Genevieve Fuji Johnson

Can Surfing be Decolonized? Maybe…

Each day, I feel closer to the outer edges of summer. A new season will soon be here, one that’s more purposeful, deliberate, and scheduled. Part of this shift is intellectual; part is more activist. Both my critical curiosity and passion for justice are rising from a long July nap.

A recent Tyee piece by Meenakshi Mannoe, criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, was a good wake-up call.

Mannoe’s article is a powerful reminder that colonial violence against Indigenous peoples is not just history. It lingers in plain sight – as plain as the large, solid-wood sign that welcomes visitors to Tla-o-qui-aht Ha’houlthee on the west coast of Vancouver Island. During the tourist season, thousands and thousands of people drive by this sign. As they make their way across island on promises of breath-taking views and good surf, many are unaware of the violence facing members of the Tla-o-qui-aht and other Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, whose ancestral and unceded territories they traverse. Mannoe reminds settlers like myself of the fundamental need to educate ourselves about on-going colonial violence and to do what we can to empower Indigenous peoples in their resurgence and self-determination.

I spend a lot of time out here in Nuu-chah-nulth territory, and Mannoe’s article got me thinking: Decolonization is central in ending violence against Indigenous people, but what does it actually entail and how can we achieve it?

In my academic writing, I’ve been asking myself these questions with respect to the political institutions of the west. A central part of this exploration has been learning as much as I can about what decolonization means, as articulated by Indigenous people. As a settler, I do not speak for Indigenous people, but I can learn from them and echo what they say. In my work, I draw directly from the writings of Indigenous scholars on the harms of colonization and the need for decolonization. They have developed their understanding of what decolonization requires with respect to their communities, territories, and ways of governance. If settlers really want to decolonize, we must take this knowledge seriously.

For Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, decolonization is fundamentally connected to groundedness in land and water, and in relations among their inhabitants – past, present, and future. Decolonization can only be achieved through a place-based ethic, which is rooted in territory. Territory is the basis of a sustainable interconnectedness of all beings. As Coulthard writes, decolonization “is best understood as a struggle primarily inspired by and oriented around the question of land – a struggle not only for land in the material sense, but also deeply informed by what the land as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in nondominating and nonexploitative terms” (2014, 13, italics in original). In Simpson’s words, decolonizing “means centering grounded normativity in my life and in the life of my community, while critically analyzing and critiquing the ways in which I’m replicating white supremacy, antiblackness, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism…” (Simpson 2016, 22).

My read of works by Coulthard and Simpson is that decolonization requires Indigenous jurisdiction of their territories, which in turn serves to nurture an ethic that is not only non-dominating but fundamentally anti-domination, that is not only life giving but life sustaining. A serious implication is that, insofar as our institutions are permeated by the philosophical tradition of liberalism, which is based on a conceptual hierarchy of humans over territory, and on the belief that humans have rights to own, buy, and sell land, water, plants, and non-human animals, they cannot be decolonized. Decolonization requires a fundamental break with this normative inheritance and the institutions to which it has given rise.

Can surfing be decolonized?

As visitors to Hawaii began exporting this Indigenous practice to the mainland of the United States in the early- to mid-twentieth century, it became a counter-cultural symbol of youthful defiance of the state and its activities. Soon, many American surfers – mostly white men of a draftable age – were in search of both an endless summer of perfect waves and an escape from service in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Although it still invokes images of alternative lifestyles, dictated by the ebb and flow of tides, wind direction, and swell size, by the 1980s, surfing had been fully mainstreamed. Since then, there’s been no turning back; surfing is thoroughly monetized and is now a global industry.

Surfing’s spread to waters beyond the tropics, and the industry’s reach to markets across the globe, would not have been possible without petroleum.

Known by its brand name, Neoprene, chloroprene is a petroleum product. The vast majority of wetsuits for cold water activities are made from it. It is highly toxic to produce, and its production is tied to a disproportionately high rate of cancer. The main production plant, based in Louisiana, is currently being sued by the US government for endangering neighboring communities. In March 2023, the US Department of Justice, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, filed a motion for a preliminary injunction under the Clean Air Act to ensure that Neoprene’s manufacturer, Denka Performance Elastomer LLC, establishes significant pollution controls to reduce its emissions. The much anticipated film The Big Sea documents the connection between surfing and serious human health and environmental harms, especially for African American communities adjacent to Denka.

It’s not just wetsuits that are profoundly problematic. Most surfboards are made from polystyrene foam, which is also derived from petroleum. Polystyrene foam “blanks” are then shaved and sanded into specific dimensions and coated in extremely toxic resins to create a glassy finish. For this reason, surfboard shapers and glassers work in highly ventilated rooms and wear industrial respirators. This is just a scratch at the surface of the harms caused by this industry. But it’s clear: Unless we see a radical overhaul of manufacturing and marketing practices, it’s unlikely that the surfing industry can be decolonized.

