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May 17, 2012

PART 1: Q&A with Native Hawaiian Surfer & Craftsman Tom "Pōhaku” Stone

Surfer Tom "Pōhaku” Stone carries one of his own creations near his home in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

For this year's celebration of Native Hawaiian art, history and culture, the museum welcomes Tom “Pōhaku” Stone, a Native Hawaiian carver from O`ahu, Hawai`i, as an artist-in-residence from Sunday, May 20, through Friday, May 25. Stone will spend the week in the museum's Potomac Atrium creating a traditional Hawaiian surfboard (
papahe´enalu) and sled (papaholua) in front of visitors.

In the first of a two-part Q&A, Stone talks about traditional Hawaiian culture and what it takes to make a great surfboard. 

Tell me about growing up in Hawai`i. What are some of your earliest childhood memories? 

The earliest is living and growing up on the beaches of Kahana Bay, Waimanalo, Waikīkī, Kailua, where I learned the ways of the ocean, to fish and surf. I had an opportunity to surf with [Olympic swimmer and legendary surfer] Duke [Kahanamoku], Blue, Steamboat, and the other beachboys of the time. I had the chance to ride those great wood boards they had then. My dad carved the first board I owned. I had time to live with my grandfather, who told a lot of stories about leaping off of cliffs and sliding down the mountainsides on leaves and hōlua sleds. I also grew up in a remote area of the Big Island in a place called Hawi on my great-uncle's ranch. I lived everywhere throughout Hawai`i, learning our cultural traditions.

What are some of the most common misconceptions you come across about Hawai`i and its indigenous culture? 

That we as Hawaiians are not alive anymore; that surfing is the sport of kings only; that women did not participate in traditional Native Hawaiian sports such as surfing and hōlua sledding.

What can you tell me about the history of surfing? When did it become popular?

I know for a fact that surfing is uniquely Hawaiian, and that surfing (standing on a craft made specifically for the purpose) as we know it began in Hawai'i and no other place in the world. Hawai`i is the only place in the world where the artifacts are found that connect us to this ancient sport, the Hawaiian people, or Kanaka Maoli, as we are properly referred to.

Surfing would become popular when Alexander Hume Ford, along with the annexationists (individuals who conspired to take our nation with the help of the U.S.) needed to sell a tourist destination. Surfing was the most attractive cultural activity that called out to affluent foreigners who were seeking adventure and the experience of going native, which would become world-renowned during the 1920s. Duke would become in essence the "Hawaiian poster" surfer. Duke shared his ocean knowledge with anyone who wished to learn, including myself as a young boy.

Stone poses with a collection of boards near his home. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

What stories do you remember hearing as a child? Do you now tell the same stories? 

The great feats of surfing, paddling across the channels between the islands, the great leaps of faith from high cliffs, learning to fly like the birds, hōlua; I still tell the stories, but now I also include my experiences as a means of keeping our history and culture alive for generations to come.

Tell me about the “Pohaku” in your name. What does it mean? Where did it come from? Why the quotes?

Pōhaku is the Hawaiian word for "stone" or "rock," but in the deeper meaning Pōhaku means "Master of Darkness," which comes from a Hawaiian concept of someone who is given the responsibility to preserve life, and where that life originates from—the darkness itself.

For our family, we would hānai, or adopt, this name in the early 1860s, when all Native Hawaiian children born after 1860 were required to have an English surname. This was a law initiated by white American business and missionary men who had now dominated our Hawaiian government. A man named Samuel Stone arrived in Hawai`i during this time, and my family hosted him in our home. Alomalie, our great ancestor, would eventually have a son who would be named Samuel Stone—not because Samuel Stone actually fathered this boy, but because it gave my family the opportunity to abide by the laws of our Kingdom and adopt the name Stone. Our actual name is Mahihelelima, who was the last great Kohala Ali`inui of Hana, Maui as well.

When did you first learn to surf? What was it like? What made you want to continue? 

