This article appears in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In the islands where surfing began, the waves on that particular day were a disappointment—mushy, chest high, and annoyingly infrequent. Still, Hawaiians have never needed much of an excuse to grab a board and hit the ocean, and the takeoff zone was packed. Teens on shortboards. Moms on longboards. Grade-schoolers on bodyboards. A guy with a gray ponytail on a stand-up paddleboard. Some had tribal tattoos in the style of Polynesian warriors. Straddling my surfboard in the deep water beside the reef, I surveyed the crowd with a knot in my stomach, feeling that I didn’t belong.
Makaha has long been known as a beach where haoles, a Hawaiian term for white people and other outsiders, venture at their peril. Located on Oahu’s west coast, far from the glitzy North Shore crowds of Sunset Beach or Pipeline or the package tourists at Waikiki Beach, it has a reputation as a tightly cloistered community dominated by descendants of the ancient Polynesian seafarers who settled the islands.
Even those Makaha residents who have come to terms with the United States takeover of Hawaii in 1898—and some still have not—are determined to prevent the same thing from happening to their waves. Stories are legion of visiting surfers being chased from the water here, a few with broken noses, after breaching some unwritten rule. I was eager to avoid the same fate.
For half an hour I floated near the takeoff zone, waiting for my chance, before I finally spotted what appeared to be an unclaimed wave. I spun my board toward the beach and paddled hard. But just as I gained speed, a stone-faced teenager on a bodyboard finned up the same wave. He planted his hand firmly on my shoulder and pushed me off the wave, simultaneously propelling himself down its face. I gave up and paddled in. So much for “aloha,” I thought.
But over several weeks in Makaha I came to grasp that what looked like thuggish protectionism was in fact more complicated. Hawaiians, after all, are the original surfing fanatics, having embraced the sport since roughly the time of the Crusades. They are also, in some sense, survivors. Since the coming of the first white men in the late 18th century, their history has been colored by loss—first of numbers, as imported diseases burned through their ranks, then of land, nationhood, and culture. Even hula dancing all but vanished. For Hawaiians—an increasingly imprecise term after waves of immigration to the islands and generations of intermarriage—surfing is a tangible link to the precolonial past and a last remaining shard of cultural identity. It’s also a testament to Hawaiians’ almost mystical connection to the ocean. No wonder they can get a little prickly about their waves.
“We got nice people here, but if you treat them bad, they’ll treat you bad.” It wasn’t a threat, just a simple statement of fact. The man who uttered it was sitting on a tree limb that had washed up on the beach. Though well past retirement age, he looked like someone you didn’t want to cross, a thick-chested guy in board shorts, sunglasses, and a black sun visor. His hair was a luxuriant white, and the slablike planes of his face evoked the ancient Hawaiian alii, or chiefs, he counts among his forebears.
“The guys, if they tell you they’re going to do something to you, they will do something to you,” he said. “Just remember where you’re at.”
On the subject of Makaha and its customs, there is no higher authority than Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana, a rare full-blooded Hawaiian who has spent most of his 80 years on Oahu’s West Side. His standing in the community is closely linked to the ocean. Keaulana was a preternaturally gifted surfer as well as Makaha’s first full-time lifeguard and the founder of a well-known surfing competition called the Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic. He remains the most prominent of Makaha’s famous “uncles”—the mostly Hawaiian elders who serve as guardians of the community—and is revered throughout the islands as the apotheosis of the “waterman,” an aquatic all-rounder who combines reverence for the ocean with deep knowledge, skill, and courage. “Last of the traditionalists,” one admirer told me.
The waterman ethos dates to the first Hawaiians, who are believed to have sailed to the islands in double-hulled canoes from the Marquesas around A.D. 700, followed by similar mariners from Tahiti five centuries later. These settlers probably brought with them some familiarity with surfing, at least in rudimentary form, but only in their new homeland did the sport become an important part of the culture, embraced by chiefs and commoners of both genders on most of Hawaii’s eight major islands. There were surfing temples, surfing deities, surfing contests with crowds of onlookers gambling on the outcome. The royals rode massive olo boards hewed from the wood of the wiliwili or the koa tree, while their subjects typically surfed on shorter, thinner alaia boards. A new swell could empty a village for days.
