Team USA Hawaiian surfer Carissa Moore practices for a World Surf League competition at Surf Ranch on Tuesday in Lemoore, California, on  June 15, 2021.

Hawaiians highlight surfing's cultural roots as it makes its Olympic debut

"Surfing to us is just one more thing in the list of things that has been separated from our cultural heritage, our people and our sovereignty," Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā, with the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told The World.

The World

Team USA Hawaiian surfer Carissa Moore practices for a World Surf League competition at Surf Ranch on Tuesday in Lemoore, California, on  June 15, 2021.

Gary Kazanjian/AP

Surfing is making its long-awaited debut this year at the Tokyo Olympic Games. In Hawaii, the sport's birthplace, many are celebrating. But others are concerned that the Olympics’ big stage may cause people to lose sight of surfing’s roots and its enormous cultural importance to Native Hawaiians.

Related: As demand grows to cancel Tokyo Olympics, who has the power to call it off?

Hawaiian surfers will compete under the US flag at the Olympics, though some had asked for a separate team.

Related: An Olympic hopeful from Senegal hopes to inspire more black women to surf

"For so many of us, it’s a way of life," Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā, chief brand officer at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told The World. "It comes with so many more responsibilities ... It’s about caring for each other, caring for the environment, wildlife, cultural values, behavior and etiquette — all of these things that tie into surfing, that go so beyond the competitive aspect."

He discussed the sport, its history and its significance with The World's host Carol Hills.

Carol Hills: Kalani, what does it mean to you that surfing will be part of the Olympic Games for the first time?
Kalani Ka‘anā‘anā: We're incredibly excited and proud. Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, as many have called him, sort of prophesied that this would happen back when he was winning the Olympics in 1912. And so, it's really a proud day that that vision is coming to fruition.
And of course, he was not competing in surfing then. He was a swimmer, wasn't he?
Absolutely, yes.
Now, I want to get into the history you mentioned of surfing. Tell us a bit about the origins of surfing.
Surfing began long before any sort of, what we might consider, modern competitive surfing began in Hawaii. Centuries ago, it was the sport and pastime of chiefs and something that became beloved by all and something that we shared with the world. And so, like Duke taught us, and many others before him, really surfing is about sharing aloha. It's about taking care of our oceans and reefs, and it's about taking care of each other.
Now, how does the history of colonization relate to the concerns that Hawaiians feel over surfing today?
Surfing to us is just one more thing in the list of things that has been separated from our cultural heritage, our people and our sovereignty. And so, the dispossession of land, dispossession of our language, the theft of our country, those are all things that contribute to how, I think, we feel today. And surfing and its competitive nature and it turning into a $10 billion industry globally is just another example of things being dispossessed from native Hawaiians, and that the connections to and the deeper meanings of our cultural practices often get bastardized or commodified and taken out of their original context.
I know the surfers from Hawaii in this upcoming Olympics — this first-ever when surfing is included — they're going to be surfing under the US flag. And that's a bit of a bone of contention. Why?
Traditionally, surfing organizations, like WSL [World Surf League] and the others, have allowed Hawaiian surfers and surfers from Hawaii to fly the Hawaiian flag or wear the Hawaiian flag on their sleeve, recognizing that they're Hawaii surfers. In the Olympics, they'll be representing the United States. And I think it just goes back to this broader understanding of our complex political history and the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. And so, I think that all of that bleeds through to today. And so, outrigger canoe paddling, surfing and in other arenas, Hawaiians are still recognized as Hawaiians and represent Hawaii and use the Hawaiian flag as a symbol of that —but in the Olympics, aren't fully recognized, and obviously, are competing for, and on behalf of, the US team.
Was there any attempt to allow the Hawaiian competitors in surfing at the Olympics to fly the Hawaiian flag?
Let me separate two things. So, I think that there were requests made. I'm not totally sure, because I wasn't in those meetings. Separately, apart from the athletes themselves, I know that there were a group of Native Hawaiians who requested of the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, for a Hawaiian national surfing team. And the request wasn't heard.
Your organization has formed a surfing advisory committee to bring the history of surfing to the forefront. How are you hoping to do that?
For us, at the Hawaii Tourism Authority, we have a unique ability and responsibility to be destination stewards and better storytellers. And so, we feel that if we're going to represent Hawaii as a destination, which is our role within state government, that we need to be authentic and we need to be accurate in the stories that we tell. And so, recognizing the complexity and, oftentimes, the uncomfortable conversations that come with things like sovereignty, we really are honoring the true complexity of this place and being good storytellers as we share about the Hawaiian Islands.
Kalani, are there any Native Hawaiians on the US surfing team that will be competing at the Olympic Games?
Yes, Carissa Moore is a proud Native Hawaiian, and we're so proud of her and the rest of the team.
Do you plan to watch the surfing competition at the Olympics?
Absolutely.
And I have to ask, will you be flying your Hawaiian flag as you watch it?
Of course.
I wouldn't be surprised if somebody snuck in the Hawaiian flag at the Olympics. I'm just thinking it's going to show up.
You know, the other thing, too, is we have a deep, deep connection with Japan in the Hawaiian kingdom. And so actually, King Kalākaua actually traveled to Japan and met with Emperor Meiji and signed treaties of commerce and amity. And so, we have deep, deep connections. So, I wouldn't be surprised if somebody from Japan snuck in a Hawaiian flag, too.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.