About This Week’s Guest

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is an award winning journalist, a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning, American Indian Studies and critical surf studies, and the author of 'As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock'.

This week on Saltwater Library, Dina Gilio-Whitaker explains how environmental activism by surfers can contribute to ongoing erasures of Indigenous and First Nations people’s sovereignty.

Discussed in this Episode

  • Native American history
  • California surf history
  • Native sovereignty
  • ‘Save Trestles’ campaign
  • Settler colonialism
  • Indigenous erasure
  • Surf localism

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Rebecca Olive: Hello, and welcome to Saltwater Library, a podcast about our relationships to coasts and oceans.

The Saltwater Library team acknowledges the Jaggera and Turrbal people as the traditional owners of the land and waterways where this podcast is produced. We acknowledge their elders and ancestors, their young people, and recognize their sovereignty was never ceded.

I’m Rebecca Olive and I research ocean sports and physical activities, like swimming surfing and sailing. I’m interested in how these spots shape our relationships to coast and oceans, in who has access to these sports, and how more people can get involved.

[00:00:54] Dina Gilio-Whitaker is an award winning journalist, a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning, and a lecturer in American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, where she teaches courses on topics including environmentalism and American Indians, traditional ecological knowledges, religion and philosophy, Native women’s activism, American Indians and sports, and decolonization. All of these skills that she has, come together really well in her book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, which came out in 2019. I’ve invited Dina to discuss her work and activism with us, and how they link with surfing.

[00:01:45] Rebecca Olive: Your work focuses on intersections between environmentalism and the sovereignty of Indigenous and Native peoples. And in your book, As Long as Grass Grows, you write that your aim is to identify Indigenous approaches to conceiving of environmental justice. So the term ‘environmental crisis’ is one that’s had a lot of uptake in, especially media, to give a sense of urgency about specially climate activism. But can you please tell us a bit about how ‘environmental justice’ differs from that term ‘crisis’?

[00:02:15] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Well, okay, so I will say that environmental crisis puts the emphasis on environment, right, and it puts the emphasis on how humans interact with the environment. So I would say that it’s really kind of in the realm of environmental science – and I’m just painting with a really broad brushstroke here, and thinking aloud. And environmental justice, on the other hand, is really in the realm of Environmental Humanities, and it examines and interrogates the relationship of humans to each other in the realm in the realm of environment, and relationship to land. So I’m aware ‘environmental crisis’ is about how we, as humans, are going to survive the crisis of climate change. If we call it climate crisis or whatever, you know, it centres, the environment. But, but ‘justice’, as the qualifier for environment, implies relationships between humans, mediated through relationships to land.

[00:03:25] Rebecca Olive: And it [environmental justice] has a sense of a much more long-term history of these problems to than crisis maybe? Because the ‘crisis’ term, to me, makes it feel like here’s this thing that’s happened, and it’s happened very quickly, and we can fix it with technology if we act now. Whereas the ‘environmental justice’ term, it feels different in, your point makes that clear, it’s about the relationships between people as well. So it brings in the politics.

[00:03:51] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Right, and when you’re talking about the relationships between people, then you are automatically invoking historical processes, right? And the material impacts of those relationships and those relationships of power, and how those systems continually replay themselves and continually interact in spatialized, in space. In spatialized orientations to the world.

So, I’m kind of doing work on this right now. Like looking at these differences. I’m looking at Aldo Leopold’s work. Are you familiar with who Aldo Leopold is? He was a conservationist, American conservationist, who sort of revolutionized the world of conservation. And he’s known all over the world as his work is very much venerated all over the world. Because in the early 20th century, he was very much of a mainstream conservationist, it was very science based it was it was all about, you know, wise is land use, right? So wise is land use and so he evolves over the course of his career working for the [United States] Federal Government, and, and toward the end of his life, he writes this book, he dies while the book is imprint press, and the last chapter of the book is called ‘The Land Ethic’. And he becomes very known for this essay, ‘The Land Ethic’. And so it’s something, it’s all over the world, like cultures, countries all over the world study this thing, you can’t overstate the impact that it’s had. And it was so well known, because in it he proposed that humans, you know, a much better approach to conservation and protecting the land is by seeing the biotic community, right, by seeing the natural world as community. Okay? So instead of this, like, you know, extractive exploitative-wise use, you know, utilitarian lens of how humans use the land, he talked about began to talk about seeing in terms of relationship, human relationship, to the land.

