Making Waves with Maluhia Kinimaka


Maluhia Kinimaka, a rising Junior at Stanford, has known how to surf since before she could even walk — and we’re barely exaggerating. Somewhere in Malu’s home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai — so-called “Garden Isle”, population 65 thousand — there is a picture of her as a “a wee little tot” grinning from between her father’s legs on his surfboard, riding her first waves. Her father is a retired big wave surfer and owns a surf school that he took over from one of his brothers when he passed away. Malu worked her way from small, local competitions, to state-wide contests, to nationals, and, seemingly out of the blue, stopped just before the internationally qualifying series. Malu loved surfing — why stop?

To understand Malu’s story, you have to go backwards. The ocean is crucial not just for her father — who grew up by the sea alongside eight brothers and eight sisters (yep, you read that right) — but just about for the entire family. Malu’s mom runs the surf school, and Malu’s sister is following the path that Malu left behind: surfing and modeling for Roxy, a surf company.

You’d never expect it at first glance, but Malu was always the tomboy of the family. “I was very much a goober,” she says, laughing. “My mom was very supportive of however I wanted to act or dress, so long as I was being a kind person.” Her sister is in many ways the yin to Malu’s yang. “She was the girly, feminine, creative one,” Malu says. “I’ve never been easily gifted with writing or art.” Despite that, or maybe because of it, Malu and her sister are very close. What about her parents? “My mom keeps shit together, and my dad is the one who adds spice to life,” Malu says, laughing.

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But Malu’s talents riding waves traces even further back than just the influences of a water-loving family. In Hawaii, the surfing tradition has been passed on for generations and generations. “For Hawaiian families, surfing has been in our culture for a long time,” Malu says. “It’s an outlet.” Malu feels especially connected to surfing because of her indigenous roots. “My mom is from Pacifica, and my dad is full native Hawaiian,” she says. “I’m a half child: we call them Hapa.” What’s the relation with surfing? “It originated as a chiefly sport,” Malu says. “High ranking peoples were surfers. Pre-western contact, the ocean was a holy thing from where natives got all of their sustenance.” To this day, the ocean figures heavily in traditional chants. “Surfing is a way of tapping into this natural power,” Malu says.

When Hawaii was colonized by missionaries, they forbade traditional indigenous dress, languages, and traditions because these were deemed ungodly. “Surfing was one of the only ways Hawaiian culture could be expressed,” Malu says. “That was one place Hawaiians could still excel in the Western perspective. They weren’t good at being leaders, or at being educated [in the Western view]. But they were really good at being water men.”

One would think the situation has greatly evolved since then, but maybe not as much as we would hope. In a way, surfing is a form of cultural affirmation against the colonized mind, and Malu sees herself as playing into this ancient lineage. “It’s one way that I can perpetuate my culture and be somewhat respected,” she says. “Especially as a woman. You don’t see many girls surfing at a high level.”

So, it begs the question —  why stop? 

Images courtesy of Maine Kinimaka

Well, for one, patriarchal implications. “There’s an aspect of surfing that’s very sexualized,” Malu says. “It’s all about, ‘how many Instagram followers do you have? How many likes do you get? How can we market you?’ That’s a lot of pressure, being a woman.”

Ultimately it all came down to one thing: stress. “Surfing used to be a place where I could meditate, think, straighten my life out,” Malu says. “Competing sucked the joy out of it. I was getting burned out from the pressure of having to perform at such a high level.” And this high level demanded an equally high time commitment: it wasn’t just the time it takes to get to the beach, suit up, and hit the waves. Malu describes surfing at her level as “full time commitment”. It meant that, but also constantly having to push your body further, going over videos, etc.

Some might see it as a loss, but Malu doesn’t regret her decision. Even her father, who was always the biggest proponent of Malu’s surfing, was behind it. “His statement was, ‘You can surf better than 95 percent of boys out there, so I’m satisfied’,” Malu says, laughing. And it would seem that her decision paid off: after all, she is studying engineering here at Stanford.

Besides, coming from Hawaii, even Californian surf conditions are bound to be disappointing. And having to travel an hour to get good waves wasn’t the only difficult change Malu had to learn to adapt to. “When I came here, I was very overwhelmed,” Malu says. “Kauai is so small. If you do something shitty to someone, you’re gonna see that person tomorrow or the next day. It gets annoying: you do one thing and the next day your parents are like, ‘I heard you did this and this’!” Malu laughs. “But you learn to respect people, treat them like you want to be treated. Here, you do something shitty and never have to see that person again. At Stanford, you’re afforded more privacy, but you’re also lonelier.” Next year, however, Malu is looking forward to living with her friends in Muwekma, the native themed house on the Row. 

But overall Malu is excited to see what Stanford can bring her. While she does eventually want to go back to Hawaii and try to slowly mend the old scars of colonization, it is all a process, and being at Stanford is a key step. “Coming here, you could take Hawaiian language classes,” Malu says. “I can understand and read it pretty well, and finally learned to write and respond. Malu knows that learning more about her culture is especially important if she wants to find ways to fix its problems, and Malu is still trying to decide how she fits into all of that. “As an engineering major, it’s hard to see how I can be of direct benefit,” she says. “I could invent a new type of energy that would make profits… but that doesn’t necessarily solve anything. I want to co-term and finish my pre-med requirements, maybe become a doctor to help people directly.” Another promising avenue is politics. Malu doesn’t see herself as much of a speaker, but she believes that Stanford could give her the necessary tools to educate political groups. One of the biggest problems Malu sees today is that that Hawaiian natives are not granted the benefits afforded to American or Alaskan natives. “In the 70ies and early 80ies, Hawaiians were demanding to be recognized as natives,” Malu explains. To this day, no federal recognition has been granted, and Native Hawaiians are not being allotted the same benefits available to federally recognized Indian tribes.

Malu and other Native students feel that subliminal oppression still persists, even at a place like Stanford. “Frats have things like Luau,” Malu says, refering to Kappa Sig’s recently “Hawaiian themed” party. “I actively boycott it. It’s a cultural thing, and they know it is — and they blatantly choose not to care. Anything the native community has tried to send them, they are just like, ‘oh, whatever’. People don’t know how much my people have suffered.”

Overall, it seems that Malu has moved on to tackling bigger waves than just the ones in the sea. “I feel like I was guided here by something out of my control,” Malu says. “And I’m super thankful for it every day.” 

By: Anne-Sophie Bine

Photography by: Yoojin Rhee

Styling by: Ramin Ahmari

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