"Locals only" is a phrase commonly used at surfing spots both in Hawaii and on the mainland. It may be interpreted as a desire for identity, respect, and a sense of belonging: qualities that are as old as the human soul itself.
LOCALISM IN HAWAII: A SEARCH FOR RESPECT...
Very recently I was sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, having arrived early for a periodic dental hygiene check. Invariably, it seems to be the case that whenever one waits for a medical appointment in a doctor’s office, there are seldom many magazines of any real interest to be read.
Since I’m not into professional team sports, Sports Illustrated is about as boring to me as the Wall Street Journal. Not being a pimply-faced teenager or desperate housewife, People Magazine is only one step removed from The Accountant’s Quarterly, in terms of interest. Ditto for Happy Homemaker, Sunset, and the Automobile Club of America’s Via. Fortunately, I managed to spot a fairly recent copy of Outside, lurking in the waiting room’s small stack of monthly periodicals.
Now I should state at the onset that I am also no great fan of Outside Magazine, since it has about as much relativity to outdoor recreation as Playboy has to human sexuality (vicarious, puritanistic sex, yes, but genuine human sexuality, no). While originally somewhat interesting when first brought out, ever since Outside wrote a sensationalized series of reports on the 1996 Mt. Everest fiasco, Outside has stood revealed as just another slick and glossy vehicle devised to titillate the masses and sell leading edge recreational technology and expensive ‘extreme’ vacation experiences to bored urbanites.
Despite these facts and contrary to my usual preferences, it was really the only magazine in the pile even worth a second look, and since I am and have been a life-long closet ‘gear freak’, I picked the magazine up to idly while away the few minutes remaining before the dental inquisition began.
Unsurprisingly, there were the usual stories about $10,000 super-bicycles, extreme downhill ski runs off the North Face of the Matterhorn, and an annual ‘This Year’s Hottest New Gear’ review. As I continued to flip disinterestedly through the pages, I suddenly had my attention arrested by a short article titled ‘Rough Justice’, being purportedly an interview with Kala Alexander, a 40 year old ‘local bruddah’ from Oahu’s North Shore locale (where he was born, despite spending most of his earlier life on Kauai).
The interviewer, Brad Melekian (Senior Editor of Surfing Magazine) tells us that Kala was born in 1969, the offspring of a blonde, blue-eyed woman of Irish, German, and Scots ancestry and a father who was Hawaiian-Filipino. Kala’s childhood (like so many others in Hawaii these days) was marred by the fact that his father left his mother when she was pregnant. Since they were poor and unpropertied locals, life was very difficult for his mother, who barely managed to keep them going by working multiple jobs. Kala didn’t even meet his father until he was 6 years old and then it was only due to a chance introduction via a friend. [After he and his mother relocated to Kauai, Kala later became known as the charismatic 'Alpha' leader of the so-called 'Kauai Wolfpac', a local surfing 'hui' on that island].
The result of all this, as one might easily imagine, was the sort of childhood that characterises far too many Hawaiian youth: a poor family without a strong male role model and a mother who has her hands full simply trying to keep them alive. It isn’t hard to imagine the seething confluence of emotional frustrations that such an early life can and often does produce and Kala certainly fit that profile of the deprived, displaced youth.
Although smart and benefiting from the favorable genetic process that results from having a diverse gene pool, Kala was subjected to all the disadvantages that lack of strong family discipline and parental upbringing can induce, rebelling and lashing out at virtually everything he came into contact with. Add experimentation with pacalolo (MJ) and lack of inspiring educators to help him overcome his strongly entrenched hostilities and he floundered about wildly through his teen years, trying to gain some sort of grasp on life's higher meaning and purpose.
An important part of Kala’s youth centered on surfing, since in the islands a local youth’s social associations typically center on or at least involve beach culture, and in the Outside article Kala attempts to explain and justify his past reputation (a past that involved acts of assault and violent behavior against others, some involving jail time) as a vindictive ‘surfing enforcer’, whose main effort was dedicfated to enforcing respect for locals at island surfing sites.