What about communities of surfers? Can these be decolonized?

In most parts of the surfing world, line-ups – the green water just beyond the breaking waves where surfers set up their take offs – are typically dominated by cis-men. These social spaces are often very hierarchical and exclusionary; they are often premised on domination and subordination. Sometimes, you have literally to fight your way into them. There are notable exceptions, specifically, in the popular surf spots around Tofino in Tla-o-qui-aht territories. The women-led Surf Sister Surf School has played a pivotal role in creating a surf community that’s increasingly gender inclusive. Sometimes bobbing up and down in the green, waiting for a good wave, you’re surrounded by only women. Recently, line-ups in these parts are becoming more welcoming of the queer community, thanks to the work of Coastal Queer Alliance. But these are exceptions, and line-ups on the mainland of North America persist in their predominately white-, hyper-masculine, and heteronormative-settler makeup.

I can only imagine how these demographics create an unseen wall around the surf for the Indigenous peoples of these lands and waterways. I can only imagine how painful this might be. These are their territories; surf settlers and tourists are uninvited interlopers. We’ve come in droves, and we’ve stayed.

And yet there is resistance, resilience, and resurgence within Indigenous communities.

In the territories of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, there’s a small but mighty organization dedicated to empowering Indigenous kids in the surf. Mułaa or Rising Tide Surf Team, founded by Rachel Dickens from Lax Kw’alaams and settler Alyssa Fleishman, seeks to empower Indigenous youth by fostering their connection to their territories. As stated in their mission, the surf team is “is an Indigenous and community-led initiative, bringing together Nuu-chah-nulth youth and mentors who want to change the narrative around surfing in Nuu-chah-nulth territory.” Mułaa centers the wellness of these youth, and their inherent connectedness to their territories, their homelands, and their waters. Through this groundedness and place-based ethics, mułaa is supporting these youths toward realizing their self-determination. In doing so, they are supporting these youths in their growth to become community leaders.

Despite the walls in the surf and the problems with the surf industry, mułaa is decolonizing surfing by supporting local youths on a journey to connect with the ocean, to learn to ride waves, to become confident and capable in the surf and beyond, and to enjoy it all. If you have the means, why not make a cash donation to them? This is a concrete step we can take toward decolonizing the surf in these territories. Maybe it is possible.

If you are travelling to these parts in the remainder of the summer, be sure to visit the websites of the Tla-o-qui-aht and other Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.

And, of course, see the welcome sign as you enter Tla-o-qui-aht Ha’houlthee. Seek to learn everything for which it stands.

Photo creds.: TBD

Terms of Use

Last updated: September 01, 2021

Please read these terms and conditions carefully before using Our Service.

Interpretation and Definitions


The words of which the initial letter is capitalized have meanings defined under the following conditions. The following definitions shall have the same meaning regardless of whether they appear in singular or in plural.


For the purposes of these Terms and Conditions:

  • Affiliate means an entity that controls, is controlled by or is under common control with a party, where “control” means ownership of 50% or more of the shares, equity interest or other securities entitled to vote for election of directors or other managing authority.

  • Country refers to: British Columbia, Canada

  • Company (referred to as either “the Company”, “We”, “Us” or “Our” in this Agreement) refers to Genevieve Fuji Johnson.

  • Device means any device that can access the Service such as a computer, a cellphone or a digital tablet.

  • Service refers to the Website.

  • Terms and Conditions (also referred as “Terms”) mean these Terms and Conditions that form the entire agreement between You and the Company regarding the use of the Service. This Terms and Conditions agreement has been created with the help of the Terms and Conditions Generator.

  • Third-party Social Media Service means any services or content (including data, information, products or services) provided by a third-party that may be displayed, included or made available by the Service.

  • Website refers to Genevieve Fuji Johnson, accessible from

  • You means the individual accessing or using the Service, or the company, or other legal entity on behalf of which such individual is accessing or using the Service, as applicable.


These are the Terms and Conditions governing the use of this Service and the agreement that operates between You and the Company. These Terms and Conditions set out the rights and obligations of all users regarding the use of the Service.

Your access to and use of the Service is conditioned on Your acceptance of and compliance with these Terms and Conditions. These Terms and Conditions apply to all visitors, users and others who access or use the Service.

By accessing or using the Service You agree to be bound by these Terms and Conditions. If You disagree with any part of these Terms and Conditions then You may not access the Service.

You represent that you are over the age of 18. The Company does not permit those under 18 to use the Service.

Your access to and use of the Service is also conditioned on Your acceptance of and compliance with the Privacy Policy of the Company. Our Privacy Policy describes Our policies and procedures on the collection, use and disclosure of Your personal information when You use the Application or the Website and tells You about Your privacy rights and how the law protects You. Please read Our Privacy Policy carefully before using Our Service.

Links to Other Websites

Our Service may contain links to third-party web sites or services that are not owned or controlled by the Company.

