How Surfer Chloe Martins-Keliʻihoʻomalu lives her Native Hawaiian Culture

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Meet surfer and native plant propagator Chloe Martins-Keliʻihoʻomalu and hear why she’s in her element taking care of the land, people, and sharing knowledge about her culture. Words and Photos by Tara Rock.

I met Chloe Martins-Keliʻihoʻomalu out at our local surf break on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. We both share a love for surfing, getting our toes on the nose, and spending time in the ocean and so we naturally became friends. I gravitated towards her because of her calm, insightful demeanor. She is ten years younger than me but I have always felt she was wise beyond her years.

Original Universal Light Green Multi

As someone who was born and raised in Hawaiʻi (but not Native Hawaiian) I have always been surrounded by Hawaiian culture and had a deep respect for it. It wasn’t until I started getting older, and in my adult life, I am learning how to listen—really listen—and help create space for Indigenous culture and support those who continue to perpetuate their living culture.

I spent some time with Chloe on her family’s land on the Big Island as she shared some of her insight and stories of Hawaiʻi.

Please introduce yourself. What is your name? Where do you live? How do you spend your days?

ʻO Chloe Alexandrea Kalikopualehuakauikalani Martins-Keliʻihoʻomalu koʻu inoa piha. Noho au i Hilo, akā no Kaimū mai au. (Translation: My full name is…I live in Hilo, but I am from Kaimū, Hawaiʻi.) My days are normally spent around the land, ocean, or family, in some shape or form. When I have free time you can find me surfing at a local break or spending time with my grandparents, siblings, niece and nephew. At work, I am busy collecting seeds from Hawaiʻi’s keystone species [species that are critical to the survival of the other species in the system] ʻōhiʻa (Metrosideros polymorpha) and growing them to help find naturally occurring trees that are genetically resistant to two invasive fungi.

Original Universal Light Green Multi

Chloe wears the Original Universal sandals in Light Green Multi.

Big Island Hawaii

Can you share a little bit about your Indigenous culture? What does it mean to be Native Hawaiian (appropriately known as Kānaka Maoli)?

A lot of people try to define what Kānaka Maoli [Native Hawaiian] should be or look like based on things like physical features, the amount of cultural knowledge they hold, or blood quantum—and in ways these thought processes are not wrong, but they do seem superficial. In my opinion, a Kānaka Maoli is a person of Hawaiian descent and what defines them is how they carry themselves, treat others, treat their surroundings, and how they choose to share their knowledge (Native or not).

When we look at Hawaiian history, all the great aliʻi (ruler/chief/chiefess) are talked about or remembered because of how they treated their people and how they respected their resources.

Chloe at home

Why is the land so important to Kānaka Maoli?

An ʻōlelo noeʻau, or Hawaiian proverb, that Kānaka Maoli live by is, “He aliʻi ka ʻāina; kauwa ke Kānaka” (meaning: the land is chief; humans are its servants). Looking at this proverb from a western perspective can seem intense, but what this saying comes down to is, “You take care of the land; it will take care of you.” In other words, if you choose to nurture the land, you will continue to have resources like freshwater, vegetables, or fish. If you decide to do things like litter or deplete reef fish populations, you will have fewer or damaged resources. 

Another reason we cherish land is because of our cultural and ancestral connections. Generations of Kānka that came before us built in-depth relationships with their surroundings through kilo (observation) to the point of recognizing phenology patterns of their ecosystem, and they used this to gather resources at the right time and in sustaining amounts. The loss of land can result in the loss of identity, a loss of one’s link to their past.

Aloha No Fishing

Let’s talk a little bit about your sense of place. Why is sense of place so important?

Sense of place, in my opinion, is the deep connection one has with a place. In Hawaiʻi—or with other Indigenous peoples—you have a deep connection but it is enhanced with a lineal tie.

I call Kaimū, Kalapana my home. Kaimū lingers in my thoughts because of its history and my family’s connection to the land—it is where my family has lived for multiple generations. In 1990, my family’s property came close to being consumed by lava [from a volcanic eruption], but it was spared when the lava stopped at its edge and continued on another path. Many people, including my family members, believe this happened because of our sense of place. My grandparents lead by example and naturally practiced things like respect, hospitality, mālama ʻāina (to take care of the land and its resources). It was second nature—never forced. These morals that they held near and dear to their heart in some ways outshines the natural beauty.

Those who know, do not come to Kaimū to see or take pictures of the natural beauty. Those who know, come to Kaimū to take a step back into the past and understand that the simple things like spending time are its true, raw beauty.

