FYI, Californians Didn’t Invent Surfing: A Look at the True Origins of Surf Culture

Our friends at KCET and Link TV explain the indigenous roots of surf history and the context of imperialism in pop culture perceptions.


Picture a surfer on a sandy beach and it’s likely that a sandy-haired Californian comes to mind.

But this wasn’t always the case.

First, learn the true origins of this coastal pastime, then see how far surf culture has expanded by watching Gaza Surf Club, a documentary about a new generation of surfers finding their own personal freedom in the waves of the Mediterranean. (The film is available for streaming via Sundance Now:

Below is an excerpt from an article featured by DCEFF’s West Coast partners KCET and Link TV. They teamed up with us in July for Earth FocusL.A.’s first-ever green film fest, hosted as part of their “Summer of the Environment” programming to ignite compassion and action around issues affecting the planet.


Surfing first appeared in California in 1885 when three Hawaiian princes, away at school in San Mateo, took to the waves of Santa Cruz one sweltering July day. But it would not be for another 22 years before surfing would find its way, for good, to Southern California …

As the story goes, in broad strokes, in Hawaii around the turn of the 20th century, surfing was a dying sport, revived by benevolent foreigners who sought to preserve a vitally important Hawaiian cultural tradition. This was accomplished by South Carolinian transplant Alexander Hume Ford, a newspaper man, with the aid of Jack London who together gave the sport the attention it needed to once again thrive in its homeland …

Understanding surf history in the context of imperialism helps to shed the veneer of innocence undergirding these cultural narratives. One of the predominant mythologies, for example, is that surfing formed a subculture free of political constraints because surfers have always considered themselves outside the mainstream. As apolitical outsiders, the myth goes, they were social outlaws, bucking the system through their refusal to conform to society’s norms — eschewing full time jobs to pursue lives of pleasure, dressing outside socially acceptable standards, adopting a distinct subcultural vernacular, etc.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Policy Director and Senior Research Associate, Center for World Indigenous Studies




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Beyond the Surface