In order to fully comprehend the meaning of the term ‘surfing enforcer’, one needs to first have a good working understanding of basic surf culture and in particular that aspect of surfing known as ‘localism’. ‘Localism’ in Hawaii refers to the assumption that those who are native Hawaiians or kama’aina (long-time residents) have a proprietary claim on surfing sites located at or close to their home stretch of coastline. These locals feel that deference should be shown them by visiting surfers (and non locals), in acknowledgement of their proprietary claims.
Given the world-wide popularization of surfing (that generally originated in the Hawaiian Islands), as well as the tourist culture that has become a major part of the islands’ attraction, the past 50 years have seen a substantial influx of ‘outsiders’ to the most famous and popular Hawaiian surfing beaches (North Shore & Makaha). So insular is the exclusivity of localism that on the island of Oahu, even a citified Hawaiian urbanite from Honolulu is considered an outsider on Oahu’s famed North Shore.
In the Outside interview, Kala goes into some detail about his associations with one of the most famous surfing sites on North Shore, known around the world as ‘the Banzai Pipeline’. On this stretch of North Shore coast, the unique characteristics of the reef produces a spectacular ‘pipe’ effect, formed by the breaking curl of the surf. A skillful surfer can ride the pipe effect for impressive periods of time, given the right conditions, but the fact that the waves can be huge and break close to the beach in very shallow water creates an extreme hazard for the unwary.
It is not unusual for the unskilled or inept surfer to wipe out on the Pipeline and be smashed into the jagged coral that lies perilously close to the surface (often only about 4 feet or so). Typically severe injuries are the result, and in extreme cases the hapless surfer can even be knocked unconscious and trapped in the pockets of pitted coral that lie close under the breaking wave. In short, Pipeline is no place for an amateur, especially when the waves are big enough (20 feet is not atypical) to draw crowds of experienced and accomplished surfers to crowd the swells. At such moments, the water is jammed with boards and the density creates a lot of hostility and irritation on the part of the locals, who regard the outsiders as discourteous and unwelcome intruders on their turf.
At such times at the primo island surfing sites, the worst sin a non-local can commit is to take a wave away from a local. Called ‘dropping in’, the action involves failing to yield to a surfer who has already caught the wave by crossing in front of him in a drop from the wave’s crest. A resulting collision between a surfer and someone who has ‘dropped in’ on him can cause both to wipe out, with the usual likelihood of both being pounded into the shallow reef by tons of water. Many have been severely injured, not as much by a direct collision as by hitting the reef. Legs and arms have been broken, faces smashed, necks fractured, and in extreme cases entrapment (on the reef) underwater in an unconscious state. It doesn’t take much insight to understand why ‘dropping in’ is considered to be not just insulting and disrespectful by locals who are quite familiar with the locale, but dangerously reckless behavior that can seriously harm others.
Since the locals who live at these popular surfing sites regard the waves there as their own personal property, the resentment against outsiders can be and often is extreme. Fights and beatings are very common in cases where an outsider has caused a local to wipe out, and in fact just the threat of disrespecting a local’s priority on the waves may produce the same confrontational result.
Kala tells the interviewer about some of his own violent reactions to those who fail to respect Hawaii’s custom of localism. One in particular that he cites involved beating a non-local surfer so severely that he was taken, critically injured, to a local hospital. As a 40 year old adult, Kala now looks back on the incident with regret stemming from maturity and admits that he could have dealt with the situation without physically assaulting the individual, but of course such behavior is atypical of an adolescent who is still not possessed of a fully formed awareness. More common is the direct physical violence that youthful immaturity and raging hormones can together produce, in the absence of adequate parental guidance and/or suitable behavioral constraints.
In the interview, and obviously benefiting from the broader insights and more moderated outlook that 40 years of life bestow, Kala rationalises his youthful indiscretion as a ‘surfing enforcer’ as being the result of a desire to protect others from harm. While that sounds nice enough, the irony of ‘protecting a few by beating the s**t out of others’ fails to register with him. In fact, his past behavioral excesses almost assuredly stem from the wretched insecurities and childhood experiences he underwent and his efforts to compensate for them by finding self-worth and respect among a close group of friends. It is the essential nature of gang behavior and the mechanics of adolescent needs for identity and belonging, to be sure, that stimulates aggressive behavior of this extreme sort.
