When we talk about how to take better care of coasts and oceans, a key issue is whose voices are included in the discussions and the decisions. For me, this is a question of how we come to think about ‘being local’, and of the ways this shapes how we think about whose perspectives are given the greatest authority in how coasts and oceans are used, accessed and cared for. Often, it’s the voices of the people who use the beach the most, or, at least, the most visibly. But we need to remember that means the people who already have the easiest access. It’s unlikely that equity can be established by those who have the most power. A great example of this is localism in surfing, where those who surf most regularly at a place claim the most rights to waves. These rights can extend to how a surf break is named, accessed, imagined, or conserved, but lots of non-locals and non-residents can use and care about a surf break, even if they don’t live there. Or, perhaps, they’d like to but are made to feel unwelcome.

In settler-colonial countries, like Australia, the United States, and Aotearoa/New Zealand, politics of localism can have another effect, which is to erase Indigenous and First Nations sovereignty. White surfers will use generational claims to assert their local status, but this often ignores much longer relationships and connections of Indigenous people who have been displaced by invasion and colonisation. As we heard in Stephan Schnierer’s discussion, this is certainly not because of a lack of activism and advocacy by Indigenous people about the health and wellbeing of coasts and oceans, including how this ties in with the health and wellbeing of people, in particular, the traditional custodians.

Book cover for 'As Long As Grass Grows' featuring an illustration of a Native American mother and daughterThis week on Saltwater Library, we continue discussions about Indigenous and First Nations sovereignty, colonisation and environmentalism with activist, scholar, journalist, and surfer Dina Gilio-Whitaker. Dina (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, where she teaches courses on environmentalism and American Indians, traditional ecological knowledge, religion and philosophy, Native women’s activism, American Indians and sports, and decolonization. I came to know Dina’s work through the Institute for Women Surfers, where I learned about her examinations of the intersections of indigeneity and settler-colonisation with surfing practices and cultures. In particular, her book, As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, and her chapter in Critical Surf Studies explain the history and politics of surfing in California and of the Save Trestles campaign, and highlight the politics of how this environmental campaign was fought and won and how it’s being remembered.

Since we spoke last year, there have been some heartening developments in the World Surf League (WSL), who have made more meaningful and visible efforts to account for sovereignty of Indigenous and First Nations people over the places their surf contests are held. Companies and organisations like the WSL don’t (or very rarely) make changes like this without consistent pressure, and in this case the ongoing activism of people like Dina, and many others, that has been instrumental.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is surfing a stand-up paddle board on a glassy wave

Dina Gilio-Whitaker surfing

Surfing has had a big impact on many places in many ways, and now it’s time to learn to surf more gently. When we surf, swim, walk or visit coasts and oceans in any capacity, it’s important to keep in mind the stories we’re surfing and swimming and walking with. We might not even know what all of these stories are – we might not have a right to – but keeping in mind that there are histories and ancestors and knowledges immersed in the waters with us should be part of how we build our own relationships to, and of care for, places.

(I’ve included a lot of sources in the list below, including the scholarship that Dina refers to during out conversation. If you wish to access journal articles or chapters but have trouble doing so, please reach out to me to see if I can help.)


Panhe, the California coast, and the Save Trestles campaign:

Further reading: localism, surfing, Indigenous erasure & genocide in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand

By Published On: May 25, 2022Categories: Localism & Newcomers

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