And so this was seen as revolutionary, right. And yet, that’s how Native people had been living on the land for millennia. So anyway, there’s this whole theoretical foundation for conservation, and there’s this whole strand in the literature about Leopold, and, you know, some have argued that because he lived in the [US] southwest, that he encountered Native people, and he was influenced by them. And there’s a there’s arguments back and forth about whether how true that is. And I personally don’t think that, that it’s true, I think that it’s a huge stretch.

[00:06:52] Rebecca Olive: It sounds like that term, ‘environmental justice’, and even the I mean, ‘the land ethic’, as you say, is, you know, it’s giving a new name to something that people have felt for a really long time in Indigenous cultures around the world.

[00:07:03] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: And taking claim for it. Like, ‘oh, how brilliant it is that Aldo Leopold, you know, came up with this new way of looking at how we need to change our relationship to the environment’.

[00: 07:16] Rebecca Olive:Yeah. So ‘environmental justice’, then, is a lot about not only taking care of environment, or the places, as you said, but also it’s about civil and human rights?

[00: 07:27] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Oh I know where I was going with it. Yeah, you reminded me that it was that nowhere in his analysis, did any of that factor in, right. So understanding, you know, the natural world in terms of community, like these biotic communities, nowhere in his analysis, did he acknowledge how he even comes to be, as a white settler on the land, even having that conversation. The processes of history that enable his ability to even exist in that space and have that conversation, so he completely elides that. And so the work that I’m doing now is basically saying that, you know, talking about a land ethic doesn’t make any sense unless you address the relationships of humans to each other within that.

[00:08:18] Rebecca Olive: Yeah. And so then settler colonialism becomes a really big factor in how we think about all of that. In the US, as well as in Australia, settler narratives of frontiers and wilderness are a really big part of that. So, like the position nature is something that settlers are overcoming and, you know, whereas traditional ecological knowledge really dispute that view.

[00:08:41]: Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Right. And because there’s so much if you unpack all of that, you know, the episto, I don’t know what’s that fancy word, episto-ontological or whatever, you know, to bring those fancy words together. It’s all about like that human relationship to the natural world based on a domination framework. Like, that humans’ relationship to the world is all you know, reinforces that ‘virgin wilderness narrative’, the, you know, there were no people here. And of course, in Australia, you have ‘terra nullius’, right? Terra nullius always being a very much of a legal foundation for the erasure of Indigenous populations. And of course, we have our version of it here, too. We don’t call it terra nullius so much, but certainly the doctrine of discovery by any other name is still the doctrine of discovery. And that’s part of all of that, you know, where the people who don’t fit the European standards of correct land use are basically not human. Like, they don’t exist. And so when you when you can paint an entire group of people as ‘not human’, then you have the basis for the rationalization of ethnic cleansing.

[00:10:32] Rebecca Olive: Okay, so with all of this in mind, it would, I’d like to try and bring it back to think about all of this specific to surfing, and how surfing is implicated in all of these discussions we’re having around environmental justice, the sovereignty of Indigenous and Native people, and environmental activism as well. So I was watching a documentary that you were part of recently about activism related to public access in the California coastline. And that documentary made it really clear that Native American sovereignty played an important role in how the coast is becoming understood in California by settlers. But it’s also as part of the activist leadership around public access to coast in California, and also how the decisions are getting made. So can we talk a bit about those intersections with surfing and Native American sovereignty and activism? And maybe you can use the ‘Save Trestles’ campaign as a as an example, which you’ve written about?

