In 1915, Duke Kahanamoku caught a wave at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach and introduced Australia to the art of surfing. The sport has since become a quintessential part of Australian identity, and images of the blonde, sun-kissed Aussie dominate the global surfing scene. But at the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles, it is clear that, while surfing may be a Native Hawaiian creation, an Australian national pastime, and a fast-growing industry, it is also an increasingly important part of Indigenous Australian culture and community.
On the cliffs above world-famous Bells Beach, a small fire crackles from a silvery-green pile of eucalyptus branches. Thick smoke rises into the air, lost against the moody grays of the ocean, and a crowd gathers as the deep guttural sounds of a didgeridoo call out over the rhythm of crashing waves. Anthony Hume, Indigenous Aquatics Officer at Surfing Victoria begins a chant and leads three Aboriginal youth in a dance meant to clear the air of bad spirits and welcome in guiding ancestors.
As the fire grows, the dancers pass in and out of the smoke, their bare feet slapping against the ground. At Hume’s invitation, a line of surfers forms around the fire pit, each taking a turn bathing in its cleansing smoke. The motley crew spans at least two generations, from 13 year-old Summer Simon to 48-year-old former Pipeline Master Robbie Page.
While surf competitions are commonplace at Bells Beach and traditional smoke ceremonies like this one are performed at indigenous gatherings all across Australia, it is not every day that the two occur together. Today, however, is opening day of the 2015 Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles, where some of the country’s top indigenous surfers gather to ride waves, share stories and celebrate culture.
In its fifth year, this annual event is part of Surfing Victoria’s Indigenous Aquatics program, which seeks to empower indigenous youth through surfing. It is just one among a growing number of indigenous surf competitions held across the country. From the Wandiyali Indigenous Classic in Newcastle to the Banaam Indigenous Surf Title on the Gold Coast, many of them are similarly affiliated with long-term community programs.
Surfing Victoria’s Indigenous Aquatics program began over a decade ago as a small fundraising initiative to put a single Aboriginal youth through surf instructor training. It has since developed into a full-fledged program that works with indigenous communities throughout the state of Victoria. It now boasts two full-time employees—Hume and Jordie Campbell—both of whom went through the program themselves during their teenage years. The program engages Aboriginal youth in surf excursions, surf coach training, and even career pathways within the surf industry.
While over 1,500 indigenous youth have gotten in the water with Surfing Victoria, the program is about far more than numbers. “Surfing can give kids an enormous amount of self-worth. And when they realize that it also connects to their culture, they get goosebumps,” says Hume.
The success of the program and this annual competition speak to the longstanding connection that Australia’s indigenous peoples share with the ocean. Though Bells Beach is named after the first settler family to take up a pastoral run in the area, its shores were an important meeting place for three Aboriginal nations, the Wathaurung, the Gulidjan and the Gadubanud. Under the protection of the cliffs, men would make and trade tools, while women would collect shellfish from the nearby tide pools.
Hume points out the area where the women would sit and shuck their harvest of shellfish. Underneath the brush, discarded shells still lie scattered in the rust-colored earth. “The creek used to run through this area, and children would play in the water, safe from the waves, while their mums worked.” He blinks hard as he says, “It makes you sad when you know the history. I think it would have been awesome back in the day, but so many of our traditions were stolen from us.”
While Indigenous Australians have suffered the losses to language and culture that so often mark the experience of colonization, Hume sees surfing as a way to reconnect to some of what has been lost. “This is more than a competition. It’s a time to share stories. We gather and connect. Surfing is our modern way of expressing our Aboriginal culture,” he says.
Over the next few days of surfing, it becomes clear that Hume is right. Though there is a healthy dose of competitive spirit among the surfers, everyone seems far more interested in scoring good waves with old friends than actually coming out on top. In between heats, the competitors spend hours perched on the walkway that runs along the cliffs “having a yarn,” or talking story, with their hoodies zipped up high to keep out the cold. It is during one of these quiet moments that Wayne Carberry, a Warrabunja woodcraftsman and competitor in the Master’s category, explains that he and the other competitors connect to the ocean not just as surfers, but also as “saltwater people.”
Carberry has a thoughtful intensity in his eyes, but it quickly melts away to warmth as he smiles down at the bay below. “You’ve got your desert mobs, your bush mobs, and your saltwater mobs,” he says. “I’m saltwater,” he adds with pride, as though there is no difference between him and the sea. As Carberry speaks, his eyes stay fixed on the water, watching a flock of seabirds feed on a passing school of fish. “Must be a big one,” he says, with the quiet excitement of a true waterman.