New England missionaries, who followed the 1778 landing of British explorer James Cook, often have been blamed for putting a damper on the sport the natives calledhe‘e nalu. Their principal objection, it seems, was to the locals’ preference for surfing in the nude. Far more harmful to surfing, as to Hawaiian society itself, was the arrival of European diseases such as smallpox. By the time Congress formally annexed Hawaii in 1898, the native population had fallen to about 40,000 from as many as 800,000 at the time of Cook’s landing.
The bitter legacy of colonization left an indelible stamp on Hawaiians of Keaulana’s generation. He spent his childhood in poverty, much of it on state-provided “homestead” land—Hawaii’s version of an Indian reservation—in the West Side community of Nanakuli. The native language had been purged from public schools in favor of English, though in practice the locals spoke pidgin, an English-based creole still common in the area.
Keaulana ran away from home at the age of ten, after his abusive stepfather chased him into a taro plot with a knife. He bounced among relatives and friends, dropped out of school after the eighth grade, and endured periods of homelessness, sleeping in cardboard boxes and stealing chickens to survive.
The ocean proved his salvation—“a place to get away,” he called it. A powerful swimmer, he learned to fish with a speargun made from a sharpened coat hanger and a length of rubber tubing. As a teenager, he worked as a diver, unsnagging the nets of Filipino fishing sampans from coral reefs. Then he discovered surfing.
Of course Keaulana wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the sport that had so obsessed his ancestors. Since the turn of the century Hawaiian beachboys had been teaching tourists how to surf on the gentle breakers of Waikiki, and during Keaulana’s childhood a few Hawaiians could still be found riding V-bottom redwood boards on a break near Nanakuli. He learned to surf on a crude surfboard made from glued-together railroad ties. But he didn’t truly embrace the sport until he fell in with a handful of pioneering haole surfers, some from California, who arrived at Makaha in the early 1950s.
The newcomers rode lightweight boards made from fiberglass and balsa wood (soon replaced with polystyrene foam) and outfitted with fins so they could be turned easily. Makaha became a laboratory for new surfing techniques and board designs as well as the setting for what was billed as the first international surfing contest, in 1954. Keaulana joined the party and soon emerged as one of the best surfers of his generation, with a fluid, ambidextrous style that he would later showcase in surfing movies and contests as far away as Peru.
After stints in the Army and as a beachboy at Waikiki, Keaulana returned to Makaha in 1960 with a wife and a job as parkkeeper and then lifeguard, bringing up four children in an apartment above a public bathhouse on the beach. Eventually Keaulana was able to build a house, after he rescued a wealthy Texan who was knocked senseless while surfing in big waves. The man gave Keaulana $30,000 as an expression of gratitude.
Keaulana’s renowned waterman skills earned him a prominent role in the Hawaiian cultural and political awakening that came to be known as the Second Hawaiian Renaissance. In 1977 he kicked off his eponymous surfing contest, whose party atmosphere and multiple events—canoe surfing, tandem surfing, longboarding—recall the ancient Makahiki festival held in honor of the Hawaiian god Lono. Keaulana’s chieflike status was enhanced by his burly physique and, when necessary, “a look that chills your bones,” in the words of his eldest son, Brian, who added, “Every local kid knows that look.”
At the same time, “Uncle Buff” was nothing if not pragmatic, as he showed in the running of his contest. Tourists who drove up from Honolulu often returned to their rental cars to find windows smashed and wallets missing. “That’s the stupid thing they do. They bring a lot of money,” Keaulana said. So he identified the locals responsible for the break-ins—“all the thieves and make-trouble guys”—and hired them as security guards. The thefts mostly stopped.
In recent years resorts have begun spreading up the West Side, and vacation homes have sprouted amid the modest plantation-style houses that cluster on either end of Makaha’s golden beach. But in other ways little has changed. At a beachside picnic table in the shade of a milo tree, Keaulana and his fellow uncles while away the hours “talking story” or playing dominoes, and outsiders are received warily, at least at first. “You got any ID?” one of the uncles demanded when I first appeared with my notebook and questions. I later asked the same man if he worried about the influx of nonlocals competing for waves, and he assured me that he didn’t. “We regulate that to death, brah.”
