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.
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