The Transformation of Tom Stone.

17 Sep 2009 0 Share

For Pohaku, riding like the "kapunas" or ancestors might have done is just one aspect of his modern life as a Hawaiian surfer. Aficionados of the alaia revival might consider taking their act to this level: surfing a 16-foot, 20-pound finless board while wearing a traditional "malu" loin cloth at a spot that offers an age-old challenge like that to be found at Outside Velzyland.

For Pohaku, riding like the "kapunas" or ancestors might have done is just one aspect of his modern life as a Hawaiian surfer. Aficionados of the alaia revival might consider taking their act to this level: surfing a 16-foot, 20-pound finless board while wearing a traditional "malu" loin cloth at a spot that offers an age-old challenge like that to be found at Outside Velzyland.

By Paul Holmes

I’m driving with Tom Pohaku Stone back to his house in the heights overlooking Diamond Head and Waikiki, crawling along in late afternoon traffic on the H-1 freeway. We’d just spent a few hours at the Bishop Museum where, with Stone’s connections as a teacher of Hawaiian Studies, he’d arranged access for us to view some of the historic surfboards in a storage warehouse and not on public display.

Crafting a 16-foot solid Mango wood surfboard - a size and shape much like the "ali'i" would have ridden in pre-contact Hawaii. He began making such boards in 2004, starting with an "olo" or "kiko'o" style board made of native wiliwili, sometimes referred to as the Hawaiaan balsa.

Crafting a 16-foot solid Mango wood surfboard - a size and shape much like the "ali'i" would have ridden in pre-contact Hawaii. He began making such boards in 2004, starting with an "olo" or "kiko'o" style board made of native wiliwili, sometimes referred to as the Hawaiaan balsa.

Now, as we make plans to stop at Tamura’s in Kaimuki to pick up poke and cold beers to enjoy as the sun goes down, I’m quizzing Pohaku about surfing’s land-based twin, holua. The idea was to hurtle at 40 or 50 miles an hour down a specially-constructed ramp of lava rocks overlaid with grass and oily plant material to reduce friction, on a foot-wide sled, a papa holua—dual runners of wood with cross-bracings lashed together with twine. Holua has not enjoyed the kind of revival, popularity, and worldwide proliferation as surfing, perhaps not surprisingly, considering the consequences of a fall: death if the rider was lucky, shattered bones if not. But, says Pohaku, it was a hugely important part of ancient Hawaiian culture and evidence of it is everywhere throughout the Islands if you just know where and what to look for: “There’s a holua ramp right there,” he says, directing my attention to a volcanic slope just a few hundred yards off the freeway. And, sure enough, there it is, clear as day, hiding in plain sight from the hundreds of thousands of Honolulu commuters who pass by it each day—a steep, snaking course of what looks like flesh-shredding rock shards on the northwest side of the Punchbowl.

In the early 1970s, Stone was one of the standouts at Pipeline

In the early 1970s, Stone was one of the standouts at Pipeline

...and Ala Moana. Stone featured twice on the cover of Surfer magazine in this era.

...and Ala Moana. Stone featured twice on the cover of Surfer magazine in this era.

True, after more than two centuries of neglect and lack of use, the ramp is no longer the smooth, well-maintained slide it once might have been, but Pohaku knows what to look for, and he’s an authority, possibly the ultimate authority on the subject, because he’s actually done it. And the ancient sport of holua was the subject of his master’s thesis in Hawaiian studies from UH that set him off (as a 46-year-old) on a new career as a researcher and educator with a special emphasis on and passion for the sliding sports of old Hawaii. In the past decade, he’s developed a curriculum on the “History of Surfing from a Native Perspective” that he teaches at Kapiolani Community College under the auspices of UH Manoa’s Hawaiian Studies program; he’s made traditional finless surfboards of koa and wiliwili and given demonstrations of their use; he’s been a guest of the British Surfing Museum and the Captain Cook Museum in England where he introduced ancient Hawaiian-style boards to descendants of those who “discovered” Hawaii. Most recently, he’s been making a series of 16 programs airing on Hawaiian Public Television aiming to raise local consciousness about the history, heritage, culture, and geography of Hawaii. “It’s a journey through Hawaii from a native perspective. It delves into the militarization of Hawaii, and the assimilation and acculturation of native practices. It’s going to create some controversy on every ethnic level, I don’t care what god you worship,” he says, laughing at his own audacity.

No paddle takeoff: Tom Stone launches his "papa holua" at Ulupakalua on the island of Maui, These sleds were ridden prone, kneeling, or standing in ancient times and "he'e holua" was the land-based twin of the equally important sliding sport of surfing, "he'e nalu".

No paddle takeoff: Tom Stone launches his "papa holua" at Ulupakalua on the island of Maui, These sleds were ridden prone, kneeling, or standing in ancient times and "he'e holua" was the land-based twin of the equally important sliding sport of surfing, "he'e nalu".

His projects are contentious, there’s no doubt. His nativist perspective raises hackles. His adopting the original Hawaiian equivalent of his given name [Pohaku means stone] raises skeptical eyebrows in many quarters. His checkered past prompts some people on Oahu, especially among those with long memories, to doubt his sincerity and integrity; one well-respected member of the surf community characterizes him as “a charlatan and a fraud.”

There’s no question that Tom Pohaku Stone is a controversial figure, one who raises issues that many people would rather ignore or dismiss as having been settled years ago. But regardless of how one views politically sensitive topics like cultural imperialism, sovereignty, reparations, native land grants, even violent but mundane localism at surf spots, Tom Stone’s personal story of transformation is illuminating. The fact is, by all measures, Pohaku once seemed destined for the same sad fate of far too many Hawaiians in these modern times: homeless and marginalized; a chronic junkie; serving a long sentence in jail for violent or drug-related crimes; or dead at an early age and soon forgotten.

At the same time, Pohaku’s story is one that sheds light both on Hawaii’s history and the complicated plight of Hawaiians today. It reflects the conundrum of the Islands: the duality of a paradise and a paradise lost; the generous spirit of aloha but also the harsh retribution of those who transgress the unwritten laws of respect; a world in which words may have multiple meanings, ghosts roam the land, ancestors appear in dreams with messages, and gods and spirits can inhabit everything both living and inanimate.

For the Full Monty (so to speak) pick up TSJ Volume 18, #5.

Better yet, subscribe and stoke yourself every 60 days.

The Surfer’s Journal 18.5. Tidal Bores in China, The Transformation of Tom Stone, deep explorations for the real Michael Peterson, and Yassine Ouhilal scours the Atlantic- stunning images of points and of the ethnic cultures that go with them. All this and much more. Well beyond standard fare… Maine, Joni Sternbach and Liz Clark’s maiden voyages.
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