Text by Beau Flemister | Images by Mark Holladay Lee
Somewhere between three-dozen Hawaiian kids, 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater, and a few other surfer celebrities, I pulled on a thick, corded rope with all my might. Together, we dug our heels into the earth, inched backwards, and through groans and sweat and uncontrollable laughter, we won one hell of a tug of war. Did I mention I was on Kelly Slater’s team?
Technically, this game was not tug of war but huki huki, one of many traditional Hawaiian games played in November 2016 at the inaugural Makahiki Hosted by Zeke Lau. The free cultural exchange event at Turtle Bay Resort was organized by World Surfing League competitor and O‘ahu-grown surfer Ezekiel “Zeke” Lau.
“Initially, I just wanted to do some little event for the kids, like a surf contest or something for the Hawaiian immersion students, but then I started thinking, maybe I should do something a little more original,” said Lau, a Kamehameha Schools graduate and the sole Native Hawaiian surfer on the WSL world tour in 2017. Since his home turf is where surfing originated, and the sport was part of the original makahiki festivities, this throwback concept made perfect sense.
Thus, last year, Lau invited youth from a nearby Hawaiian immersion school (where Hawaiian language and culture is at the forefront of the curriculum), members of the community, and professional surfers on the world tour—including Keanu Asing, Sebastian Zietz, and Bede Durbidge—to partake in Hawaiian games, songs, dance, and music.
Dressed to the nines in nothing but a malo (Hawaiian loincloth), Lau kicked off the event with a traditional ‘awa (kava) ceremony, bringing a coconut shell full of the bitter beverage to his lips as kahu chanted prayers in the background. Soon after, Hawaiian performers from around O‘ahu began singing and strumming familiar tunes, and the games commenced.
While millions of people the world-over might prefer to watch these professional surfers conquer fearsome waves via live webcast, it was equally amazing to witness a 10-year-old girl dominate one of them in the ring during the devilishly difficult haka moa (chicken fight) game. Also hilarious was watching Slater huff and puff to keep pace with keiki three-times his junior during the massive kūkini (foot race).
It might have been hard for Lau to get surfers such as Slater to show up to this event any other time of year, but since they were already on O‘ahu’s North Shore for the annual Vans Triple Crown of Surfing contests down the road at Sunset Beach, Pipeline, and Hale‘iwa. To Lau, the makahiki festival was an appropriate way to kick off this culminating event of the tour. “Everywhere we go around the world—Fiji, Tahiti, Indonesia—they have cool opening ceremonies [for surfing events],” Lau said. “So I think it’s just fitting that we do something like that here in Hawai‘i for the Triple Crown.”
Tom “Pōhaku” Stone, a Hawaiian practitioner and surfer, was also at Lau’s event. He explained that the tradition of makahiki, or lono i ka makahiki, celebrates the changing of seasons. Traditionally, Hawaiians recognize two seasons—kau, categorized by its hotter, drier climate, and ho‘oilo, known for its cooler, wetter weather. Makahiki marks the transition into the latter season, and is dedicated to Lono, the deity of replenishment, birth, and renewed life. During this time, Hawaiians traditionally sustained from warfare and hard labor in favor of rest, feasting, and rejuvenation.
According to Stone, makahiki are chances to show how cultural traditions have been maintained, through hula, chants, or games of skill. Thousands would gather to witness lively competitions of boxing, racing, lawn bowling, and surfing, all featuring Hawai‘i’s most elite athletes and warriors. Lau’s event, then, gives professional surfers like Leonardo Fioravanti, who is from Italy, and Ramzi Boukhiam, from Morocco, the chance to learn about the origin of their livelihood, and experience its cultural significance.
This season, Lau’s makahiki returns to Turtle Bay Resort, at the lawn between Kahuku Point and Kawela Bay. The charismatic O‘ahu surfer will again be hosting, and there will be even more professional surfers taking part. Attendees are guaranteed fun, games, and authentic Native Hawaiian culture. It doesn’t matter if you neither surf nor speak Hawaiian—but maybe bring a pair of gloves for leverage during the huki huki.