Jeffrey Swartwood

The Call of the Waves: the Changing Tides of Native American Surfing Narratives


Many indigenous cultures have a strong narrative concerning their relationship with the land in its many forms. In a coastal context, that relationship extends to the frontier zone between land and sea and this relationship is particularly charged with imagery relative to both the natural world itself and to the process of invasion or colonization. In the particular history and subculture of surfing a longstanding linear narrative has been constructed in which Polynesians –notable Hawaiians – laid the genesis for surfing as an act and culture and then symbolically passed the torch to a renewed “tribe” of surfers from the mainland who were then largely responsible for its exportation and development.

The purpose of this communication is to reevaluate this construct in the context of current changes in perception and adaptation involving Native American individuals and communities and their relationship with the act and culture of surf riding. Far from a Polynesian exclusive, the act of riding waves in various forms has now been shown to involve a multitude of coastal peoples in different geographic and cultural spheres. Far from merely modifying a historical perspective, however, indigenous peoples are both appropriating or reappropriating their relationship with the ocean in ways that challenge the dominant dynamic. These include utilizing an element of the dominant culture (albeit a subculture and often a subversive one at that) to assert a story of Native American values and relationships with the environment and challenge the priorities of the colonizer/settler construction. Another interesting aspect of the role of surfing in contemporary indigenous cultures in North America is the creation of a new form of pan-indigenous identity that gathers both Polynesian/Pacific Islander and Native American communities within a strong sense of physical and cultural closeness to the sea.


Raised in California and living in France since 2000, Jeffrey Swartwood’s teaching and research focus on American civilization – specializing in California culture and Southwest border studies. Favoring an interdisciplinary approach, his work notably examines the complex social constructs within California culture and their representation in literature, film, and popular culture. Publications include a revisited version of his thesis: Contested Territories: Mixed Identity Constructs and Hybrid Culture in San Diego, California (1770-1920) as well as numerous articles and chapters addressing identity and cultural constructs in California and Southwest culture and history.

Recent work has focused on his longstanding passion for surfing and surf culture: working on the exhibit La deférlante surf at the Musée d’Aquitaine, organizing an international conference on the subject in Bordeaux, and working on historical representations of women surfers in early California.

He is currently an Assistant Professor at the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris and member of the research group CLIMAS.