Opinion

Tommy Devers: Confronting localism and racism on my homelands






Native youth participate in an Native Surf and Wellness Camp on Kumeyaay territory in southern California. Photo: InterTribal Youth

Tommy Devers, a citizen of the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, shares a story about surfing in southern California:
“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?

Read More on the Story:
Tommy Devers: An Indian and the Sea (Indian Country Today 1/4)