Scholar, Activist, Educator, Surfer

People 05.15.20

On the North Shore in 1980, she was one of the few women out there surfing the epic Pipeline. “Was I well-received? Hell no. It was intimidating, and all guys,” says Dina Gilio-Whitaker.

Eventually, she left Hawai'i for academic life and work on the mainland, far from the ocean’s waves. By 2009, the surfer-scholar was in New Mexico, deep in her studies of Indigenous culture — and reconnecting to her own Native identity. Out of the blue one day, her boyfriend from her surfing days on the North Shore reached out, and the two rekindled their long-ago romance.

“It was definitely destiny,” she says. The couple ended up marrying and moving to San Clemente, not far from where she’d lived as a child. Dina’s return to Southern California and the beaches where she had first tried body surfing led her to San Onofre State Park. It’s where she goes stand-up paddle surfing, not far from sites that have been sacred to Native peoples along the coast for more than 10,000 years.

Love brought her here, and she continues her scholarly pursuits and teaching — often focused on the intersections of indigeneity and surf culture. That includes documenting the work of Native activists in the “Save Trestles” campaign to stop a toll road from carving up the San Onofre park and its world-famous surf spot, and writing an essay for The Critical Surf Studies Reader published in 2017.

“We consider ourselves stewards of this place,” she says while standing barefoot in the sand at San Onofre. Dina serves as a board member with the San Onofre Park Foundation and she works with groups who help to connect Native youth to the environment, natural science, and the ocean.

Dina says it's amazing and affirming to see interest in her work, and she recognizes it as part of an awakening of interest in the important lessons that Indigenous people may be able to share. “Native people are not the perfect environmentalists,” she says. “We’ve made mistakes. But after all that we’ve been through, we have knowledge about adaptability and sustainability — how to adapt and survive.”

In the face of ongoing threats to Native communities and the environment, Dina says she has no plans of stopping her teaching and advocacy.

“How do I manage stress?” she says. “I surf.”

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