By Alexandra Kahn Photos Tony Heff
While surfing’s roots are from the Tahitians and Samoans who used wooden planks to ride the waves as a component of warrior training, the surfing that we think of today evolved from the ancient Hawaiian culture. Prior to the competitive, athletic feats accomplished in the water today, surfing in Hawai’i was once considered an art form. Traditions around surfing were highly concentrated on prayer and a supreme respect for the gods. While Western colonization forced many of the ancient traditions to fade, the growth of Waikiki as a tourist destination helped enable a surfing renaissance.
One surfer who feels a deep tie to traditional Hawaiian surf culture and a desire to continue the connection between the native Hawaiian people and the sport is Mililani local, Ewelei’ulaikalaniakea Wong. Known by family and peers as Ewelei’Ula, Wong first learned to surf in Waikiki at the age of two. She comes from a family of ocean lovers: her grandparents were fisherman and surfers who lived in a beach house, and her parents were once surfers as well. As a native whose family has deep ties to the culture, Wong attends Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau, a Hawaiian immersion school. There she fluently speaks Hawaiian with her teachers and classmates, providing her with a closer connection to her ancestors.
Living in the birthplace of surfing, Ewelei’Ula’s desire to spread the traditional Hawaiian surf culture is her way of paying homage to the long-standing history of the surfers who came before her. She feels that if she works to connect modern day young Hawaiian surfers with their historical culture, they can follow in the footsteps of their ancestors and carry on the traditions and stories of the past to share with the future. Like many other Hawaiian cultural traditions, such as tapping tattoos and hula, surfing is a part of the island and the original people. Stories and songs about surfing have been passed on through generations, and Ewelei’Ula wants to continue evolving these traditions. Her way of carrying on the tradition of surfing is through competition. When Ewelei’Ula is surfing competitively, she is “surfing for more than just [her]self.” She feels as if she is representing her people and tells Freesurf, “I am surfing for my lāhui and that includes my people, my kupuna, the people living today, and all those who will come after me. I want to be someone who inspires the younger generations because I’m Hawaiian, I ‘ōlelo Hawai’i and I’m continuing this sport of our ancestors.”
Wong realizes how fortunate she is to travel and compete for surfing and understands the sacrifices that her family makes to foster her dreams. Attempting life as a competitive and hopeful pro-surfer is expensive and time-consuming— two of the reasons she believes there are not more competitive native Hawaiian surfers. She sees a lack of Hawaiian language spoken within the surfing community and believes that this decline occurred when Hawai’i was overthrown in 1893. At this time, natives were forced to learn English and follow western traditions, shunning their own culture and tongue. By the 1970s the Hawaiian language was on the verge of extinction altogether; however, there were enough native Hawaiians who sought to preserve the culture that they launched a comeback.
Today, there are a variety of traditional activities taught, spread, and revitalized, not just to those who live on the island, but even to those visiting the island. This cultural resurgence movement led to opportunities such as the creation of Wong’s school. While there is still a long way to go to bring back the language and culture and educate modern-day Hawaiians about the history of the island and its people, Wong feels that she can be an integral part of the resurgence. Her goal is to start a surf team at her school and spread her love of surfing while infusing the surf culture into the lives of her classmates. Wong’s entire family takes pride in the traditions of surfing and has been organizing Kewalo beach days (her favorite surf break) with some of the other school families to teach them about the ocean, the currents, the waves, ocean safety and surfing etiquette.
Wong feels that it is vital for her to attend a physical school rather than homeschool or online courses. She feels this way because of the importance of surrounding herself with the native language. She plans to pursue a life as a professional surfer, with a desire to “develop and provide resources to surf teams in Hawaiian immersion schools.” While her overall goal is to make it onto the surf tour, her real dream is to be the first female surfer to graduate from a Hawaiian immersion school and win a world title.