Olympic surfing exposes whitewashed Hawaiian roots


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For for some Hawaiian natives, the Olympic beginnings of surfing were both a celebration of a cultural touchstone invented by their ancestors and an extension of the racial indignities etched in the history of the game and their homeland.

The Tokyo Summer Games, which will open on July 23, serve as a proxy for this unresolved tension and resentment, according to ethnic Hawaiians who lament that surfing and their identities have been culturally appropriated by white outsiders who should now benefit the most from the $ 10 billion industry.

“You had native Hawaiians in the background being part of the development of it and just not really being recognized,” said Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Hawaiian historian and activist. “There is an element of them that takes over. It is then that there is no more aloha.

Johnny Weissmuller, left, and Duke Kahanamoku at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

The indigenous peoples of Hawai’i traditionally viewed the act of surfing in style the ocean waves on a board for fun and competition as a form of spiritual art and an egalitarian national pastime that connected them. to land and sea.

The white European settlers who first discovered the sport when they arrived on the island have both vilified and capitalized on the sport. Christian missionaries disapproved of the exposed nudity, but white businessmen then ran a white-only surf club on Waikīkī Beach.

Today, whites are still considered the leaders and authority in sport on a global scale, as the evolution of surfing is now a legacy shaped by white perspectives: from the practically Native Hawaiian birthright to the censored aquatic activity, and the symbol of the Californian counter-culture to the world professional sports league.

Imagine if the Hollywood version of yoga became an Olympic sport and by default eclipsed its roots in India, whitening the original cultural flavor into a white Californian trope.

“This is the paradox and hypocrisy of colonization,” said Walker, a BYU-Hawai’i history professor who is native to Hawaii.

White settlers first arrived on the island in the 1700s, bringing with them a disease that nearly wiped out the native Hawaiian population, a conquest to seize the land and its abundant natural resources, and racist attitudes which relegated the indigenous population to second-class citizenship. .

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Although it was three Native Hawaiian princes who first introduced surfing to the mainland in 1885 during a visit to Santa Cruz, California, white businessmen are credited with selling surfing and Hawai’i as an exotic tourist product for the rich. This trajectory has since manifested itself in a professional sports league largely led by white athletes.

Members of the North Bay Surf Club in Malibu Beach, Calif., In 1961.

But the native Hawaiians never gave up their sport and in the 1970s there was a full-blown racial clash around surfing with well-documented fights in the ocean. The issue pitted native Hawaiians and some white residents who grew up among them against white Californian and Australian surfers who sought to exclude locals from the world’s best waves on their own back ground.

An infamous brawl involved a chattering Australian surfer by the name of Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, who was beaten and humiliated by locals. The surfing world’s reverence for Hawai’i and Native Hawaiians was cemented. Bartholomew would continue to lead the Association of Surfing Professionals, an earlier version of the current professional league.

“I walked lightly in light of what they went through because there was an internalization that it was something that was stolen from them,” said Richard Schmidt, who was one of the California White Professional Surfers. on the scene at this time. “You are never a complete surfer until you have proven yourself in Hawai’i.”

Yet critics say the business and branding aspect of the sport and lifestyle has remained largely white-centric.

“When surfing started to get really popular it sparked money and business people and things we never thought we would have to deal with as surfers in Hawaii,” said Walter Ritte. , a longtime Hawaiian activist. “There’s no question the control isn’t here in Hawai’i.”

The effort to pick up the surf narrative is why sovereignty activists asked for a Kingdom of Hawaii national team to compete in the Olympics. Their long-term demand is based on the fact that they say there has been no ratified treaty that has ever formally dissolved Hawai’i autonomy. The United States annexed Hawai’i in 1898 after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by US-backed forces in 1893.

A statement from the International Olympic Committee, which ignored the request, only noted that candidates must be an “independent state recognized by the international community”.

This geopolitical dynamic will be visible when Carissa Moore and John John Florence are in the surf zone to compete for the United States.

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Neither is eager to discuss their perspective on the matter, but these are two of pro surfing’s biggest stars who have long competed under the Hawaiian flag in the professional league, as the World Surf League (WSL) recognizes Hawai’i as a “sovereign nation of surfing. Moore, as the reigning world champion, is also the only Olympic surfer of Hawaiian descent.

“The injury and the injuries go back a long way,” said Moore. “I usually compete under the Hawaiian flag all year round with the WSL. . . . For me, that’s not a big goal right now. I think I can still represent both, even if I don’t wear the flag on my sleeve. I wear it on my heart.

Tatiana Weston-Webb, a white woman who grew up in Hawaii and who will surf for her mother’s native Brazil at the Olympics, said native Hawaiians deserved more recognition, but dismissed the idea that they were not respected.

“I don’t think they’re eclipsed,” Weston-Webb said. “It depends on how you see the situation. “

Fernando Aguerre, as president of the International Surfing Association, the Olympic governing body of surfing, has pledged to honor Hawai’i and Duke Kahanamoku, the godfather of modern surfing, during the Games. Like many leaders in the surf industry, Aguerre, originally from Argentina, often invokes the legend of Kahanamoku, even noting that he named his son after the Native Hawaiian icon.

Kahanamoku was an Olympic swimmer who won five medals and showcased the sport via surf shows in places like California, New Jersey, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. He lobbied the IOC at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm to include it in the Olympics and was the ultimate waterman, whose legacy also included popularizing floating kicks and spreading the concept of lifesaving. and aquatic rescue to the masses.

“Everything we do has something to do with Hawai’i. I think it’s impossible to detach Hawaii from surfing, ”Aguerre said. “The ocean doesn’t really care about hate, war or governments. Surfing is also like that.

Didi Robello, a descendant of Kahanamoku, said no family member had been contacted to participate in Olympic celebrations. He said that his great-uncle’s name and heritage are being exploited, which has become a great source of pain for the family as the trademark rights to the Kahanamoku name are owned by outsiders.

“We are getting ripped off,” Robello said. “It’s embarassing.”

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