Waves and Resurgence
Most people outside of Australia associate the country’s indigenous peoples with the dry, red earth of the outback. But the diversity of languages, cultures and nations that make up the oldest living civilization on earth, in fact, stretch across the continent from desert to coast. For Australia’s saltwater mobs—those tribes and nations that have lived along the coast and relied on the sea for survival for upwards of 40,000 years—the ocean is intrinsically connected to history and culture. And for Carberry, surfing, by extension, is connected as well. He competes in as many indigenous competitions as he can, eager for the opportunity to be among his “mob.”
“These competitions mean everything to me,” Carberry says. “Back in my local surfing breaks, there are very few indigenous surfers in the water and we really stand out. But in events like this, we get a chance to connect with our brothers, and even our sister girls. We all have that one love for the ocean, and it’s a real mutual respect that we have for each other.”
In a country where racism against Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders is widespread, creating a space to celebrate cultural pride and solidarity is no small matter. In fact, even as indigenous athletes have challenged racist notions of what it means to be an “Australian,” they have been subject to blatant discrimination.
Earlier in the year, Australian Football League icon Adam Goodes sparked an angry backlash when he performed a traditional war dance after scoring a goal during the AFL Indigenous Round. Goodes was criticized for being unsportsmanlike in his display of Aboriginal pride, and was nearly booed into retirement in the weeks that followed. The episode sparked a nationwide conversation on race and racism in Australia. Otis Carey, winner of the 2014 Indigenous Surfing Titles, faced similar criticism when he sued a surf magazine for publishing an otherwise flattering article that described him in racially charged and historically loaded terms.
But, when I ask Wayne about racism in the lineup, he turns his attention to the strength of his community. “I’ve had lots of racism in the water, but that doesn’t worry me and that doesn’t stop me,” he says with a knowing smile. “I always say it’s their stuff. I’m not responsible for their sadness.” Then, nodding towards a film crew from National Indigenous Television (NITV), which is broadcasting the event across the country, he says, “We’re role models in our small communities. When other indigenous people see this on NITV, I think they’ll be inspired.”
The significance of this competition, and others like it, is that it boldly asserts an indigenous claim to land, sea and survival that settler Australia often tries to silence. On the final day of competition, I find Jordie Campbell, the newest Indigenous Aquatics Officer at Surfing Victoria, taking a break on the steps leading down to the beach. For the 25-year-old Campbell, surfing has been an important way to reconnect with his family’s indigenous heritage. Campbell explains that his great-great grandfather was an indigenous man from Tasmania, who escaped the brutal genocide of his people.
“When he came here he married a white girl and had kids. They denied being Aboriginal so their children wouldn’t be taken off them,” Campbell says. “I think of it as another effect of the Stolen Generations,” he adds, referring to Australia’s dark history of removing indigenous children from their families in order to assimilate them into white, settler society. Raking his fingers through his salt-crusted hair, he tells me, “They got to keep their kids, but they had to give up their cultural identity. If it wasn’t for surfing, I don’t think I would’ve had the opportunity to connect with the indigenous community.”
Though Australia’s policy of forced removal ended in the 1970s, the racist mentalities that underpinned it are still alive and well today. In 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government announced plans to cut funding to remote Aboriginal communities, effectively forcing hundreds of indigenous people living in rural areas off their own land. Abbott stated that the Australian government would not “endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society.” This attempt to further erase indigenous ways of life from Australian society is another reminder that the ugliness of settler colonialism is not a thing of the past.
Of course, there is no mention of any of this at the competition. Instead, there is a constant and unflinching focus on each other. The old-timer Page, who won the Pipeline Masters way back in 1988, tells me, “It’s hard for a lot of the crew to get here. If you check out a lot of the mobs, you’ll see that there’s a lot of hardship. So these guys go home and have a yarn about what we’ve done here, and the communities lift up a little as well.” By creating space to celebrate indigenous culture, these indigenous surfers refuse to allow their culture and people to be relegated to Australia’s past.
After a week of inconsistent swells, excitement builds as the waves finally begin rolling in at 4-6 feet on the last day of the waiting period. During the final heat of the Men’s Open Category, the crowd watches Soli Bailey and Russell Molony battle it out in the lineup. As the sun moves behind the clouds, the two remaining competitors hold their arms above their heads, trying to shake blood into their cold, wrinkled fingers. A swell rolls across the bay, and the 19-year-old Bailey takes position, locking in the highest scoring wave of the day and drawing cheers from the beach.
As Bailey makes his way out of the water and across the beach, someone drapes the Aboriginal flag around his shoulders. He makes his way through a sea of hugs and photo-ops and scrambles on stage wrapped in the bold colors of his people. Eyes still red from the sting of salt, Bailey says, “I am so wrapped just to be here with all the different tribes. This is bigger than anything I’ll ever do.”
As a young up-and-comer on the World Surf League Qualifying Series, it is doubtful that this is the biggest thing Bailey will ever do; in fact, it is likely that he’s still got quite a few accomplishments in store. But as I watch the surfers pile on stage to celebrate what has clearly been a win for all of them, it’s easy to understand the sentiment.