An Indian and the Sea

The territorial actions of being a “local” I encounter while surfing the sea can be comical at times for an Indian.

“Where are you from bro? I’m a local, show some respect!!!” I half-heartedly laugh every time I encounter this phrase at my favorite surf location, a place where the river flows into the sea. My violation sparking a call to hierarchy based upon the proximity of one’s residence to the coast. As a member of an Indian tribe located in San Diego County, localism is an interesting concept to me. For my transgression I am quickly and sharply told my place. This feels familiar. Did I violate the unwritten rules of the sport and disturb the advantages afforded to someone who believes where he/she laid his/her head at night enables superiority over another? If that’s the case, then I belong at the top.

After leaving the reservation years ago and discovering surfing, I was hooked. Like many beginners, I was a kook and took my lessons in the lineup. However, there was always something a little deeper to the aggression as I was rising up in my abilities and moving a little closer and closer to the main peak. One such incident left me numbed and confused. As the aggressor paddled towards me calling me a ni**er, I wondered if it was me he was coming towards. I have skin that colors easily, and growing up on the reservation with an Indian father and an Irish mother, I was used to the terms “white boy” on the rez and “chief” when in town. Words used to place me on and off the reservation. Being called a ni**er was surprising, and while I struggled with comprehending the moment, the aggressor had paddled upon me, proceeding to stab the nose of his board into my thigh and board, stabbing at my trespassing upon his territory. Washed in defeat, and with a new ding in my board, I paddled away.


I had been put in my place. The result the aggressor hopes for when enacting a sense of localism. This interaction wasn’t based upon surfing ability as much as it was a violation of color. What was the lesson this person was conveying to me? It wasn’t that I snaked his wave or sat on him at the peak. I merely tried to join the shuffle of surfers grabbing the better waves. Since then, I’ve discovered the “local” has many faces but the act is always the same. I wonder to myself during these moments about my place. I sit, silent and still on the surface, while on the inside a fire burns.

An internal debate arises in me every time a local rises up to dictate the lineup. I wonder if I should try to explain that if we are using the adage of “this is where I grew up or live, therefore I am the ultimate local,” maybe I should have more agency in the water. Rather then silently allowing this local to enact local(ism) upon me, forcing me to conform and adopt his values in the ocean, maybe I should scream back at him. “Can you stare back towards the land between sets to see where your past has stood?” I can. I can trace the drops of water as they fall into a creek behind my father’s house, winding their way down the river that bears the name of my tribal people; creating the sandbar we are surfing. Can you claim local(ism) when I share the name of the water? My history flowing towards us as you claim to be a local.

I grew up in the foothills of the mountains where the water began. At one time my tribal territory stretched along the coast from near San Juan Capistrano to Carlsbad, inwards to the valleys of the coastal mountains. Presently, we are tucked into the reservation where our tribal name literally translates as “place where there is water.”

The sand that gets pushed out into the sea during the rains comes from where I sleep. Our Native language describes us as the Payomkawichum, which translates to People of the West. The Mission just a short drive along the river inland from where we are surfing held our people and changed our name to Luiseño, claiming that by which we were part of, the San Luis Rey River. Not to belittle others experiences or sense of belonging, but a thought I fight every time a local screams at me, or stabs at my color. The urge to tell my story lingers on my lips, waiting for its departure to their salt-crusted ears. Another set has come, taking with it the surfer who felt the need to remind me of where he’s from. I look back towards the land and splash the water; it’s brown from the rains pushing sediment from the mountains. That sediment is the dust of my ancestors.

Tommy Devers is a member of the Pauma Band of Mission Indians. He grew up on the reservation and started surfing at 19 through a course at a local community college. He currently works to introduce youth to the ocean and everything that comes with it.