She’s not your average Aussie surfer. Until just over a year ago, she’d never even touched a surf board. But when Jasirah Bin Hitam stands up on a wave, she’s in her element.
The 16-year-old from One Arm Point, a remote Aboriginal community in the Kimberley, studies at a Perth girls’ school under a scholarship from the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program. Since she’s been in Perth, Jasirah has developed a taste for a sport in which Australians excel – but for this Bardi girl, riding the waves has a deeper meaning.
Jasirah (pictured) is among a growing number of Indigenous Australians who have discovered surfing as a way to keep in touch with their culture and identity. The Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles that ran in late May is just one example of how Indigenous surfing is taking off around the nation. However, there’s also something about the nature of this sport that makes it an important platform for reconciliation among young people.
“Life back home is pretty chilled,” Jasirah says.
Sitting on the Dampier Peninsula, 2446 kilometres north of Perth, One Arm Point has a population of about 300 people from the Bardi nation. For thousands of years, the ocean has been an integral part of life for these saltwater people. For Bardi men, the daily catch includes dugongs, stingrays, crabs, fish and sea turtles.
Jasirah, too, has spent her life in and out of the water. “Just like swimming, fishing, going out on the boat – anything to do with water. I love it,” she says.
She’s also aware of the spiritual significance that the ocean has for her people. “Way back, my ancestors used to live on an island … so they had a strong connection with the ocean,” she says.
This relationship between man and ocean is evident in many of the Bardi dreaming stories. Jasirah recites one she was told at a young age, about how the turtles got out of Hunters Creek and into the sea. “There was this billabong, and they used to catch turtles. There was this old blind guy, and [the other men] gave him, like, rubbish meat … It wasn’t very good, and he knew the difference of the taste. So he went and he cut the billabong open, and set all the turtles free.”
When Jasirah moved into the boarding house at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in late 2011, it was no surprise that she felt like a fish out of water. She recalls it was “pretty tough” coming to a school that had more than a dozen students. “School [back home] wasn’t as intense as this school is, so we’d pretty much just rock up … and we wouldn’t get homework or assignments to do,” she says.
Things started to get easier for Jasirah when she got involved in a surfing program run by the Indigenous Communities Education and Awareness Foundation – a youth-run reconciliation body. ICEA Waves is a surf mentoring program that gives young Aboriginal people like Jasirah a chance to have a go at surfing, by pairing them with non-Indigenous surf mentors.
Jasirah’s natural talent shone through as she attended the monthly winter sessions last year. In September, she was the first Indigenous person to compete in the ICEA Classic – an annual surfing event that celebrates Aboriginal and surfing cultures. She also won the Biggest Frother Award for her endless enthusiasm in the program.
Jasirah says she likes surfing because it reminds her of home. “Just getting out in the water – it’s really calming,” she says. “My dad thinks it’s awesome. He’s like, ‘Yeah you should keep it up!’ … he’s really proud of me.”
For Ingrid Cumming, a Nyoongar woman and CEO of Indigenous consultancy Kart Koort Wiern, surfing has always been a big part of life. Cumming started surfing at five-years-old after watching her father out in the water. She puts her love of surfing down to “that rush of being in the ocean and catching a wave”. “It’s pretty groovy,” she says.
But from a cultural perspective, she says the ocean also has a spiritual importance to her, especially at her preferred surf break – the Cove in Cottesloe. “That particular area holds a very significant storyline about me and my totems and my birth,” she says.
The Indigenous history behind Perth’s most famous beach – Cottesloe – is largely unknown to its visitors, even those who live nearby. According to Cottesloe Council’s records, the location was an ancient ceremonial site known as Mudurup to the Nyoongar people, meaning an area of yellow-finned whiting. As part of the initiation process, young men were brought here to learn about Kurannup – the destination of the spirits beyond the western coast. It was believed that ravens helped to carry the spirits away towards their final resting place over the horizon between Rottnest and Garden Islands.
It’s this strong cultural background that makes the Cove a perfect location to hold the ICEA Classic, which strives to incorporate Aboriginal teachings into a day of surfing. In a gathering of Indigenous and non-Indigenous youths, the event usually kicks off with a welcome to country, before a Nyoongar elder tells a dreaming story of the ocean. As for the surfing, once the competition has wound up, anyone from the crowd can jump in and have a go in the Expression Session.
The fourth annual ICEA Classic coming up in August draws a parallel between surfing culture and Aboriginal culture – which are both formed around people’s connection to the environment.
ICEA Classic Co-ordinator Oliver Angliss says it’s the relaxed nature of the sport that helps break down cultural barriers. “This sort of non-threatening environment is perfect for building relationships, [and therefore] a good opportunity to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous camps together,” he explains. “There are so many young and eager individuals in our local community concerned about reconciliation and wanting to engage and learn about Aboriginal culture … If you find the right medium, you can bring two separate culture groups together in a unified way.”
Angliss says he’d love to see some of ICEA’s Indigenous participants really take up surfing and continue to have a crack at it throughout their lives.
Jasirah says she’s not really interested in competitive surfing, but her goal is to keep improving. As for what she wants to do when she finishes school: “Probably marine biology or something – something to do with the ocean.”
Photography: Louise Rennie