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Scott Laderman surfing Lake Superior
UMD Associate Professor Scott Laderman surfing Lake Superior. Photo by Bob Tema.

In 1993, Scott Laderman was faced with a simultaneous opportunity and responsibility. As a surfer, he knew that Indonesia offered thousands of islands with outstanding waves. As an activist, he was well aware of Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, an act so brutal that scholars refer to it as genocide. The disconnect intrigued him, “It sparked a question: What is it that surfers know about the rest of the world? How is the rest of the world presented to them?”

He was interning at “Surfer Magazine" at the time and pitched the story. The editors passed. A few years later, two East Timorese won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to resolve the conflict with Indonesia. Laderman reached out to the magazine once more, offering to broach the subject as a freelance journalist. The magazine never ran his story.

“It was the catalyst. It got me thinking about the politics of surfing. Is there a politics to presenting this very sanitized view of Indonesia and ignoring the reality?” Today, more than a decade later, Laderman is answering this question in his new book, “Empire in Waves.”

UMD's Scott Laderman
Scott Laderman, author of "Empire in Waves"

Laderman, an associate professor of history at UMD, uses "Empire in Waves" to connect surfing culture with historic events, arguing that the two are intertwined rather than separate entities. "There’s a greater appreciation that surfing doesn’t exist as a world apart. It is, in fact, a part of the larger world."

This reasoning conflicts with surfer stereotypes and the enlightened subculture persona that surfers often embrace. Laderman says that his book is an effort to puncture some of that smugness by showing that surf history isn't as heroic as surfers sometimes envision, but it also illustrates how surfers' activism results in positive change. "There are problems, of course, it's a very critical book. But it also talks about ways that surfers have done very important things."

Apartheid, for example, was shoved into popular media when surfers confronted the issue during the South African leg of the 1985 world tour. Leading surfer Tom Carroll led the effort to boycott the events, saying, "I can no longer turn a blind eye." More recently, Cori Schumacher, a three-time women's longboard world champion, boycotted the 2011 Association of Surfing Professionals world tour because part of the tour took place in China. She said, "I have deep political and personal reservations with being a part of any sort of benefit to a country that actively engages in human rights violations, specifically those in violation of women."

Schumacher's boycott and the period before the 1898 annexation of Hawaii bookend "Empire in Waves," with more stories of surfing's part in the larger world woven in between. They are stories that Laderman tells with the insight of someone who found the perfect break in the most unexpected body of water.

From the West Side to the North Shore

It was -12°. Icicles so large they were almost view-obstructing hung from the visor of his wetsuit, which was as thick as they come at six millimeters. The only part of his body that was exposed was his face, so you could see Laderman's smile as he crested waves with fellow members of the Superior Surf Club this January. If they looked really hard, bystanders on the beach could also see that something was missing form the surfers' faces - stink eye. Says Laderman, "I prefer surfing in Lake Superior to the ocean. It's a much friendlier environment here. It's nice to paddle out and you know everyone's friendly. California gets competitive, people are giving the stink eye."

Laderman was born in Santa Monica and grew up on the west side of LA. He started surfing young and spent a lot of time thinking about where he wanted to live in the context of where he could find good surf. The Land of 10,000 Lakes wasn't on that list but, after graduating from Berkeley, Laderman decided to get his doctorate in American Studies which brought him to the University of Minnesota.

While still living in Minneapolis, he was introduced to surfing on Lake Superior. Laderman was hooked. He began more regularly surfing the lake when he started teaching at UMD and enjoys the ease of surfing close to home once again, albeit in very different conditions. Besides the cold, Laderman says the waves are a bit messier and surfers rely entirely on wind conditions. Challenges as unique as Lake Superior and fully embraced by Laderman.

Watch Scott Laderman surf Superior on that cold January day. He's at 2:15 to 2:24 and 6:57 to 7:08.


UMD's John Hatcher and Scott Laderman surfing Lake Superior
UMD faculty members Scott Laderman, left, and John Hatcher, right, surf Lake Superior. Photo by Bob Tema.
Those who can, Duluth

More Information

"Empire in Waves"

Scott Laderman







Story by Lori C. Melton

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