Chloe on the lava borders.

Chloe explores the edge of her family’s property that was almost consumed by lava from a volcanic eruption.

There have been some changes to Kaimū over the years with several different lava flows. I’ve always found it so fascinating how the lava is creating new land but also destroying existing land at the same time. Can you explain what happened to your home (and home break)?

My father and his siblings often compared Kaimū to the North Shore of Oʻahu [the epicenter of the surfing industry in Hawaii]. Surfers from across the world, including Mākaha’s Aunty Rell Sunn [a renowned pioneer of women’s surfing], would visit Kaimū to free surf or compete. So you could say that it was a pretty happening place for the surf scene. But with the crowd came some unwanted attention like the planning of development. I’m talking about resort-type development. I don’t even want to think of that change.

I could never say that the lava [from the volcano eruption in 1990] taking Kaimū Beach was a blessing because it broke a community. Families who lived in Kaimū and surrounding communities relied extensively on one another and their wahi pana (special place), and in an instant, it was gone. To be sensitive to the other ʻohana (family) of Kaimū, Kalapana, who no longer live in the area, I will say yes. Yes, it is refreshing to look at miles of lava instead of miles of potential million-dollar properties hotels. Lava preserved Kaimū.

Chloe Martins-Keliʻihoʻomalu

We talked a little bit about living, perpetuating, and learning cultural practices. What do you think the difference between perpetuating and “learning” culture is?

Living, perpetuation, and learning culture are equally important for ensuring that Hawaiian culture is carried on for future generations.

Some people may not know, but Hawaiʻi is the birthplace of surfing and considered a cultural practice in Hawaiʻi. Can you tell me a little bit about your surfing story?

I come from a family and a people whose lives were deeply intertwined with the ocean. And through this relation came a sense of respect and understanding that we as Kānaka are minute compared to the ocean’s vastness. We learned the currents, we learned the tides, and we learned how to move with them.

My family built their relationship with the ocean at their doorstep, Kaimū Beach, which was once a long black sanded shore covered with coconut trees. It was their refrigerator and my father and his siblings’ excuse for dipping out on their chores. They loved being in the water, so it was only a matter of time before they picked up a surfboard, and it was the same for me. I learned how to swim and surf at Pohoiki, alongside my cousins and siblings. As my passion and comfort level grew, so did my surfboard length. No one had to bribe me to surf. I wanted to be out in the lineup even if I had to ditch my board because it was ten-times too big for my arms to dip under a wave. (This still happens sometimes, haha.) To this day, I still want to be in the lineup, even if my odds of catching a wave are one to a million. Out there, I find peace.

Original Universal Leather

Chloe wears the Original Universal Leather sandals in Sand Dune.

As someone who also loves surfing how can I continue to enjoy it and still respect it as a cultural practice?

The least someone could do is acknowledge surfing’s origin [as a Hawaiian sport], and if you wanted to take your respect to the next level, educate yourself. There are lots of resources out there about heʻenalu (surfing). Intention and etiquette are probably the two most significant things that I try to practice out in the lineup and hope that other people do too. Before entering the ocean or any kine ʻāina (any kind of) space, you should already be in a positive mindset. You shouldn’t be plotting your session to take every single wave or bump that comes your way. When you paddle out, know your place in the hierarchy, share waves, and respect the locals!

Martins-Keliʻihoʻomalu

How do you think social media has changed Hawaiʻi?

Social media has brought a lot of unwanted attention to Hawaiʻi. Visitors have this distorted idea that Hawaiʻi is this picture-perfect paradise made for them to explore. When people visit, they often forget that Hawaiʻi is home for us, and as a result, you find visitors going off-trail and trespassing—for what? A picture. A picture they can over edit and geotag for more people to see. It’s a never-ending cycle. I will say, though, that it has been a positive source for the community during the last few years. It was a way for us to bring awareness to the world of problems that we faced.

What are some ways visitors [to Hawaiʻi] can enjoy their time here and also be conscious and respectful to this place?

I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT ENTER PLACES THAT YOU DO NOT BELONG IN. There are reasons why we have marked trails or visitor hotspots, and that is to keep you safe, the community safe, or our environment safe. Visitors can also take the time to research the Indigenous culture and partake in guided tours that showcase culturally significant sites. There are many ways to enjoy Hawaiʻi and its scenery while being respectful. All it takes is a little time to do your homework before you visit.

Martins-Keliʻihoʻomalu surfing

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