In Hawaii, an association or group is described by the Hawaiian word ‘hui’. Thus, in pidgin Hawaiian slang, ‘Da Hui’ might be the name of a group of surfers from the same area or neighborhood. In the 70s, the term often referred to an early North Shore group of locals, and further back in the 30s, Honolulu's Waikiki had its own famous 'Hui He'e Nalu', which was a local group originated to offset the exclusivity of the haole 'Outrigger Club'. In a broader sense, if the locals are the hui (or home gang), then outsiders constitute a rival gang of non-locals, either in substance or in a context of virtual symbolism.
From its origins in Hawaiian surf culture, the concept of localism has spread far and wide in a few decades. In California surf culture today, the same mechanisms operate up and down the entire Pacific coast, and every surfer secretly wants to be part of the ‘in’ group, or locals’, as opposed to being an ‘out’ group individual. Acts of violent aggression on the part of locals, who see themselves as protecting their inherent proprietary surfing interests, are now as common all over both coasts of the mainland as they have formerly been in Hawaii.
It is worth pausing briefly to consider the fact that ‘localism’ wasn’t always an inherently intrinsic aspect of Hawaiian beach culture. The phenomenon is a relatively recent nuance, having first become noticeable in the late 50s. Even back in Hawaii of the early 20th Century, a sense of sharing and brotherhood more commonly characterised the sport of surfing and it wasn’t until American marketing seized the concept and began to heavily commercialise it, widely popularizing surfing and turning it into an extremely profitable sport, that localism began to spring up strongly.
Given the traditional attitudes of relaxed permissiveness and friendly, welcoming nature that characterise the original cultural heritage of Hawaii, Hawaiians at first welcomed haoles (whites) to participate in their surfing. By the 1930s it wasn’t uncommon to find a number of non-Hawaiians who had become adept at the sport, although compared to today’s hoards of non-Hawaiian participants, they remained a tiny handful of somewhat prescient, if eclectic, individuals. The great Duke Kahanamoku, generally regarded as one of the most famous Hawaiians of modern times (and ‘father’ of modern surfing) was the model of traditional Hawaiian generosity and cooperative good nature when it came to sharing Hawaii’s waves. Although people didn’t ‘drop-in’ on others in those bucolic, early times, the traditional ‘aloha spirit’ of sharing predominated and there was always room for everyone on the waves of Hawaii.
When the sport was discovered by the commercial promoters and capitalist marketers of the 50s, surfing rose almost overnight from an obscure fringe sport to a high profile mainstream activity that every adolescent American keenly wanted to identify with. Surf culture underwent a sea-change at that time in the 50s and 60s, as ‘surfing’ became almost as common and popular as traditional sports like basketball. Thus, the number of surfers expanded exponentially in a very short period of time and soon it was common for mainlanders to travel to Hawaii in search of the fabled waves of Oahu’s North Shore. As the number of malihini tourists (mainlanders) increased in Hawaii, long-time resentments by native Hawaiians over mainland influences began to rise up, combining in areas not significantly populated by whites (non-Hawaiians) such as areas of Oahu not adjacent to Honolulu (i.e. the North and West Shores) to produce strongly reconstituted localism.
Since the cultural ‘invasion’ of the Hawaiian Islands by non indigenous peoples (e.g. ‘haoles’ or white outsiders) that began with the landing of the first Christian missionaries in 1820, resulting in continued cultural depredations against native Hawaiians and their traditional collective social mores, barely suppressed resentment towards outsiders has long been an aspect of the kanaka maoli (native Hawaiians) make-up. As disparate racial and ethnic groups were introduced to the islands as a source of cheap plantation labor (principally the Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Portuguese) in the early 1900s, the earlier newcomers themselves very quickly became ‘local’ by marrying into Hawaiian families. Before long, ‘local’ came to mean anyone who had been successfully accepted as a resident of a particular Hawaiian area, either by virtue of length of residence (kama’aina), by intermarriage, or by a consensus of the community.
