Humans use their hands to communicate different things. A middle finger in the air while driving: anger, frustration. An index and middle finger in the air with the rest held together: peace. At a bar, peace could also mean two more beers please. Gangs use unique hand signs as monikers, so gang members can show to whom they pledge their allegiance. In the surf world, the definitive hand sign is the shaka.
The shaka has contested origins. The most common story is that descendant of Hawaiian ali’i (chiefs), skilled waterman, and beloved community leader Hamana Kalili popularized the gesture as a result of unfortunate circumstances. While working at the Kahuku Sugar Mill, so the story goes, Hamana suffered an accident and lost his index, middle, and ring fingers. As a result he was reassigned to work as a security guard for the sugar cane railroad. Some say that Hamana would wave his hand when the train was clear to move, others say he would use it to wave kids off the tracks. Still others say the local kids used to test their luck by taking sugar canes off the train, but when Hamana was there he’d give them a hard time, so they developed a way to signal each other when Hamana was on guard.
Alternative theories hold the shaka was born from Spanish travelers that would make the gesture holding their thumb to their lips, representing sharing a drink with the locals. Or that one of the first surfers in Hawaii invented the sign when a shark bit off his middle fingers in the water, which he then waved in the air to alert his surfing compatriots. Or that ancient Polynesians would use their pinky and thumb extended to measure the stars, guiding their canoes to the Hawaiian Islands.
Whatever the origins of the hand gesture, they don’t account for the name itself: the shaka. Similarly, there is much debate about where the word comes from. It’s not a Hawaiian word. Most credit the proliferation of the word to local Honolulu TV host Lippy Espinda who’d use it to sign off. But the word itself may come from an ancient Buddha named Shakyamuni who would fold his fingers into shakas when praying. An alternative theory holds “shaka” comes from “shark eye”–a compliment to others. It could also be a derivation of “shake it up”.
Since its Hawaiian origin, the “shaka” has become an intrinsic part of surf culture, and no longer specific to Hawaii. It’s a gang sign of sorts–to show your allegiance to the club.