The communities collectively known as the West Side are situated along Oahu’s Farrington Highway, which begins west of Pearl Harbor and passes through Makaha before terminating near the island’s northwestern tip, called Kaena Point. Running along the base of the Waianae Range, it’s a rain-starved coastal strip that’s one of the oldest settled parts of Oahu. Here and there are ruins of stone temples and fishponds, along with more contemporary echoes of Hawaii’s past: roadside stands selling poke (raw fish) and laulaus (pork wrapped in taro leaves), outrigger canoes hauled up on the beach at Pokai Bay. But for the most part this is not the Hawaii of tourist brochures. In the main town of Waianae the highway is lined with fast-food outlets, pawnshops, and scruffy shopping plazas. Homeless people camp in a thicket near the boat basin. I went to Waianae to meet one of Keaulana’s “make-trouble guys,” a surfing prodigy with a troubled past named Sheldon Paishon.
I turned in to a neighborhood of ramshackle houses, one of which had a bedsheet hanging in the front door. Paishon poked his head through the opening and joined me in my car.
Born on the West Side in 1993, Paishon had a painfully thin build and a crest of floppy, sun-bleached hair that he calls a “frohawk.” I asked whether he wanted breakfast. He declined, explaining that he had eaten well the night before. He told me that his mother had been panhandling at the Waianae Mall, where someone had bought her a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken that she brought home to her family. “She met the right person,” Paishon said. “She got blessed.”
We drove north to Makaha, stopping briefly so that Paishon could retrieve his surfboard of the moment—a sorry-looking thing with a busted-off nose—from the bushes where he’d stashed it the day before. We continued in the same direction and a few minutes later parked along the beach at Yokohama Bay.
“Yokes” is considered the heaviest break on the West Side, and on this morning it was easy to see why. Thick, powerful waves unfurled across a shallow reef. But Paishon didn’t hesitate before joining the dozen or so surfers already in the water, and within moments he was dominating the field. Effortless, devil-may-care takeoffs, casual tube rides, soaring aerial maneuvers—he surfed with a grace and audacity I had rarely seen outside of pro-surfing videos. After half an hour, he snapped his board in half and swam back to the beach, holding a piece of it in one hand.
A lifeguard who had been watching wagged his head and observed, “You shouldn’t judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree.”
It seemed like a cryptic statement, but to anyone who knew Paishon and his history, it made perfect sense: Few surfers on the West Side have shown as much talent in the water while struggling against such long odds on land. There are obvious parallels between Paishon’s story and Buffalo Keaulana’s. Both were raised amid poverty and homelessness, and both found their calling in the ocean. But while Keaulana parlayed his waterman’s talents into fame and a comfortable living, Paishon struggles to find his place in the world, dreaming of a career in pro surfing but with no obvious path to get there. You had to worry about his future.
Like many on the West Side, Paishon has an ambiguous ethnic heritage. His mother, Sharon, is a haole from New Jersey. His pidgin-speaking father, Don, is descended from Portuguese immigrants who came to the islands more than a century ago—along with Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos—to work on sugarcane plantations. The line between native and non-native has long since blurred, and Don Paishon assumes that he and his son carry traces of Hawaiian blood, though he cannot say for sure. Even so, when I asked Sheldon whether he considers himself Hawaiian, he nodded emphatically. “In here,” he said, tapping himself on the chest. “In the heart.”
But as Paishon takes pride in his Hawaiian identity, he faces many of the challenges that afflict the native population—especially on the West Side, one of the state’s most disadvantaged communities.
When he was 12, his unemployed parents could no longer afford their apartment. For the next several years, the family lived in a tent just north of Makaha in what was then one of Hawaii’s largest homeless encampments. Sharon struggled with depression, and Don smoked “ice,” the popular name for methamphetamine. (“I like the rev and the high,” Don told me.)
For their child it was sheer misery, an extended camping trip from hell. “Horrible, stinky, rainy, cold, scary,” Paishon recalled. “Big centipedes crawling in your tent. Sand all over your bed. It’s not what people think.” A bucket served as the toilet, and a typical dinner was pork and beans heated over an open fire.
