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Surfing and the Politics of Sovereignty and Identity

Published: November 17, 2014, Author: dinagw

People who know me know the diversity of my interests. On one hand, I am firmly entrenched in my identity as a person of American Indian heritage. On the other, I am also deeply influenced by my upbringing in Southern California and my attachment to surfing as a sport and a lifestyle. For better or worse, I am an urban Indian, full of seemingly inherent contradictions. This is the stuff of identity politics.

We all live in a very complex society, and like most people I am driven by a need to integrate the seemingly disconnected aspects of my life. But as most indigenous wisdom teaches, everything is connected, someway, somehow, including surfing and indigeneity. In Hawaiian culture the connection between these two things is well known, since for something like 2,000 years wave riding was a central element of the culture. The same is true in Peru and other places.

In human affairs everything is political because of the relationships that connect us to each other and to our respective environments. Relationships are always about the balance of power. Even surfing is political because of the way we must interact with each other in the surf zone, sharing space with safety in mind. Hawaiians have always known this, and the rules that guided society carried through in the surf zone. When Europeans came to dominate Hawaii, stripping Hawaiians of their political power in government and just about every other aspect of their lives, the one space they could exert power was in the surf. I write about it this week at Indian Country Today.

This knowledge was made available by the excellent historical work of Isaiah Helekunini Walker. Surfing provides one of the most direct links to the natural environment that we as humans can get. The ancient Hawaiians knew it, the ancient Peruvian Indians knew it, and other ocean-based indigenous peoples know it. It’s especially true in the modern, urbanized world, and today’s surfers know it. It’s not a big stretch to say that ancient knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples seeps through into contemporary consciousness through the experience of wave riding, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Chief George Manuel Memorial Indigenous Library

The library is dedicated to the memory of Secwepemc Chief George Manuel (1921-1989), to the nations of the Fourth World and to the elders and generations to come.

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