Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hawaii – 2,000 years of snowboarding history


Last week you might have thought we covered everything worth knowing about snowboarding in Hawaii. Well it turns out that there is another interesting story about snowboarding in Hawaii and for this we have to look back in time at the origins of snowboarding.

Snowboarding as we know it today evolved from the invention of the Snurfer in the US in the mid sixties. The snowboard, however, is not an especially complicated invention and because of this it has been cropping up independently in a number of unconnected places and points through history. One of those places appears to have been Hawaii and they’ve been at it for about a couple of thousand years before our young whippersnapper branch of the sport came into existence.
Initially, when I heard that Hawaiians had invented a snowsport I was expecting it to look something like this...

But then I had a dose of reality and realised it was probably going to be more like this...
But, before becoming the 50th US State and adopting fast food as a national dish, it appears that the Hawaiians were a little more agile.
It is thought that around two thousand years ago, at the time that Jesus was spending his spare time getting stapled to crosses, the Hawaiian’s were finding a much more fun use for wood. It was around this time that they famously invented surfing, which is now Hawaii’s most familiar sports legacy. But they didn’t stop there, because clearly these guys had lots of time on their hands, and they developed a whole raft of pastimes. I guess you have time for that sort of thing when you live on a tropical island with lots of food, very few invading armies and no TV. The sports they invented included things like lele pali (cliff jumping), ulumaika (stone rolling) and pahe'e (javelin).
Not all these sports are as extreme as they sound, the stone rolling one was pretty much their version of croquet, but on the whole these old school Hawaiian’s were very extreme. Their version of the javelin, for example, was not just your standard chucking-a-javelin-as-far-as-you-can event. Nope, they would throw the javelins at each other. And the idea of the game wasn’t just to avoid getting hit. Nope, the idea was to try and catch them and chuck them back. The really good guys would allow six other guys to rain javelins down on them, all at once, while they caught them or fended them off. It was essentially a sharp, pointy, bloody terrifying version of dodge ball.
This reminds me of the article I wrote a few weeks ago about extreme sports getting soft these days.
Today this is considered to be an accident.
The ancient Hawaiians considered this to be a sport.
In amongst all this assorted sporting invention the Hawaiians also had time to create the sport of he'ehölua (mountain surfing).
Tom Pohaku Stone, a renowned surfer, has dedicated his time to researching and reintroducing this sport. He describes the sport on his website:
‘He'ehölua (over 2,000 years old) is similar to surfing a wave except it is done on a rock foundation on a sled that is usually 12 feet long, 6 inches wide, and 4 inches in depth, and weighing approximately 30 - 60 pounds; capable of reach speeds of 50 mph+’

The sled is called a papa hölua which depending on which website you read means either "to slide down the hill" or "to slide into the pit" in Hawaiian and you can ride it lying down, kneeling or standing up and riding it like a surf board. Stone believes the sleds were first used as tools to move tree logs, and then were adapted to be used in "a ritual by which Hawaiians put their lives in the hands of the gods”
The bulk of the time this sport took place on specially built rock slides. Some of the slides were nearly a mile long and you only rode on these if you were willing to sacrifice yourself, because one mistake and you were a gonna.

A chap called William Ellis toured Hawaii and wrote a book about it in 1823. In his book he wrote about seeing this sport first hand and he also recorded the some of the stories that came with the sport. The one that sticks out is the story of a guy called Kahavari who, and this happens to me all the time too, gets into a sledding race against Pele the goddess of the volcanoes. Pele gets a bit pissed off with Kahavari because he not only beats her in the race, but he then refuses to let her have a go on his toy. Then all hell breaks loose and Pele goes mental, starting a lava flow that chases Kahavari off the mountain. The lava quickly engulfs the spectators while the brave hero pegs it. During his fleeing he has time to greet his favorite pig before he says goodbye to his wife, his mum, his sister and his kids before they are burned to death. He then scarpers away to safety by stealing his brother’s boat, also leaving his brother and his family to die.
Kahavari - the legendary coward
What is the hell is this story all about? Ellis tried to understand the moral but it didn’t make much sense to him either. I think the main moral is - don’t get into a snowboard race with the greatest footballer of all time.

But the big question is - Did they he'ehölua on snow?
Global warming - Ace!

There is a lot of proof still in existence today to show that this sport existed in it’s rock sledding incarnation, like the remains of the rock slides themselves. What is less clear though, due to the inherent meltablibity of snow, is did the Hawaiians also ride the papa hölua on snow? We know from last week that there is snow to be found in Hawaii and Tom Stone certainly thinks it is very possible. In an article in Whitelines 78 by Chris Moran, Tom Stone was asked if he thought people had used these sleds on the snow.
“Yup. That’s why we have the ancient mythologies of the competitions between the snow goddess Polyahu, and Pele the fire goddess.”
Goddess fight!

There are some physical signs that it happened because there are the remains of a slide in the crater of Hale’akala which gets covered in snow in the winter months. And it's certainly possible as Stone has proven by riding these sleds on the snow himself. So it is very probable that these guys were some of the earliest snowboarders.

He'ehölua was as popular as surfing until about 200 years ago when missionaries stopped the fun because it was a little too dangerous and barbaric for them. Sounds pretty similar to the skiing fraternity’s response to snowboarding back in the day. You would have thought that a bunch of mentalists like the Hawaiians could have stood up for the sport against a few guys in dresses, but apparently the one major difference between this sport and ours is the lack of an anti-establishment ethos.
These days Tom Pohaku Stone is busy reintroducing the sport, but strangely he has not managed to get anyone to try the mile long death slide. Here is a video of Tom Stone and his chums having a go at he'ehölua. Notice like all soft modern sportsmen they try it on some nice soft grass.

So there you go folks. It is 78.2% definite that the ancient Hawaiians were snowboarders. Hope you enjoyed the education. It did my head in, having to use 'actual facts' in an article.
On a side note, while researching this article, I noticed that there are a hell of a lot of pictures of Pele on the Internet and they all seem to have one thing in common - gratuitous nudity…
Like this...

or like this..

or this...
Yeah gods!
Anyhoo, if you want to read related articles check out:

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