Like Keaulana before him, Paishon found solace in the ocean, graduating from a bodyboard to a succession of borrowed or discarded surfboards. He was a natural at the sport, and it wasn’t long before he caught the eye of the uncles. They supported him with more surfboards (Paishon’s aggressive style means that he breaks them on a regular basis) as well as food, clothing, and advice—a modern twist on Hawaii’s ancient hānai system, in which families informally adopted the children of friends or relatives and raised them as their own. “We his real family over here,” one of the uncles told me.
By the time Paishon was in his early teens, he was a regular on Oahu’s highly competitive junior surfing circuit. His rivals turned up at events with their parents, equipped with beach canopies, video cameras, coolers, and surfboards plastered with logos from sponsors. Paishon had no sponsors and was lucky if his mom showed up with a beach towel. But that didn’t stop him from winning, sometimes against kids who have gone on to lucrative professional careers. At 15, he was featured in Surfingmagazine.
It was a different story at school, where Paishon struggled with basic math and reading and was mocked by his classmates for his mildewed clothes. “Everyone would tease me because they knew I was homeless,” he said. “They called me the slum-dog surfer.” He began skipping school to surf. When he did show up, teachers yelled at him for reading surfing magazines in class. He dropped out entirely during his second attempt at completing the ninth grade.
People who knew Paishon were sympathetic to his plight, but there was only so much they could do. A couple whose son competed with Paishon on the junior circuit offered to take him into their home and pay his way to surfing contests in California and elsewhere, but Paishon’s mother declined to sign a power of attorney form. “Maybe it would have been better,” Paishon told me. “I would be a world champion by now, probably.”
Some wounds were self-inflicted. Paishon admits he ran with the wrong crowd and smoked pakalolo—marijuana—sometimes paying for the drug by selling one of the surfboards he had been given. Benefactors began to lose patience. “I slapped his head,” one of the uncles told me. “I told him, ‘You’re wasted talent, another wasted talent on the Waianae side, another lost soul.’ ”
The biggest setback came when Paishon was accused of stealing $1,200 from the girlfriend of a contest organizer. Paishon was never charged, but his reputation was damaged. Potential sponsors turned away. “They think, He’s a punk, he’s from Waianae,” Paishon said bitterly.
One late-spring night I drove with him past Waianae High School, where the commencement ceremony for the class of 2013—Paishon’s class, had he stayed in school—had just concluded. Paishon watched silently as joyful graduates spilled into the street with their parents and siblings. Several minutes passed. Finally he said, “I wish I would have graduated.”
Six months later I learned that Paishon had found a job. A friend had hired him to clean cars for eight dollars an hour. “Everyone is looking at me different now because I’m working,” he told me. “It’s my step forward.” He said he planned to use his earnings to finance a surfing trip to Indonesia and then return to Hawaii for a new round of contests that he hoped would win the attention of sponsors. “I didn’t know what I wanted before,” he said. “Now I know. Be a pro surfer. That’s my dream.”
After my initial surfing misadventure at Makaha, I went to see Bruce DeSoto, a member of one of Makaha’s most prominent families. I asked him for advice on avoiding any further unpleasantness in the water. He leaned back in his armchair and replied, “When somebody new comes in the lineup, we expect them to introduce themselves and say hi, at least.” He continued, “The bottom line is respect. You respect, you’re welcome, then you come surf our place anytime you want. But if you don’t respect, then you got a problem.”
A few days later I got a chance to put his advice into practice. A fresh swell had rolled in, and the waves were bigger than I’d seen them. I paddled out and struck up a conversation with a stocky Hawaiian in his early 40s. It turned out he was a lifeguard in Makaha who shaped surfboards on the side. Bobbing on one of his own creations, he told me proudly about his three kids and their plans to compete in a weekend surfing contest in Honolulu.
Then we both spotted a peak. I looked at him. Mine? His nod was subtle to the point of telepathy. I paddled hard and dropped in on the wave, a glorious, eight-foot wall of cobalt blue that carried me past the reef.