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New wave of Hawaiian surfers seeks to recapture the cultural spirit of the sport

Surfing has its roots in ancient Hawaii, according to the Bishop Museum.

For 26-year-old Ha’a Keaulana, surfing is practically part of her DNA. He has been surfing since he was a baby, even before he could walk or talk. Some of his earliest memories were a surfboard with his grandfather, Hawaiian surf legend Buffalo Keaulana.

“He grew up in a time where so much of our culture was taken away from us,” Keaulana told ABC News. “You weren’t allowed to speak our language. And sometimes some people couldn’t even hula dance. And that got lost. So I think naturally he always connected to his culture by being a waterman in the ocean.”

Keaulana represents a growing movement of Native Hawaiians celebrating and reclaiming the cultural spirit of surfing that they say has been commodified and co-opted into pop culture for the past century.

“[Surfing is] our church, because that’s where we can spiritually connect with something that was always there as native Hawaiians. I feel connected to my ancestors. I feel connected to my culture,” Keaulana said.

While movies like “Point Break” and “Surfer, Dude” along with music like the Beach Boys hit song “Surfin’ USA” are examples of a modern portrayal of the sport that ties it more to California, the cartoons of the explorers Westerners in the 1700s and 1800s show that surfing has its roots in ancient Hawaii, according to Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.

“There are these accounts where it seems like people would do these death-defying acts on these pieces of wood in waves that terrified sailors. Western watermen wouldn’t even try it. And these are like young women doing it And it just blew them away, literally,” said Michael Wilson, the museum’s surf exhibit designer.

The massive arrival of Westerners in the 19th century challenged the native indigenous cultures. As many Hawaiians went to work in the sugar cane fields, the surf dwindled, until a man appeared more than 100 years later, native Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, a three-time champion swimmer at the 1912 and 1920 Olympics. Kahanamoku promoted Hawaii and surfing while traveling the world, Wilson said.

Over the next few decades, a new generation of Hawaiian surfers emerged, including legends like brothers Clyde and Eddie Aikau, who were the first lifeguards at O’ahu’s Waimea Bay.

“We never lost a person in 10 years… We didn’t have jet skis. All we had were fins and a surfboard,” said Clyde Aikau.

Eddie Aikau was lost at sea trying to save his friends after his Hokule’a canoe capsized in the open sea, according to the Eddie Aikau Foundation. An invitational surfing competition on the North Shore of O’ahu has been named in his honor.

Clyde Aikau says that surfing is a sacred place for Hawaiians to go in search of tranquility, but the culture has since become big business. Surfing as an industry is estimated to be worth over $4 billion, but Clyde Aaiku doesn’t think the money will end up benefiting Hawaiians. When asked by ABC News how much of that financial aid he thinks Native Hawaiians benefit from, his answer was “zero.”

Still, some Hawaiians are riding the wave of surfing’s future, like champion surfer Carissa Moore. A native of Hawaii, she took home the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics during the sport’s debut. She now takes her place with Duke Kahanamoku in surfing history and inspires a new generation of surfers in Hawaii.

“It was a great milestone for Native Hawaiians to have Carissa bring home gold. And we are very proud of her,” Keaulana said.

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