Surfing and the Politics of Sovereignty and Identity

Dina surfing at Log Cabins, North Shore Oahu, ca. 1981

Dina surfing at Log Cabins, North Shore Oahu, ca. 1981

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. And surfers of today know it. I suppose it’s only natural that surfing would become such a big part of my identity.

About Dina

Dina is Policy Director and Senior Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies, and teaches American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos. A descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington, she holds a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies and a master's degree in American Studies with a research focus on indigenous studies, both from the University of New Mexico. She is a veteran Indian artist, and dancer in the Native American powwow tradition. Along with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, she is co-author of "'All the Real Indians Died Off' and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans" (Beacon Press). As a freelance writer, she writes for KCET Link TV, was a long-time contributor to Indian Country Media Network, Native People's Magazine and numerous other outlets.
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