The practice of surfing has been a part of native Hawaiian culture since the beginning of time and its influence has radiated around the island for centuries since its foundation.
Not only is it a sport for Hawaiians, but it is a way of life. A therapeutic practice that grounds them in their culture and their history. For Puamakame (Pua) DeSoto, a talented young surfer from Kaimuki, a neighborhood of Honolulu, she’s on a mission to compete at the highest level while bringing Hawaiian representation, love, and aloha to everyone she meets through her cultural sport.
“It’s [surfing]; a cultural practice that started thousands of years ago, by our gods and goddesses,” DeSoto said.
DeSoto’s surfing journey started with her father, who is a former world champion longboard surfer. He taught DeSoto and her seven siblings how to surf and how to honor the ocean, the spiritual practice, and how to be an ambassador to the sport. However, Desoto notes that she comes from people of the water on both sides of her family.
“My mom’s side of the family is actually fishermen,” DeSoto said. “Water women and watermen. My dad’s side of the family is more surfing watermen and water women. Growing up, it was never something my parents forced on me, to be a competitor. They actually didn’t want me to compete. They wanted me to enjoy surfing and to love and enjoy the ocean, and have a connection to it like my parents have and like my whole family has in general.”
The sport of He’e Nalu (meaning wave sliding in Olelo Hawai’i, the native language) dates back to the earliest people in the Polynesian Islands, but was best documented of and by Hawaiians. He’e Nalu was not only for recreation, but was largely regarded for its social and spiritual significance. From making offerings to their gods and goddesses when picking out what trees to create boards from to praying for waves with the Kahuna, an expert priest, surfing is deeply ingrained in Hawaiian culture. The natives would also give thanks after wiping out from perilous waves, or for their victories over others.
Competitions between native Hawaiians wagered who could ride a wave the farthest, the fastest, or the biggest wave of the bunch. Winning meant obtaining a certain social status, or romantic success.
“They would just compete,” DeSoto said. “One-on-one, man or woman, it didn’t matter your gender, and they would literally compete for land, the valleys, and stuff. They were also competing for their status in the community. If you were able to get a big section of land, to help out their community, that becomes your kuleana, that becomes your responsibility. It’s a much bigger thing than just owning the land.”
Boards were constructed from three different types of trees — Koa, Breadfruit and Wiliwili. The most common boards were named Alaia and most resemble the short boards used in today's practice — thin and midsized. There were also Paipo, boards that were short and had a rounded nose at the top, best used for laying on your stomach and riding out a wave. The last types of boards were Olo, used only by Chieftains and were twice as long as today’s longboards.
“Growing up, I learned so much about it, but I feel like there’s still so much out there that I haven’t figured out, but I keep trying to find them out and continue to share that it is called a practice,” Desoto said. “It is a thing that we [Hawaiians] would practice on a daily basis.”
Since turning pro, DeSoto has made a name for herself at only 17 years old. Her career is just starting, but her passion, drive to succeed, and respect for her culture has helped DeSoto establish her career. In 2019, Desoto was ranked 294 and has steadily been climbing up the ladder, and most recently ranked at second in the Women’s Qualifying Series after her performance at the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, where she finished 33rd.
In addition to surfing for competition, DeSoto wants to travel and spread passion for the sport, noting that her father did the same thing on the tours he went on in his professional career — surfing in different countries and cities while learning as much as possible.
“I want to just go around the world and share the Aloha that my dad was able to do,” DeSoto said. “I want to be able to give back to different communities, and I also want to connect with all the natives of the lands that we are going to. Connecting that with the culture and the history of the places that we are going to is something that is really significant to me. Winning a world title or not, I think making these connections and seeing cultures come back alive like our culture did is something that I really look forward to.”
As with any young athlete, there are dreams and aspirations that are always being worked towards. For DeSoto, one of those is qualifying for the Olympics once they come to LA in 2028, but she has a very specific mindset towards it — representing her culture first and her country second.
“It’s a really loaded question,” DeSoto said. “I don’t want to go to the Olympics representing America. I want to go to the Olympics and represent Hawaii because that is my home and that is the flag I will carry.”
According to DeSoto, Hawaii’s history with America has not been the best, and Hawaiians were illegally overthrown — she’s alluding to multiple occasions in Hawaiian history when the islands were overthrown before being restored to the natives in 1843 when King Kamehameha III reclaimed power over the islands from British Lord George Paulet, who was notoriously known for destroying Hawaiian flags upon his arrival and had cleared people off the land as he occupied they island for three years. However, this wasn’t the only time Native Hawaiian rule was contested.
After years of being oppressed by Christian missionaries who called surfing a sinful practice, illnesses were brought to the secluded islands that killed hundreds of thousands of natives. When settlers from the East overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893, it started multiple altercations between the Hawaiians and the United States and eventually, the islands were annexed by the U.S. in 1898 and became the 50th state in 1959.
“In years before we were overthrown, we took a lot of pride in that and like Kauikeaouli (a former Hawaiian king known more commonly as King Kamehameha) said, ‘Ua Mau Ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono’, ‘the breath of the land has been restored and people are back’, and were able to thrive after being taken over,” Desoto said. “When that was restored to us, we were written off as our independent nation. When the U.S. took over, it was a very, very hard thing for Hawaiians. All of that history leading up to this now is why I have a hard time representing America honestly. I want to represent Hawaii, I want to carry that flag, I want to be singing our national anthem, and speaking our language.”
Photo credits: Pua DeSoto’s Instagram