HONOLULU — When John John Florence travels the world for elite surfing competitions, he carries a flag with him, to fly if he wins. It matches the flag on the shoulder of his jersey and on the scoreboard next to his name.
It is not an American flag. It is a Hawaii flag. That is because, in the World Surf League and in surfing more generally, there is an understanding: You represent Hawaii, or you represent the United States. You do not do both.
The simplest reason is that Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing and remains the sport’s cultural heart. Hawaii residents — particularly Native Hawaiians, but also those merely born and raised there, like Florence — cling to that heritage because surfing may be the strongest of the fading connections to their precolonization history.
But when surfing makes it debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, there will be no such delineation between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. Hawaii will disappear as a separate surfing entity.
Two of the four Americans on the team, Florence and four-time world champion Carissa Moore, were born and raised in Hawaii and have always competed under the state flag. Moore is continuing to do so this month as the global tour holds major events in Australia. (Florence is recovering from a knee injury.) The other Olympians, Kolohe Andino of California and Caroline Marks of Florida, compete under the American flag.
All four will be in Japan representing the United States.
“There’s a little bit of tension with that, going into the Olympics under a USA flag,” Florence said at his home on Oahu’s North Shore, on a patio overlooking one of the greatest stretches of surf breaks on the planet. “I don’t want to divide at all. I’m not anti-anything. I’m pro-Hawaii.”
Florence and Moore are eager to avoid politics, but it is impossible to ignore the historical and cultural waves churning around them. Old debates have flared in recent years, over appropriation and independence, over colonization and commercialization, over how to protect what it means to be Hawaiian, or from Hawaii.
Across the islands, on cars and on porches, Hawaii flags fly upside down, a sign of distress. The fight over plans for a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s highest mountain, boiled over in 2019 and still simmers today. The project is seen by many as the latest case of outsiders disrespecting Native Hawaiians.
Some say this is a periodic reawakening and defense of a culture that many Native Hawaiians feel slipping away. All of it is backdropped by what the Americans did in the 1890s, deposing Hawaii’s queen and annexing the islands. Plenty of Hawaiians still view the United States as an illegitimate occupier.
Surfing was nearly stamped out by white colonizers in the 19th century. Adding the sport to the Olympics is both a matter of pride and a way to thrust issues of identity into the open.
“Hawaii has had so much erased history,” said Duane DeSoto, the 2010 longboard world champion. “Surfing prevailed against the possible suppression into oblivion. It endured the challenge of being exterminated at one time. And now it needs to be a source of Hawaiian pride.”
‘An immense billow’
Makaha Beach, on the west side of Oahu, may be the home of modern competitive surfing, but it does not draw many tourists. Out of the way from Waikiki or the North Shore, it is a locals’ beach, a crescent of sand where the waves break hard in the winter. Under the trees by the parking lot on a Saturday in November was Brian Keaulana, part of a family of surfing royalty.
He is a bear of a man and a classic “waterman” — the highest term of respect in Hawaii for those well trained in all types of surfing and ocean sports, in the tradition of Duke Kahanamoku. Keaulana is a big-wave surfer and founder of the Hawaiian Water Patrol, which works at surf competitions and commercial filming around the islands.
On weekends, he can often be found with family and friends on his home beach, where unofficial world surfing championships were held in the 1950s. They play in the water and relax in the shade, sharing old stories and bites of sushi-like Spam musubi.
“In surfing culture worldwide, everybody looks at Hawaiian surfing as different,” Keaulana said. “Even California surfers look at Hawaii different. But the Olympics see us as the same.”
While most early Polynesian cultures developed some form of rudimentary body boarding, none did it like the Hawaiians, according to surf historian and author John Clark.
The expedition of British Capt. James Cook landed in 1778 and observed people surfing. The earliest-arriving outsiders were astounded.
