disappeared traditions of the past with a living culture, facilitating its rejuvenation and maintenance. In Hawaii this is embodied in the tales of the Hokule'a and a man who was a living bridge between surfing, sailing and Hawaiian culture, the legendary Eddie Aikau.

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