[00:11:35]: Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Sure. So yeah, I mean, it’s a long time coming. California has one of the most egregious, just heinous histories in all of American history, as heinous when it comes to its founding in the brutality and violence of ethnic cleansing, of genocide in California was possibly the most extreme example. And that’s recognized by genocide scholars worldwide. And so we live in this place, it’s been so highly romanticized, you know, and history always starts with settlers, right? And so, in California’s case, it starts with the Spanish and it starts with the missions and the building of all these beautiful missions, which get upheld as, you know, on this part of the romantic romanticization, you know, completely ignoring the fact that the mission system was based on systems of unforced labour, in order to bring Indians in to forcibly convert them to Christianity. And so they used their labour to build these missions to begin with. So this is the foundation of California settlement. And so that’s just in that one era. We have three eras of colonization in California, the final one being White settlers. And so it’s [White settler era] even more brutal than the Spanish era of colonization. And so this is the history that shapes California. And so the narratives are really narratives of this, you know, just profound erasure of Indigenous people that, you know, there was massive population collapse, and the populations were almost completely wiped out, but not entirely. And so in the last century, they’ve been able to rebound. But what’s happened in the meantime, is the California landscape has become completely remade in in White, European, settler image. Right. So it’s a commodified it’s a it’s really a white…

[00:13:44] Rebeca Olive: And privatized?

[00:13:48] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Yeah, certainly privatized. But it’s, we talked about cultural landscapes. There’s a cultural landscape that reflects White and European values and land use patterns. And, of course, surfing is a huge, there’s a whole history that’s so fascinating about how surfing is not incidental to the founding of California, but is instrumental in how ‘California lifestyle’ gets constructed in a very beach-centred lifestyle. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of unknown Neushul and Westwick? Oh, they wrote the brilliant history called ‘World in the Curl’, that’s the name of their book. They’re two historians, and they’re both surfers and then they look at California through looking at surfing, the history of surfing, and how surfing actually shapes the way this very particular lifestyle this, this beach-centred lifestyle, is now so ubiquitous in the world. And so like, emulated and surfing is you know at the centre of all of that and surfing becomes very much, like what happened in Hawai’i with you know, like Alexander Hume and Jack London. How Alexander Hume Ford uses surfing as a tool of colonialism to attract white settlers during this period of colonial overthrow of the [Hawaiian] Kingdom government. So while that’s happening at the turn of the century, something similar is happening in California when George Freeth, and George Freeman is a central player in all of this, because he’s the guy that teaches Alexander Hume Ford and Jack London how to surf. Right? Then they, Alexander Hume Ford builds this, basically his vision was to build a tourist industry to make to turn Hawai’i into a White space, a White settler space.

So he’s doing that and George Freeth is, you know, because George Freeth is the only guy that is successful in teaching Alexander Hume Ford to surf to begin with, like he was not getting it, he could not surf. Like Freeth teaches him and then he [Ford] gets the stoke and he’s like off and running. So, so in 1907 George Freeth moves to Southern California. I’m not really sure why he moves here, but once he gets here, he gets hired by land developers, Henry Huntington and Abbot Kinney. And Abbot Kinney is, now these guys have inherited, well, they’ve purchased, these massive tracts of land that were once these Spanish ranches, right, that were of course stolen lands from Indigenous people. So these are beach spaces, and in those days people did not live at the coast. The coasts were very empty places. People lived inland and Los Angeles is, like, 70 miles inland. And so they have these massive tracts of land, and they’re land speculators, and so they have to figure out how to sell these land plots.

So they hire George Freeth, this hapa haole [White, European ancestry, non-Native Hawaiian person] surfer, Hawaiian guy to give surfing demonstrations in order to create a buzz. And so that’s what happens, like, he turns into the spectacle, and it’s meant to attract people to buy beachfront property. And it’s wildly successful, because why? Because Abbot Kinney, that’s where Venice Beach came from. So Venice Beach was designed after the Venice, Italy, so he designed Venice Beach and you know, you have to get people to move to the coast, they have to have a reason to move there, and so surfing helps create the sensation like, ‘wow, look at this crazy thing this guy’s doing. This is like so much fun’. But people don’t swim, so at the same time, while this is happening, George Freeth single-handedly designs water safety systems, i.e. lifeguarding. So he pioneers the art of lifeguarding. And then at the same time, there’s all these public pools are being built. Public plunges. People are learning to swim. So people now are not afraid of the ocean. So now they can, and they’ve got lifesaving, lifeguarding, so all of these things converge, come together. And surfing, people are starting to surf. So all of this stuff is happening together. And this is how the ocean, you know, the beachfront landscapes, become safe spaces for people to live. It’s fascinating. But historians don’t look at it. It took these two surfer historians to understand that history through that through that lens. And there’s more to it, but that’s sort of the beginning. That’s kind of how it begins.