“To see 50 or 100 persons riding on an immense billow, half immersed in spray and foam, for a distance of several hundred yards together, is one of the most novel and interesting sports a foreigner can witness in these islands,” a missionary named William Ellis wrote in 1822, according to Clark’s book “Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions from the Past.”
There is no evidence of anyone stand-up surfing before the Hawaiians, Clark said during an interview on the North Shore. They held competitions, created surfing temples and imagined surfing deities.
“The bottom line is that the Hawaiians took surfing far beyond anyone else in the world — technically, in board design, and in their skill level,” Clark said. “And surfing becomes so embedded that it becomes the national pastime. Everybody does it. Royalty does it. Commoners do it. Children do it. Seniors do it. Men do it. Women do it.”
The British never got around to taking charge in Hawaii. In 1810, the loose string of Hawaiian islands became united under Kamehameha I — a renowned surfer himself. The United States recognized Hawaiian independence in 1826 and spent decades persuading other countries not to annex the islands.
But news of Hawaii was out, like a genie from a bottle. It was a fertile land for outsiders to re-imagine. It drew whalers, missionaries and plantation owners, bringing Bibles, illness and a colonizer’s sense of entitlement.
Disease wiped out as many as 90% of Native Hawaiians by the end of the 19th century, shrinking their numbers to about 30,000 to 40,000. They were soon outnumbered by immigrants, mostly from Asia, who came to work on the growing sugar cane plantations, largely owned by Americans who ruled island politics.
The United States saw economic and military advantages in Hawaii; Pearl Harbor was established as a naval base in 1887. In 1893, with the blessing of the U.S. government and the backing of Marines, plantation owners led by Samuel B. Dole overthrew Queen Liliuokalani. Dole was installed as provincial president.
Full annexation came in 1898, statehood in 1959.
Seth Moniz, a Native Hawaiian, was competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. This was late in 2019, at the end of the World Surf League season, when no one had an idea that a pandemic would delay the 2020 Olympics an entire year.
The World Surf League season traditionally ends with the “Triple Crown” — successive events at Haleiwa, Sunset Beach and Pipeline, all on Oahu’s North Shore. It is the heart of world surfing, a stretch of white-sand beaches backed by a two-lane road and fronted by epic waves.
“I’d be honored to represent USA, obviously, but I would prefer to represent Hawaii if I went there,” Moniz said. “I do wish we could have a voice or representation. Me and other Hawaiian surfers, maybe we have to make a push for that, to have the Hawaiian flag at the Olympics.”
The tour is dominated by surfers from four places: Brazil, Australia, the United States and Hawaii. In surfing terms, there is no conflict between the Americans and Hawaiians, just a distinction. Surfers had hoped for separate Olympic teams, if only to expand their chances of getting in.
“If that happened, I’m in the Olympics,” Kelly Slater said during the final weekend of Olympic qualifying in December 2019.
It didn’t happen. Slater, from Florida, lost out to Florence for the final U.S. Olympic spot. Moniz was the second-ranked surfer from Hawaii but will not be in Tokyo, either.
Fernando Aguerre, an Argentine who lives in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego — he and his brother founded Reef sandals in 1984 and later sold the company — has been president of the International Surfing Association since 1994. It has been his mission to get surfing included in the Olympics.
Creating a separate team for Hawaii was never seriously considered by the International Olympic Committee, which paints some fuzzy borders around island territories, using vague language about autonomy. Puerto Rico is among the American territories with its own Olympic team.
“Hawaii is different within the surfing world,” said Aguerre, whose son has Kahanamoku as a middle name, honoring Duke. “But in the geopolitical world, Hawaii is part of the United States.”
Last year, the Hawaii Tourism Authority created a 15-member Surfing Advisory Committee, in part “to ensure that we reestablish Hawaii as the home of surfing,” said Kalani Kaanaana, the group’s director of cultural affairs and natural resources.
The Olympics may not have been the sole reason for the committee’s formation, but it was a catalyst. DeSoto is a member of the committee, which met for the first time this month.
