Surfer, scholar, author, activist and teacher Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) brings her indefatigable energy to telling the full story of surfing and indigenous people, particularly how these unfolding narratives intertwine to affect everyone on the planet.
Peeling away colonial settlers’ version of events was at the forefront of the San Clemente resident’s work last month, with the release of her latest book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice From Colonization to Standing Rock, and a panel organized for the Impact Zones and Liminal Spaces conference called “Killing Your White Male Buzz: Women of Color Feminizing, Diversifying, and Decolonizing Surfing.”
The power and playfulness of her words contain an unassailable command of the past, and most crucially, the biases she uncovers dominate events in today’s ramped-up battle to curtail Big Oil. “From an American Indian perspective, we’re all on the reservation now,” she writes in the introduction to As Long as Grass Grows.
“I’m not just talking about the history and native’s people’s place on the land,” clarifies Gilio-Whitaker, who is equally as poised whether speaking of genocide or friendships, “but about the knowledge they have, inherent indigenous knowledge that’s connected to the land that we all need to benefit from in order to guarantee all our future. . . . What humankind finds important, that’s what has to change.”
She shares that wisdom at Cal State San Marcos, where she teaches the 4 R’s, the central traits “in all native cultures: relationality, reciprocity, responsibility and respect.”
The foundational concept of relationality developed in Gilio-Whitaker’s worldview with each of her life’s reinventions. Growing up in LA as an “urban Indian,” she bodysurfed and used scratchy Styrofoam boards. “We rode those things all day until our skin bled,” she recalls.
A romance led her to Oahu’s North Shore in 1980. “I immersed myself in surfing Pipeline,” Gilio-Whitaker says. “I was just drawn to it; I was crazy. I always had high standards for myself, and a high standard in that context was surfing Pipeline.”
After the collapse of a second relationship, she returned to California. “I reconnected to my tribe [Sinixt, known as the Arrow Lakes People in English] and just sunk myself into my native identity,” she says.
For the next couple of decades, she didn’t surf at all. “[My life] became much more culture-centered, and then led me back into school.” While working on her master’s in New Mexico, the man she’d broken up with 26 years earlier reached out. “We reconnected; we got married.”
Gilio-Whitaker joined her spouse at his home in San Clemente during the “Save Trestles” campaign. Swept up, she wrote her thesis on how protecting Panhe, the 9,600-year-old village of the Acjachemen people that’s situated above the famous surf break, influenced the Coastal Commission in denying the toll-road expansion.
Though she has often taken students to visit and has written about Panhe, she isn’t Acjachemen. “Even though I’m native, I’m not indigenous to this place,” she says, explaining her current research. “How do we as people not indigenous to a place develop a land and place-based ethic that honors indigenous history and local ecology?”
In addition to writing and teaching, Gilio-Whitaker also volunteers with such nonprofits as the San Onofre Parks Foundation, the Institute for Women Surfers and Native Like Water, which includes surfing in youth academic and leadership enrichment for American Indians, especially Kumeyaay who are indigenous to San Diego.. “Their now-existing reservations are inland,” the standup paddleboarder explains, “but they were for millennia an ocean-based people.”
And somehow she finds time to get herself in the water. “I’m a local down there at San-O,” she says, “in the SUP community.”
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly and writes about the arts and South County beaches. Her OC roots go back to the Cuckoo’s Nest but she left to create original theater on four continents, then returned to bodysurf small waves.