For Native Hawaiians, Surfing Is More Than a Hobby — It's a Way of Life

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Hawaiian Renaissance: Women surfing
(Photo: © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

In the past century, surfing has become a staple along shores all across the world, but it's important to keep in mind that this water sport played a huge role in ancient Polynesian culture long before contact with Europeans and other outsiders. For native Hawaiians, surfing is an art form and an important part of their rich culture.

It is this deep-seated legacy that inspired the "Hawaiian Renaissance" story by John Lancaster in National Geographic's February 2015 issue (cover at right). Accompanying the feature are an exquisite batch of images captured by award-winning photographer Paul Nicklen.

National Geographic, February 2015

In the photo above, we are taken into world of two best friends, Ha'a Keaulana (right) and Maili Makana, who are seen "[diving] under a wave on their way to a surfing spot near their hometown of Makaha. Like generations before them, they visit these waters almost every day to refresh both body and spirit."

Continue below for an excerpt from Lancaster's article, as well as a selection of Nicklen's images:

"In the islands where surfing began, the waves on that particular day were a disappointment — mushy, chest high, and annoyingly infrequent. Still, Hawaiians have never needed much of an excuse to grab a board and hit the ocean, and the takeoff zone was packed. Teens on shortboards. Moms on longboards. Grade-schoolers on bodyboards. A guy with a gray ponytail on a stand-up paddleboard. Some had tribal tattoos in the style of Polynesian warriors. Straddling my surfboard in the deep water beside the reef, I surveyed the crowd with a knot in my stomach, feeling that I didn’t belong.
Makaha has long been known as a beach where haoles, a Hawaiian term for white people and other outsiders, venture at their peril. Located on Oahu’s west coast, far from the glitzy North Shore crowds of Sunset Beach or Pipeline or the package tourists at Waikiki Beach, it has a reputation as a tightly cloistered community dominated by descendants of the ancient Polynesian seafarers who settled the islands.
Even those Makaha residents who have come to terms with the United States takeover of Hawaii in 1898 — and some still have not — are determined to prevent the same thing from happening to their waves. Stories are legion of visiting surfers being chased from the water here, a few with broken noses, after breaching some unwritten rule. I was eager to avoid the same fate."
Hawaiian Renaissance: Tubular waves
(Photo: © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

"It takes an expert to ride the famous Pipeline, where jagged coral lurks just below the surface. Competitive surfers come here, to the North Shore of Oahu, from around the world. The vibe at Makaha, on the west coast, is more about the families that live there."

Hawaiian Renaissance: Tattooed man
(Photo: © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

"Wearing a malo, or loincloth, construction worker Keli'iokalani Makua reveals traditional tattoos that tell his life story. Body art is a popular sign of Hawaiian identity, but including the face is rare."

Hawaiian Renaissance: Long exposure waves
(Photo: © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

"Just after dawn two sisters and their cousin head into the surf at Makaha to warm up before a competition. Participating from an early age in this ancient sport of Hawaiian chiefs teaches children to take pride in the culture they've inherited."

Hawaiian Renaissance: Family overlooking cliffs
(Photo: © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

"Moroni Naho'oikaika, a musician who lives near Makaha, hikes south of Kaena Point with his son Ezekiel. He wears tattoos of things that are close to his heart: The outline of Hawaii, footprints of an older son, a shark for protection, and verse that speaks to his faith. 'Jah is God,' he says. 'God’s word is the music.'"