Today, ‘locals’ in Hawaii are typically a diverse blend of nationalities, including those of indigenous Hawaiian, European, and Asian ethnicities. Kala, the subject of the Outside Magazine article is himself such a mix and it is more unusual than rare to find a pure haole (white) who has become an accepted ‘local’. Curiously, as the bloodlines have mixed over past decades, and with the status of ‘local’ being seen as highly desirable, the lines of aggressive antipathy have now been increasingly drawn between pure whites and those of varied blood. This is partly due to the fact that white skin is very distinctive, when contrasted to the various tones of brown skin pigment that people of mixed backgrounds typically possess. Regardless of one’s actual ethnic origins, however, there is a tendency to polarize in Hawaii today on that basis alone. [A corresponding parallel is found in Arab culture with reference to overlapping circles of congruency, as stated by an Arab aphorism that goes: “My father and I against my uncle, my uncle and I against the tribe, my tribe and I against the outsider.”]
We are all, in the final evaluation, seeking acceptance and self-respect in a world where these qualities are often quite vague or altogether non-existent. Kala, the North Shore ‘surf enforcer’ in his youth is now a middle-aged man who has now gained a certain measure of those qualities in his life. It is interesting to note here, as obvious as it may seem to otherwise be, that age has much to do with maturity and the ability to see the broader picture of life’s complexities; unless one is hopelessly stupid, with age should come greater understanding. We must all travel that path from birth to death, but hopefully the acquisition of understanding will be facilitated as much as possible for most by being gifted with the basic requisites of a stable life: a loving family, concerned, involved parents, and the consequent development of a stronger sense of who one is and an appreciation for one’s self that presages full maturity.
Sadly enough, Kala and thousands of other Hawaiian kids never had those basics to help them, and today many thousands of Hawaiians are still suffering economic deprivation from the economic ravages of close to 200 years of American commercial domination and exploitation. There isn’t much chance that things will improve remarkably in the near future, either, as the American economy continues to go down the toilet in the most severe recession the nation has ever experienced. Kala himself is fortunate to have worked through most of his inherited legacy of frustration and upset to achieve a measure of self-respect and actualization. In the Outside interview he tells us that he has been engaged in various career activities that include acting in a surfing movie (Blue Crush), business ventures (real estate), and can now afford to adopt a slightly more mellow attitude towards those he formerly looked down upon with intense partisan dislike. He says that his greatest treasures are now his children, his Hawaiian roots, and his healthy lifestyle.
However, given this continuing scenario of deprivation, disentitlement, economic depression, and other adverse social influences such as increasing substance abuse problems and the disintegrating Hawaiian ‘ohana (family system), ‘localism’, at least in the Hawaiian Islands, will remain strongly in evidence among the islands’ youth (and in those adults with arrested maturity), but it is a phenomenon that needs to be better understood and perhaps even accommodated, not just in the surfing milieu but in all aspects of modern American and Hawaiian life. True egalitarianism is a state of grace we should all try very hard to achieve and promulgate, for it is the only eventual policy that makes any sense as we collectively try to strengthen and reinforce that admirable, traditional ‘aloha spirit’ of giving and loving, collective regard that once predominated in the ancient Hawaiian culture.
Respect, something we all strive to achieve, is not handed out freely without some work on our part. This is a lesson frequently lost on youth, who seem obsessed with being ‘dissed’ (disrespected) over something as simple as a casual glance. Respect must be earned and there’s no better way to earn respect from others than by being respectful ourselves. Kala acknowledges that fact as he enters middle age, grateful to have emerged from his stormy adolescence intact and still thriving.
As much as I hate to refer to a Christian proverb in this context (being a good little atheist myself), curiously enough the broader wisdom all seems to boil down to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, doesn’t it? ‘Localism’ could probably use a healthy infusion of that understanding, which is also, interestingly (or perhaps ironically), the quintessential matrix of the ancient Hawaiian ‘aloha spirit’…
Malama pono! (Perpetuate righteousness).
Postscript (Jun 2011)
Your attention is drawn to Hawaiian activist and champion of Hawaiian rights, Haunani-Kay Trask's very thoughtful reflections on the nature of Hawaii's exploitation by the United States. Although perhaps radical to some, it is no less than the truth, stripped of all the synthetic glitz and gloss that is Hawaii's tragic inheritance from the mainland. http://manjioca.wordpress.com/2008/09/12/lovely-hula-hands-by-haunani-kay-trask/