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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

After riding the waves in theaters, the award-winning documentary “Waterman - Duke: Ambassador of Aloha,” about surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, is now streaming on PBS.org/americanmasters.

Narrated by actor Jason Momoa, the powerful new documentary tells the full story of Kahanamoku’s influence on surfing’s global popularity, his groundbreaking achievements, his Olympic medal-winning streak and the racist obstacles he conquered inside and outside the sporting world.

Film director Isaac Halasima, Polynesian, is drawing praise for his  documentary, "Waterman - Duke: Ambassador of Aloha," which tells the story of Native Hawaiian swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku, who shared the joys of surfing with the world in the early 1900s. The film debuted in theaters and then appeared on PBS' American Masters series. (Photo courtesy of Sidewinder Films)

Using rare archival footage, sleek contemporary visuals and new interviews, the film rides the big swell of Kahanamoku’s rise to fame and how he became the face of a changing Hawai’i, being officially named the state’s “Ambassador of Aloha.”

Among those interviewed for the film are surfers Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater (11-time world champion surfer) and Carissa Moore (Olympic surfing gold medalist); musician Jack Johnson; and David Davis, author of the book, “Waterman.”

In a Zoom interview with Indian Country Today, director Isaac Halasima, Polynesian, said he discovered Kahanamoku from his artist uncle, Jan Fisher, who was commissioned to make a statue to commemorate the surfer.

“Duke to him was everything,” Halasima said. “His ashes are spread just out in the water ahead of the statue. So for me, when I go to Hawaii, I go there, I tap the foot, where his signature is on it. And then just say, ‘Hi,’ to my uncle, and then sit with Duke.”

Halasima says his uncle is “the whole reason I exist.”

He said his mother, who was from Utah, went to live with Fisher in Hawaii and met the man who would become Halasima’s father, who had immigrated from Tonga.

“So, if he wasn't there, doing what he was doing, I mean, how do Tonga and Utah find a place to meet in the middle? And then they raised me in the arts,” he said.

Halasima started as a dancer, then ventured into TV shows and commercials, though his goal was always to be a director. His uncle suggested the Duke story.

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“My music videos I directed were blowing up; that's when my uncle hit me up and said, ‘Hey, you gotta look at the Duke story. You’re Polynesian, your connection to Hawaii is solid, give it a shot,’” he said.

“But then he died shortly after that, and that's when it really hit: I think I'm supposed to do this,” he said. “I just couldn't get it out of my head. I'm going to treat it like a surfer. I'm just going to go out there and look for a wave and then see what happens.”

Forging a new path

Kahanamoku forged a new path as a naturally fast swimmer and surfer.

Born Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku on Aug. 24, 1890, he was born one of nine children to a minor noble family three years before the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

He started breaking world swimming records with unimaginable speed, which landed him in trials in the United States. Traveling by boat and train took weeks in 1911, and his first race – in an indoor pool arena filled with cigar smoke – was a disaster, as he cramped up and lost.

Surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, shown here at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won a gold medal in freestyle swimming and a silver medal as a member of the U.S. team. He went on to win three other Olympic medals for swimming before introducing the world to the joys of surfing. (Photo courtesy of the T. DeLaVega Family Collection)

“Okay, new challenge!” Halasima said of Duke’s mentality. “People trying to stop him was just a challenge, that's just, the surfer, the Waterman, mentality. This is a guy that had never lost a race. He never lost anything. He was the best soccer player, baseball player in the school, too. He was the best at everything.”

After training with a professional, he learned to swim in non-salty pool water and went on to be a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming in 1912, 1920 and 1924 for the United States team. He also worked as a law enforcement officer and as an actor, and played beach volleyball.

Another Indigenous athlete at the time became his friend.

“He was extremely close with Jim Thorpe (Sac/Fox Nation),” Halasima said. “Thorpe joked with Duke. He said, ‘Well, I want you to get something, so I didn't swim.’”

When Thorpe was stripped of his medals for the pentathlon and decathlon after it was found he had been paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, it broke Kahanamoku’s heart. But it also scared him, because he saw that even though they were breaking racial barriers in 1912, they could still be discriminated against.

After his Olympic success, Duke's prowess, good looks and Olympic status landed him roles in Hollywood films. But a competing White athlete-turned-actor would steal his Hollywood fever dream.

“Johnny Weissmuller, his fellow Olympic swimmer, is the one that finally got Duke, he finally hit one where he can't cross the line,” Halasima said. “And the thing is, Hollywood, to their credit loved Duke. The problem they had is that he could not be seen with a White leading lady. The country was not a fan of interracial marriage, though Hawaii been doing interracial marriage for over 200 years, by that point. That was his biggest hurdle to overcome, and the big role of Tarzan went to Weismuller.”

Kahanamoku returned to Hawaii and popularized surfing on his homemade wooden boards, made from the wood of a koa tree.

Native Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, shown here in a 1931 photo in Waikiki, introduced surfing to the rest of the world in the early 1900s. He was five-time Olympic medalist in swimming but preferred his long wooden surfboard. A new documentary has been made about his life, "Waterman - Duke: Ambassador of Aloha." (Photo by Tom Blake, courtesy of the Croul Family Collection)

The sport took off around the world. After World War II, celebrities fell in love with Kahanamoku and surfing, and helped reignite the state's tourism. He was made an Ambassador of Aloha.

“He loved people and he loved competition,” Halasima said. “He wanted everyone to experience this thing that makes them so happy. That's the beauty of Hawaiian culture that Duke was spreading as a whole.”

He is a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and was the first person inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame and the Surfing Hall of Fame. He died Jan. 22, 1968 of a heart attack, and was buried at sea.

'Worldwide sensation'

The documentary is drawing praise from a variety of sources.

“‘Waterman’ and Duke’s creed of Aloha are exactly what people need right now,” said David Ulich, Waterman producer and co-founder of Sidewinder Films. “The film enjoyed tremendous success in theaters, and now we are excited to partner with PBS and the “American Masters” team to bring the Duke’s story to a wider audience.”

Co-producer Dr. Steven Ungerleider, also co-founder of Sidewinder Films, said the American Masters program is known for highlighting untold stories of men and women throughout history.

“It is fitting that Duke has now earned a spot alongside the other cultural icons presented on the series,” Ungerleider said.

Maxwell Rabb from the Chicago Reader calls the documentary “vigorously beautiful and deeply rich.”

He said it “presents a glimpse into the rarely understood beauty and depth of surfing culture and its Hawaiian origins.”

Halasima said Kahanamoku is credited with spreading surfing to the rest of the world from his Native Hawai’i.

“He turned this thing into a worldwide sensation,” Halasima said. “It's really crazy. This one guy takes their small hobby and turns it into one of the biggest sports in the entire world from this teeny little population in the middle of the ocean.

“It took 100 years for Duke’s dream of surfing to become an Olympic sport, but it happened.”

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