The Company has no control over, and assumes no responsibility for, the content, privacy policies, or practices of any third party web sites or services. You further acknowledge and agree that the Company shall not be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any such content, goods or services available on or through any such web sites or services.

We strongly advise You to read the terms and conditions and privacy policies of any third-party web sites or services that You visit.


We may terminate or suspend Your access immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason whatsoever, including without limitation if You breach these Terms and Conditions.

Upon termination, Your right to use the Service will cease immediately.

Limitation of Liability

Notwithstanding any damages that You might incur, the entire liability of the Company and any of its suppliers under any provision of this Terms and Your exclusive remedy for all of the foregoing shall be limited to the amount actually paid by You through the Service or 100 USD if You haven’t purchased anything through the Service.

To the maximum extent permitted by applicable law, in no event shall the Company or its suppliers be liable for any special, incidental, indirect, or consequential damages whatsoever (including, but not limited to, damages for loss of profits, loss of data or other information, for business interruption, for personal injury, loss of privacy arising out of or in any way related to the use of or inability to use the Service, third-party software and/or third-party hardware used with the Service, or otherwise in connection with any provision of this Terms), even if the Company or any supplier has been advised of the possibility of such damages and even if the remedy fails of its essential purpose.

Some states do not allow the exclusion of implied warranties or limitation of liability for incidental or consequential damages, which means that some of the above limitations may not apply. In these states, each party’s liability will be limited to the greatest extent permitted by law.

“AS IS” and “AS AVAILABLE” Disclaimer

The Service is provided to You “AS IS” and “AS AVAILABLE” and with all faults and defects without warranty of any kind. To the maximum extent permitted under applicable law, the Company, on its own behalf and on behalf of its Affiliates and its and their respective licensors and service providers, expressly disclaims all warranties, whether express, implied, statutory or otherwise, with respect to the Service, including all implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement, and warranties that may arise out of course of dealing, course of performance, usage or trade practice. Without limitation to the foregoing, the Company provides no warranty or undertaking, and makes no representation of any kind that the Service will meet Your requirements, achieve any intended results, be compatible or work with any other software, applications, systems or services, operate without interruption, meet any performance or reliability standards or be error free or that any errors or defects can or will be corrected.

Without limiting the foregoing, neither the Company nor any of the company’s provider makes any representation or warranty of any kind, express or implied: (i) as to the operation or availability of the Service, or the information, content, and materials or products included thereon; (ii) that the Service will be uninterrupted or error-free; (iii) as to the accuracy, reliability, or currency of any information or content provided through the Service; or (iv) that the Service, its servers, the content, or e-mails sent from or on behalf of the Company are free of viruses, scripts, trojan horses, worms, malware, timebombs or other harmful components.

Some jurisdictions do not allow the exclusion of certain types of warranties or limitations on applicable statutory rights of a consumer, so some or all of the above exclusions and limitations may not apply to You. But in such a case the exclusions and limitations set forth in this section shall be applied to the greatest extent enforceable under applicable law.

Governing Law

The laws of the Country, excluding its conflicts of law rules, shall govern this Terms and Your use of the Service. Your use of the Application may also be subject to other local, state, national, or international laws.

Disputes Resolution

If You have any concern or dispute about the Service, You agree to first try to resolve the dispute informally by contacting the Company.

For European Union (EU) Users

If You are a European Union consumer, you will benefit from any mandatory provisions of the law of the country in which you are resident in.

United States Legal Compliance

You represent and warrant that (i) You are not located in a country that is subject to the United States government embargo, or that has been designated by the United States government as a “terrorist supporting” country, and (ii) You are not listed on any United States government list of prohibited or restricted parties.

Severability and Waiver


If any provision of these Terms is held to be unenforceable or invalid, such provision will be changed and interpreted to accomplish the objectives of such provision to the greatest extent possible under applicable law and the remaining provisions will continue in full force and effect.


Except as provided herein, the failure to exercise a right or to require performance of an obligation under this Terms shall not effect a party’s ability to exercise such right or require such performance at any time thereafter nor shall be the waiver of a breach constitute a waiver of any subsequent breach.

Translation Interpretation

These Terms and Conditions may have been translated if We have made them available to You on our Service.
You agree that the original English text shall prevail in the case of a dispute.

Changes to These Terms and Conditions

We reserve the right, at Our sole discretion, to modify or replace these Terms at any time. If a revision is material We will make reasonable efforts to provide at least 30 days’ notice prior to any new terms taking effect. What constitutes a material change will be determined at Our sole discretion.

By continuing to access or use Our Service after those revisions become effective, You agree to be bound by the revised terms. If You do not agree to the new terms, in whole or in part, please stop using the website and the Service.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about these Terms and Conditions, You can contact us:

  • By email:

Site Credits

Website Design: Upstream Digital

Illustrations: Addison Finch