“We need to amplify Hawaiian voices in surfing globally and ensure that Hawaiian culture is not further stripped from global surf culture,” DeSoto said afterward. “Not having a Hawaii surf team represented in the Olympics is a travesty.”
In the back of the crowd at Haleiwa, anxiously watching their son, were Tony and Tammy Moniz. Like Keaulana, the Moniz name carries heft in Hawaii’s surf culture. The family runs a surfing school in Waikiki. A daughter, Kelia, is a two-time world longboard champion.
The Moniz family created an opening ceremony for the Triple Crown, with Hawaiian rituals, as a way to remind the surf community of the sport’s roots. A request from the Hawaii Tourism Authority for a similar cultural blessing before the Olympic contest was denied.
“When people ask, ‘Where are you from?’ it’s Hawaii,” Tony Moniz said. “Although we’re proud to be a part of America, and we don’t want to be part of another country, there is a lot of animosity, a lot of hurt, because of a lot of deep things that have happened.”
Even within surfing, within Hawaii, there is a nuanced hierarchy. Credence is given to those with native roots, like Moniz. Florence was born and raised in Hawaii, but has no Hawaiian blood. Some think of Carissa Moore as the only true Hawaiian on the Olympic roster.
“I’m really proud that I do have a little bit of Hawaiian blood, so I feel a connection to the people here, and the waters,” Moore said, sitting outside a Honolulu coffee shop one afternoon.
Back in 2019, Moore competed at an event in Japan overseen by the International Surfing Association.
“I was totally wrapped in the Hawaiian flag, but we had USA shirts on,” Moore said. “It felt like I was betraying Hawaii. It was weird.”
Sebastian Zietz, a veteran pro surfer, competes under Hawaii’s flag. He was born in Florida but moved to Hawaii when he was 4 months old.
“I’m a haole, a white guy who moved to Hawaii, so I can’t be claiming anything,” he said. “But I definitely show a lot of respect to all local people, and walk on eggshells, because if you know the history you know Hawaii was illegally overthrown. That’s why they kind of don’t like haoles.”
No one symbolizes Hawaiian surfing more than Kahanamoku. Born in 1890 and raised in Waikiki, he became Hawaii’s first famous “waterman” and surfing’s greatest ambassador. A three-time Olympian and a five-time medalist in swimming — surfing was a century away from becoming an Olympic sport — Kahanamoku is memorialized by a statue that stands at the center of Waikiki, in the tourist heart of Honolulu.
“He went around surfing, sharing it with people around the world, and it was his greatest gift,” Ezekiel Lau, one of the top Hawaiian surfers on the world tour, said. “Which made it Hawaii’s gift to the world.”
Popularity spread, fueled by advents in foam and fiberglass, by the Beach Boys and surf movies, by tiki bars and ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports,” by the World Surf League and today’s chase for the biggest waves.
Lau is among those who are glad to have surfing in the Olympics, but adamant that the ties to Hawaii not be forgotten.
He sat on a porch overlooking Sunset Beach, one of the great surf spots in the world.
You can wipe out our population, annex our kingdom, borrow our traditions in the name of cheap trinkets and commercialization, the thinking goes. You might try to build telescopes or international hotels or military bases that threaten to dilute our ancient culture, Lau said.
You will not take surfing from us.
“The Hawaiian culture’s been a little suppressed, but it feels like there’s a new energy, a rebirth in sharing our culture with the world,” Lau said. “I feel like surfing’s at the forefront of that, and surfing becoming a part of the Olympics is huge for us.”
On Makaha Beach, Keaulana sat under a tree, pondering the connection between Kahanamoku and today’s Olympians from Hawaii.
“I’ve known John John and Carissa as kids, as babies,” Keaulana said. “Regardless of the flag, they’re Hawaiians. And they win for Hawaii. If the rest of the world sees them as something else, that’s OK. But we in Hawaii recognize them for who they truly are.”