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30 for 30: Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau

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It might be hard to believe here in the middle of the continent, but surfing is a sport too, and is the focus of one of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, The Legend of Eddie Aikau.

Aikau was a surfer from a young age.  He was a native Hawaiian, and he traced his cultural lineage directly to the native peoples who invented surfing, long before it got popularized into what we know it as now in the 50s and 60s.  Aikau is now a mythic individual, a real person who is more than his biography, and is now a folk hero and a symbol.  He was the prototypical Hawaiian -- not only was he a surfer, but he lived the prototypical poor, aloof, and water-based life of the displaced native Hawaiian.  American power-hungry domineering grated on native Hawaiians, with good reason.  Native Hawaiians still smarted from profit-driven American businessmen taking over the sovereignty of the Hawaiians in a coup, as well as the statehood subsequently granted to Hawaii.  In this filter, it doesn't take much to find insult in a bunch of white-as-snow Californians appropriating the sport of surfing with no regard to native Hawaiians.  As the film documents, for many of the first big tournaments that took place once surfing hit the big-time, not a single native Hawaiian was even invited to compete.  It is no wonder that Aikau, the first native Hawaiian to compete in those large tournaments, has come to be a stand-in for Hawaiian culture.

The irony here is that white culture is well familiar with the hero sticking up for culture and principle against long odds.  It's not hard to find it in the myths we tell ourselves, whether it be Washington at the Potomac or Jim Bowie at the Alamo.  For us to find ourselves looking at the story from the other side is an unsettling transmogrification.

The coda to the Aikau story is his senseless death.  The movie does its best to play it off as yet more myth, but it really is a stupid, stupid risk.  Aikau, continuing his role as the public figure stand-in for native Hawaii, was taking off with the Hōkūleʻa, a vessel built in the Polynesian style that was built to provide proof-of-concept that it was possible to make long-distance sea voyages using methods known to ancient Polynesians, to refute historians that short-sightedly claimed that no native peoples could have possibly made the voyage.  The Hōkūleʻa got caught in a storm on the first day out to sea, and it capsized and quickly became useless.  The boat was outside of the normal shipping lanes and flight paths, and so rescue was less likely.  So, Aikau decided to try to swim 12-15 miles to shore.  Aikau, already fatigued from lack of water and sun exposure, died in the attempt, while the rest of the crew was rescued when they were spotted by a passing plane.  Setting aside the high-risk trip, the decision to send Aikau alone to swim to Hawaii was a foolish one.  It did, however, give Aikau a hero's death, and solidified his larger-than-life symbolism.

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