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In the Name of the Duke

Thirty-Five Years After His Death, a Trademark War Has Pulled Hawaiian Surf Pioneer Duke Kahanamoku Into an Unpredictable Undertow

November 16, 2003|Patti Paniccia

Charlie Carr, dressed in shorts, an aloha shirt and a pair of beach slippers, sits on a picnic bench overlooking the ocean at Alii Beach Park on the island of Oahu, remembering the moment when he finally and fully understood his predicament.

Five years ago, he watched Mahina Paoa Rapu, a relative of legendary surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku of Hawaii, unwrap a tiny replica of the large Tiki-like statues that sit on her native Rapa Nui, commonly known as Easter Island. "It was carved from the femur bone of [Rapu's] grandfather," says Carr. "It was extremely sacred and she was showing me, 'This is how I take care of my bones.' " He remembers that she asked about Kahanamoku: "What are you doing with [his] bones?"

Carr does not possess Kahanamoku's bones, but he does share something of great commercial value--trademark rights to the name of one of the most beloved men in the history of Hawaii. Duke Kahanamoku, known simply as "Duke" or "the Duke," is credited as the father of surfing and winner of five Olympic swimming medals. He became known worldwide after he won his first gold medal and broke the world record for the 100-meter freestyle at the 1912 Olympics. He was one of the first Hawaiians to enter the consciousness of mainland America and he was a shining source of pride for Islanders.

Watching the Duke's distant relative coddle her family relic, Carr realized that his venture was not solely about commerce. He had become a caretaker of Duke Kahanamoku's spirit.

The story of how Carr, a Santa Monica resident, acquired the rights and why he possesses only half of them hints at a little-known, decade-long trademark war that still entangles Carr, a charitable foundation connected to Hawaii's elite Outrigger Canoe Club, a Waikiki restaurant, several large clothing manufacturers, a Delaware bankruptcy court and various Kahanamoku family members, none of whom are direct descendants because the Duke had no children.

More significant, though, is the anger that the war has aroused among native Hawaiians, who perceive it as an appalling exploitation of a revered cultural icon. The conflict brings into focus a growing tension in Hawaii, unseen by most tourists, but a bitter, daily reality to island natives--a stinging reminder of a culture lost to commercialism. It fits into a larger picture with corrosive, cumulative effects--a freeway here, a high-rise there, a shopping center that partially blocks a mountain view, a gated community that closes off a beach access and ever-increasing real estate prices that prevent many indigenous islanders from buying homes. To Hawaiians, the carving up of Duke's trademark represents not only the buying and selling of a name, but the buying and selling of Hawaii itself.

"The Duke's story doesn't surprise me," says Haunani-Kay Trask, professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii. "It just makes me angry because I know that story over and over again. It is a story of perdition."

The trademark conflict has run hot and cold over the years, alternating between episodes of frenzied litigation and long periods of inactivity. Although it has been dormant since 1999, another skirmish has surfaced, this one over whether a small Oxnard-based corporation--engaged to market the Duke's trademark and manage the income--has done an adequate job.

"Surfing is on fire," says Dave Gilovich of Surfline.com, an online provider of worldwide surf reports. "Never have the lifestyle and culture been as heavily promoted, marketed and pushed to the American mainstream."

Last year, the surfwear industry generated $2.4 billion in sales. Quiksilver, the industry's most successful manufacturer and maker of the Roxy brand, sold $700 million of surf-related merchandise and is projected to reach $900 million this year. Whoever controls the Duke trademark stands to reap hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from clothing manufacturers, restaurants, surfboard makers and other commercial entities that are anxious to ride the wave of surfing's growing popularity. Among them are a large Waikiki hotel that has inquired about naming one of its towers after Duke, and the makers of Monopoly, who canceled plans to use Kahanamoku's name in their newly released Surfing Monopoly for fear of getting sucked into the trademark dispute's vicious undertow.

to understand how one man's legacy can cause such controversy, it's important to understand the Duke. And to understand the Duke is to appreciate the irony of the situation.

Kahanamoku, a full-blooded Hawaiian, was born in 1890, the oldest of six brothers and three sisters. At age 21 he won gold and silver medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. When the 1916 Olympiad was canceled during World War I, he raised money for the Red Cross by giving surfing and swimming exhibitions from the Atlantic seaboard to Australia, attracting thousands wherever he went. While on tour, he became one of the first American athletes to challenge the color barrier.

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