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No Wipe-out! Native Surfing Legend Johnny Rice Rides Life’s Biggest Wave

Native Americans have made their mark on the popular sport of surfing and its vibrant subculture throughout history, take for instance Johnny Rice.

American Indians excel in all walks of life, including sports, and some have become legends. Jim Thorpe, Billy Mills and Notah Begay come to mind because of their excellence in high-profile mainstream sports. Other sports are less accessible for a number of reasons. Surfing—an ancient indigenous sport in Hawaii—is a sport not typically associated with Native Americans, even coastal dwelling peoples, at least in North America. But look closer and you’ll see American Indians are making their mark on that popular sport and its vibrant subculture. Such is the case with Santa Cruz surfing legend Johnny Rice, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomie.

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If Rice’s story as an American Indian surfing legend is unusual, his story as an American Indian is sadly familiar. He grew up at a time when American Indians were surviving policies of forced assimilation, the abuses of the boarding schools, and the subsequent disintegration of family, tribe, and culture. No family was left unscathed, and the historic trauma that commonly manifests as addiction and a host of other psychosocial dysfunctions, touched too many to count, including the Rice family.

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John Clayton Rice was born in Indiana in 1938 to a non-Native mother and full-blood father, a medical doctor and Naval commander who moved the family to Santa Cruz, California when Johnny was very young. The father reportedly left the family in 1945, and Johnny never saw him again. His mother, who remarried a few years later, told her son over and over to never tell anybody he was Indian. Instilled with a sense of shame about his heritage, Rice would have to travel a long road back to his cultural roots.

Santa Cruz was the first known place where standup board surfing was done in the continental U.S. In 1885, three Hawaiian princes attending military school in nearby San Mateo astounded crowds by riding the frigid, shark-infested waves on redwood planks at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. The seed of American surf culture had been planted.

But surfing would not take off in earnest until the turn of the century, after another Hawaiian, George Freeth, began teaching it to brave souls in Los Angeles in 1907. It was a few decades before surfing took hold in Santa Cruz, where Rice would become known as one of the grandfathers of Santa Cruz surf culture. In 1946, after learning to bodysurf (riding waves without a board, like a dolphin), Rice witnessed surfers at the same river mouth where the Hawaiian princes were spotted 51 years earlier and vowed to learn to surf.

In 1953 when Rice was a teenager he moved to Southern California with his now-remarried mother and stepfather. As a student at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach he met the woman he’d marry decades later, Rosemari Russell, who in the 1950s became one of the first female champion surfers in California. The 1950s was a time when surfing’s popularity was exploding thanks to the genre of Hollywood surf movies that centered the new lifestyle in Malibu. Many of today’s surfing legends came out of this period and some of the characters in movies like Gidget were based on them. One of those legends was the celebrated surfboard shaper Dale Velzy, widely considered the grandfather of modern surfboard design, and from whom Rice learned to shape boards. Rice became one of the Malibu crew alongside big-wave pioneers Mickey Muñoz and Greg Noll, and surf stars Mickey Dora and Dewey Weber.

Rice joined the Coast Guard after graduating from high school in 1956. In 1959 he moved to Hawaii and that year won the prestigious Diamond Head Paddle Race, defeating even the best Hawaiian paddlers. He spent many years traveling the world, surfing and shaping boards, and even received a U.S. Merchant Marine license, but always returned to his hometown of Santa Cruz. Despite the seemingly idyllic lifestyle, an alcohol and drug problem gripped him, complicating his life for decades. Still, even through the haze of his dysfunction, Rice continued to influence the surf industry through his dedication to surfboard innovation.

While Rice early on earned the respect of his peers by proving his prowess as a top-notch waterman, his credibility in the surfing world doesn’t derive from being a champion competition surfer, but from the respect he garnered as a board shaper. He began surfing at a time when boards were made of balsa or other woods. They were extremely heavy and cumbersome, and limited the type of surfing that could be done on them. In the mid-1950s when Rice began his shaping career, surfboard design was transformed overnight with the introduction of polyurethane foam, making boards lighter and easier to mass produce. This revolutionized board design, enabling radical new forms of surfing. Rice was on the cutting edge of that revolution, among the shapers whose design experimentation redefined the sport. In the early 1970s he moved to Brazil, bringing the new innovations with him and influencing an entire generation of Brazilian surfers who today rank at the top of the world’s professional surf scene.

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In 1986 Rice reconnected with his high school sweetheart Rosemari and they married in 1989. She encouraged Rice to research his Native family tree and reconnect with his family. That quest seems to have had a positive effect on other parts of his life. Rosemari recalls: “One day Johnny came home and announced he decided to quit drinking and quit cold, just like that. Reconnecting with his roots had a very positive and healing effect on him.” Not long after, Rice became acquainted with renown Lakota beadwork artist Dorothy Brave Eagle and her husband, Dr. Chuck Ross, Lakota educator, book author and Sundance chief. A new spiritual door opened to him, Rice was brought into the Sundance tradition and fulfilled a four-year commitment, even after a quadruple heart bypass several years before he began dancing. “After Sundancing Johnny became a totally different person,” Rosemari says; in 1994 he became a drug and alcohol counselor.

Rice shared his love of surfing and board-shaping skills with the Quinault Nation in Washington State in the 1990s. Sending boards and wetsuits to the isolated community, he helped support the Quinaults to rejuvenate their ocean-based traditions through surfing, and brought the message of sobriety and spiritual healing.

Johnny Rice, now 76 and still married to Rosemari, was inducted into the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame in 2010. At the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, he figures prominently in the displays. He is recognized for his important contributions to the craft of surfboard shaping and his longevity in the Santa Cruz surfing community, right alongside the three Hawaiian princes that brought surfing to America. He is a living treasure and will forever be etched in the memory of Santa Cruz surfers and modern surf culture more broadly.

A special thanks to Rosemari Reimers-Rice for agreeing to talk with ICTMN.