[00: 19:17] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: But it all happens in an ethnically cleansed landscape. Right? So it’s all about settlers are the first people here, there’s no Native people here. They’re like, ‘God, they used to be here, they’re gone’. Right? Those are the narratives that are being reproduced over and over again. And so, my work is like, I know the history and, you know, that’s not acceptable to me. I’m not willing to, you know, continue accepting that story and all this happy surf, you know. California is like the innocence, it’s like, we talked about the settler ‘moves to innocence’. I don’t know if you know, Tuck and Yang’s work? They are American scholars, they did this very influential essay called ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’. And in that essay, they talk about one of the things that settler colonialism does is it makes settlers do these ‘moves to innocence’. Right? And the ‘moves to innocence’ are, like distancing themselves from these profoundly violent genocidal processes. Like, to not have to be accountable for that, for the ways that they have benefited from it. And so, surfing is all about that, all about the stoke. You know, we all have the surf stoke, and come surf and get the stoke and, you know, it’s, it’s an equal, it’s anybody can surf. It reimagines, it fantasizes, this idealized vision of itself. That certain scholars, like Kristin Lawler, and other scholars, other people who are saying, ‘No, that’s really not what surfing is. Surfing is not that innocent sport, that, you know, is equal opportunity for men and women and you know, all the things that we like to say it is’. You know? But basically, it just reproduces settler colonialism in these spaces that are Indigenous homelands.

[00: 21:27] Rebecca Olive: We were talking before we started recording about the role of localism, in that it’s a really big part of this practice. Do you want to expand on that a bit?

[00:21:37] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Yeah, yeah. It was like kind of revolutionary in my own mind when I made those connections. And, you know, like these people who make these claims, often very violently, to surf spaces, as though they were, they are, original to those places, they’re the owners of those places. And they go to very extreme lengths to keep people out of those places. It’s a perfect reproduction of settler colonialism in my mind. And the way that it happens in California is very different than the way localism happens in Hawai’i, for example, Isaiah [Helekunihi] Walker has written very brilliantly about that localism you know, because it gets it gets so vilified there. A Hawaiians get turned into racists in those narratives that ‘Oh, it’s you know, it’s reverse racism, the Hawaiians and all their localism’ and its bullshit. This is Hawaiians protecting their territories, their homelands, from which they have been systematically, you know, dispossessed. That’s really, really different than a White, settler dude protecting, you know, violently preventing people from surfing some neighbourhood surfbreak.

[00:23:28] Rebecca Olive: And another example that I’ve seen come up a lot in your work is erasure through the way we named places, and the names that are given to different locations as well. Which obviously happens in Australia a lot too. So that the names that we use, say Huntington Beach, is again, it’s about Indigenous erasure.

[00:23:46] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s part of, and scholars have written about this a lot, the colonial processes happen through cartography, through mapping, and naming and renaming and claiming and all of that stuff. I mean, this is why it’s not a hard stretch to see how surf culture is just an extension of the settler colonial processes through through claiming space, through claiming land.

You know, I wanted to go back, you had mentioned, Trestles and that’s a good example. Trestles, of course, is the name of a place that the Acjachemen people knew his Panhe. So Panhe is an ancient village site. It’s documented to be at least 9600 years old, and it’s probably a lot older than that, but you know, they’ll give them 9600, like anthropologists. So it’s the it’s a place it was a very large village site, hundreds, probably thousands of people lived there. The evidence is clear, and archaeological evidence. And it becomes renamed once surfers discover it. Right? Discovery narratives are all part of this, right? This is, you know, Christopher Columbus, the discovery narrative for coming into Indigenous lands, and all of a sudden, ‘oh, we just discovered it, we found it, finders keepers’. you know. And so Trestles gets ‘discovered’ as a surf spot, and they name it for the train tracks that that were built there. And then the Save Trestles campaign was about how it happened, oh beginning in the early 2000s, when this toll road, this private toll road company, proposed a toll road to you know, in the name of alleviating Orange County traffic proposes this toll road, that will, it’s a 16 mile section of road that will traverse through a very complex tangle of jurisdictions. Because Trestles exists on what’s currently a military base, that’s leased to the state parks. So it’s a campground, and it’s huge. I mean, this whole area Trestles actually refers to a whole area of surf breaks that include Uppers, Lowers, Middles, Churches, Five-O, and then San Onofre just further south.

