Tofino, BC – As the sun beamed onto Esowista beach, youth of the Mułaa, Rising Tide Surf team gathered around Lacy Kaheaku, a native to Hawaiʻi, to learn how to carve traditional wooden surfboards and the Indigenous roots of the sport.
“Women did a lot of the surfing in native Hawaiian culture,” said Kaheaku, adding that royalty, alongside warriors, would also surf. “But majority of the leisurely surfing was done by women.”
Since ancient times, Pacific islanders have surfed. The pastime is believed to have originated in Polynesia, where cave paintings from the 12th century illustrate people riding the waves.
During seafaring journeys the activity reached Hawaii, long before contact with European explorers and the process of colonization began.
Despite these Indigenous roots, hundreds of years later on the B.C. coast the sport has little First Nations participation, said Rachel Dickens, co-founder of Mułaa, Rising Tides Surf team.
“The surf culture in Tofino has been predominantly white male dominated,” she said. “There’s not many First Nations faces in the waters despite these being unceded Tla-o-qui-aht lands that most people are surfing on.”
Dickens said that Mułaa, Rising Tides Surf team allows youth to “explore and play and feel like they can take ownership of a sport that’s traditionally Indigenous, and learn in an environment with supportive Indigenous mentors or non-Indigenous allies.”
Mułaa, Rising Tides Surf team runs on Monday afternoons throughout the school year and holds a two-week intensive surf camp in the summer.
Hannah Frank of Tla-o-qui-aht has been surfing since she was nine years old, and joined the Rising Tide Surf Team when she was 12 or 13.
“I never saw natives inside the water,” said Frank, who grew up at Esowista, along the coast near Tofino. “It was very rare to see our people go into our waters, except for fishing and crabbing.”
“I got into surfing because it was all I knew,” said Kaheaku. “I wanted to be a professional surfer when I was in high school; that was my dream.”
Kaheaku said that the lack of representation in the surf industry is what influenced her to stop surfing as a teenager.
“I just felt I didn’t fit the profile of what a surfer was,” she said.
“I would see girls that were blonde hair and blue eyes get sponsorships, and then I wouldn’t be seen,” she said, adding it didn’t matter how well she had surfed. “That was a big part of why I stopped surfing.”
In Kaheaku’s first year of college she met her teacher, Tom Pōhaku Stone, who taught a surfing history class at the college level.
“That class – at that time – I did not know would change the course of my life,” she said.
Stone has been teaching Kaheaku for the last decade, and she has officially graduated to teaching her own workshops.
She returned to surfing when she had children and wanted to teach them the skills. Kaheaku and her six-year-old son entered their first contest together in 2022 and plan to enter another in the coming year.
“What I didn’t realize in that class was the movement that Tom Pōhaku Stone was making from a colonized surf industry, and reminding people and teaching people where it came from,” Kaheaku said.
Learning how to carve a traditional surfboard has built Kaheaku’s confidence as a surfer and a mother, she shared.
“I do feel like there will be a revolution in the surf industry,” said Kaheakhu. “I do feel like native and Nati people will be seen, and I do feel like women will be seen.”
Kaheaku said she wants to remind women that “this is what we do.”
“You can dominate this industry equally as much as men, if not more,” she said.
Carissa Moore, a native to Hawaiʻi and a professional surfer, was the first woman on team USA to take home an Olympic gold medal in 2020.
“I do see that there is change,” said Kaheaku. “It gives me so much hope for the next generation.”
Frank said that she would love to see youth from the surf team enter in competitions.
“To have them train every day with somebody in the water and having an Indigenous representative from Tla-o-qui-aht in that contest; I think that would be really cool,” said Frank.
The Mułaa, Rising Tide Surf team also aims to shift the mindset around surfing from that of a competitive nature to one that is more collective.
“Not just looking at the physical aspects of surfing, but also the emotional and spiritual parts of being outside and being on the water,” said Dickens.
Frank moved away to attend Shawnigan Lake School this past September and came back home for the summer. She said that getting back into the water made her “very happy.”
“It was medicine,” said Frank.
The youth excitedly gathered around Kaheaku, some grabbing spokeshaves unable to wait, starting to carve as frequently as they could.
Kaheaku demonstrated to the youth how to use spokeshave to round out the corners of the board, explaining to walk slowly as though walking to the nose of the board when surfing.
“What makes it traditional is definitely the shapes,” she said. “The reason why the shapes are the way they are is because they’re supposed to represent different things in the water, they’re supposed to be used for different types of waves in the water.”
“That function is related to nature, the ocean, the type of wave, where you are, what kind of wood,” she continued. “The connection of the wood, the forest to the ocean is what identifies as native.”
Kaheaku shared that the close ties between Hawaiʻi and B.C. were connected through the tides bringing wood from the Pacific Northwest to the Islands.
“That’s how we got some of our biggest canoes and some of our surfboards,” said Kaheaku. “The connection between B.C. and Hawaiʻi is a lot tighter and closer than what we might realize.”
“If I just stare at the ocean, it’s very much like beaches at home,” said Kaheaku.
Alexandra Mehl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Ha-Shilth-Sa