I was four years old when I can first remember riding a wave with the wind coming at me and the water splashing off of the sides. I was six years old when I paddled out to Waikīkī, caught my first wave on a giant board that belonged to [Hawaiian wrestler] Curtis Laukea. At eight, I carried one of the great wood boards to the water and surfed at Canoes, a famous spot at Waikīkī. Riding a wave has never changed for me. It is that glide across the face of the wave as it takes you on a ride that is one-on-one with you and the mana, or energy, of the ocean.

Stone works on a traditional Hawaiian surfboard (papahe’enalu). Photo courtesy of the artist. 

How did you first learn to carve boards? Can you tell me about the history behind the tradition?

My dad actually carved me a board from wood, and I was fortunate to watch him go through the entire process, so I would have to say that it was my dad who taught me the traditional art of surfboard carving. There were others like Duke, Blue, Steamboat, Rabbit who I would get to watch, and my grandfather (tūtū kahanu), who would tell me stories about the old time and places. Like all other cultural practices of my people, this was what all people know how to make since we all would surf and play in the ocean. But there were individuals who are masters at the art of surfboard-making and riding a wave on all types of boards crafted for the art of wave-riding. It would be these individuals who would make surfboards for the Ali`i Nui (chief).

What are the basic steps of carving a board? What makes a board more successful than others?

The real basic step is how you bless the wood so the spirit of the actual tree that provides the piece remains alive while it goes through its rebirth. Preparing it means that the wood might be buried in a lo`i kalo, buried in sand, or submersed in the ocean—for years depending on the size—to remove the sap and place in it other natural elements that would stabalize the wood to keep it from twisting or cracking, and perhaps to change its color. The board would then go through a slow drying process while it was worked on, which could take years using stone implements. This, in the end, is what traditionally makes one board more successful then another.

Meet Stone in person during his artist-in-residency, or join him and other Hawaiian artists at this year's annual Celebrate Hawai`i festival on Saturday and Sunday, May 26 & 27, 2012.

For the full schedule of events, visit our website.

To read Part 2 of our Q&A, click here.


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I find your blog very interesting since I really like surfing. But I admit that I don't know how to surf. It's just that everytime I saw a person surfing especially if it's a woman, I really feel envious. I don't know, no matter how I like a sport but if it's really not for me, then I couldn't do anything but just look at them and wow from afar. Cheers! -Lisa

I love this blog, so much great information. I learned a lot from this blog and plan on using what I learned to better my self. Thanks so much for your post and I will subscribe to your blog right away

I learned more in this short article about Pōhaku and surfboards. It was a fun, interesting post.

Now if there was only a way to get to Hawaii next week to meet Stone in person. ; )

Thanks for your excellent article!

How interesting to live since childhood so in touch with nature, just learn the art of making a surfboard as ancestrally ago, thank you very much

nice share bro,

Your blog site is excellent. Say thanks to you truly for providing plenty of both useful and interesting advise. I will bookmark bookmark your website and will be absolutely coming back. Again, I truly appreciate all your work furthermore providing plenty of worthwhile info for the audience.

Hello molly,

A great blog you've got. I really appreciate what you are doing. Thanks man!

I've read this article and find the story really interesting. I did not know before how people where making such things with wood, but now I know!

Best regards,


I'd like to surf but where I live the waves are very low and I can't. I wish a day I'll travel to Hawaii or California and have a try as they're wonderful places and there you can smell the real essence of this sport.

I know surfing originally come from Hawaii, but few people know it, as happens every time that something becomes famous around the world and so loses its origins. In this article it's clear that in those places surf still has a strong spiritual sense and not just a commercial one.

Thats a really cool looking board! You hardly ever see anyone with interesting boards nowadays

I love this blog, so much great information. I learned a lot from this blog and plan on using what I learned to better my self. Thanks so much for your post and I will subscribe to your blog right away

Nice to still see someone crafting by hand those boards are awesome.

They should be as respected and promoted as all other more mainstream sports.
Cheers to native Hawaiian Surfer!!

Respect. Here in South Africa when I learned to surf in '67 the shortest board was 11 foot plus. Some were hollow and of wood and they were damn heavy.You really needed two guys to get it to the waters edge if it was some distance .We were just starting to get fiber glass ones out on the surf. To plane out a solid board like you did is real tradition. Very rare these jiffy fix days.

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