So anyway, turns out this toll road, if they build it, it’s going to it’s going to go directly through the ancient village side of Panhe, which is just inland from the surf break, in this watershed, that’s considered one of the most pristine remaining watersheds in California. And the environmental impact statements revealed that if they do build this thing, it’s going to disrupt the watershed, the bottom of the creek beds so so much, it’s very likely to destroy the wave quality. And so at the same time, the proposed toll road route is going to basically come through a burial site, an ancient burial site of this village. And so this battle goes on for years, the California Coastal Commission, which is considered one of the most powerful land use bodies in the world, and certainly in the US the most, because of the California Coastal Act that provides all these amazing protections for the coastline. So, they weigh all of these criteria in order to either give the permit or deny a permit for development projects. So they deny the permit. It’s based on, you know, sensitive ecological habitats, and other kinds of considerations, but also, because of the existence of these cultural resources, that’s how they call them. Those are the terms that they use, these cultural resources.

And so that’s what I studied. And it turns out that the way that it’s been promoted, the way the story has been told in surf culture, is that ‘oh, environmentalists started this, this whole, you know, campaign into Save Trestles. It’s all about the sensitive ecological habitat, and we have to save the, you know, pocket mouse and save these endangered species’. And that’s how Surfrider, and in some of the other environmentalists, the Sierra Club, these groups that that started the campaign, yes, they did that. But in the end, when the permit was denied, they perpetuated this story that it was all about the environmental activism to protect these endangered ecosystems, but they completely, almost completely, ignored the fact that the Coastal Commission was very powerfully swayed by the cultural properties; the sacred site, the fact that it’s a Native American sacred site.

So that’s what I was interested in discovering. And it really was eye opening for me to, like, connect all the dots and see how surf culture is built on those processes of erasure. And they continue to do that and this is my complaint, my gripe, with Surfrider is that even years later they made this video about, you know, ‘we saved Trestles and, and it’s going to be endangered until we get this, you know, we need to create more permanent legal protections for it because they’re gonna keep coming back for it’. And they, even in that video, they completely sidestep, never even mentioned the fact that, you know, the land that they were on was a sacred, Native American sacred site. So, so this is something that’s the work that I’m trying to do is to really, you know, like, bring light, shine the light on that. You know, surfers, you know, you mean well, and it’s good to be environmental activists but there’s more to it than that. And you are settlers. You are living in a space that’s been ethnically cleansed. But except wait a minute, there are still Native people here, they’re still here, they’ve always been here, they’re still using that land, they still have claims to that land, they still have their genealogies, and you know, you can’t continue to ignore that.

[00:31:17] Rebecca Olive: So my last question, then, because I’m very aware of your time and you’ve been so generous with your time, but I want to ask what is a key thing that people can do or change about their behaviour to take better care of oceans and coasts? And I suppose with you, then, that question would be, how can surfers be more environmentally just?

[00:31:37] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Yeah, I think it comes down to being open minded, and being willing to re-educate yourself to understand the ways that your education has created the blinders that you have, and that you do have blinders. At unless you are understanding yourself as a settler in Indigenous homelands, who is benefiting from genocidal processes, then you’re continuing to perpetuate that. And instead, you can work to build collaborations with Native people, understand whose lands you’re on, um, how can you be accountable to those people? What kinds of ways can you work, how can you be an ally or, you know, a co-conspirator are all these activist terms that we use? Like, that’s how you raise your consciousness. How do you decolonize your own your own mental processes and work to be accountable for these histories of profound violence and be a good human being? That’s really what it comes down to; how do you be a good human being? But it begins with understanding how you come to be in those spaces, and how you benefit from those processes.

[00:33:11] Rebecca Olive: Well, thank you so much for your time.

[00:33:13] Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Thank you. Thank you. I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing.

[00:33:25] Rebecca Olive: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Saltwater Library. It was produced by Hannah Reardon-Smith with music by cyberBanshee and art and design by Amelia Hine. Funding is from the Australian Research Council, and The University of Queensland.

For more information on Saltwater Library and the project it’s part of, you can visit www.movingoceans.com.

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Previous Episodes

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  • Saltwater Library: Introduction
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