On an overcast day in late summer, Kelly Potts sits cross-legged on her surfboard talking to a group of people who are eager to surf for the first time. They listen intently as she explains what’s in store for their introductory lesson at a retreat intended for members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.
“Not only are we gonna teach you how to get up to your feet, we’re gonna teach you how to get back down to your board,” Potts says. “I call it finishing like a pro.”
The group is situated on a sparsely populated section of Otter Rock Beach south of Depoe Bay. Through the misty air, surfers can be seen dotting the ocean, bobbing up and down and waiting to catch a wave.
People travel from far and wide to take advantage of the diverse surfing enclaves along the Oregon Coast. Unfortunately, there’s a noticeable lack of diversity in these surfing communities, which are often situated in and around Indigenous ancestral lands and coastlines. Potts, a professional surfer, is seeking to change that by offering free surfing retreats to tribal members through an organization she founded called All Are We Water Collective.
One of those members, Kimberly Lane, sits across from Potts as the group wraps up their beach lesson before heading into the ocean. Lane says the partnership brings a sense of kinship and connection to the tribe.
“Oregon is Indian Country,” Lane says. “This is part of our original reservation. And so it’s full circle for us in terms of healing and empowerment and getting opportunities we don’t normally get.”
A way to give back
Potts was born in Oregon but currently resides in Hawaii, where she initially got the idea to host surfing retreats.
“I had done so many different volunteer projects,” she says. “I was a big sister for Big Brothers Big Sisters for a couple years, and I was trying to figure out a way that I could give back in my own special way.”
During the summer, Potts drives her trailer — a self-contained mobile surf shop, complete with boards, wetsuits and booties — up and down the coast with prearranged stops on or near reservations. Although not Indigenous herself, Potts’ time spent with tribal communities in Hawaii inspired her to connect exclusively with those communities on the West Coast.
“And I said, ‘You know what I’m gonna need to do? I’m gonna need to take a road trip, and I’m gonna need to see what are the good places that are conducive for teaching surfing,’” she says. “It was when I got into that Northwest territory that I started to recognize all the Indigenous communities out here that are near the coast. And it really was very obvious who I would wanna host my retreats for.”
Potts eventually formed the nonprofit All Are We Water Collective to help facilitate partnerships with different tribal communities.
Class is in session
Potts and All Are We board member Leslie Palotas begin unpacking the trailer, neatly arranging surfboards on a wooden rack. The trailer is nestled in a lot behind a local surf shop, and setting up gear on a freshly trimmed nearby lawn. Palotas places a sign that says ”Welcome, Siletz surfers check in here” in front of a folding table.
A few minutes later the morning cohort arrives. It’s four girls aged 11 to 16: Lexi Jackson, Nevaeh Jackson, Beyonka Bell-Tellez, and Kendall Bell-Tellez. After introductions, the girls begin changing into their wetsuits. Even though they’ve all taken at least one lesson with Potts in the past, the girls are brimming with excitement.
“I like the ocean,” Lexi Jackson says.
Beyonka Bell-Tellez chimes in, “Yeah, I like the waves and the ocean.”
Once changed, the group makes its way to Otter Rock Beach. After everyone congregates on the beach, the girls plop down on their surfboards. All eyes are now on Potts as she addresses them in a playful yet serious tone.
“What’s the most important thing in surfing, do you think?” she asks.
“Not drowning,” Kendall Bell-Tellez says.
“Not drowning. Let’s be safe. Right? Safety first,” Potts says with a laugh.
Almost seamlessly Potts shifts into instructor mode, showing the girls how to paddle, lie, kneel, stand and even fall on their surfboards.
She demonstrates proper technique as the girls do their best to follow along.
“I think what has built trust is knowing that I’ve been instructing for 20-plus years,” Potts says. “You know, I have ocean rescue skills, and I think that gives them a little more comfort knowing that they’re in good hands.”
Gaining confidence with each wave
When Potts finishes the beach lesson, she grabs her board and heads toward the ocean. The girls follow suit. Even in August, the water on the Oregon Coast is freezing cold — typically around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Wetsuits keep the girls warm, but as they venture into shoulder-high water the initial shock of the ocean on bare skin is unavoidable.
Kendall Bell-Tellez lies face down on her board, hugging it tight with both arms.
“I’m just gonna hold this,” she says nervously.
“When the participants show up, they’re usually full of nerves and anxiety and they’re very apprehensive,” Potts says. “After their first wave and their second, they just open up and they’re recognizing their own ability.”
Nevaeh Jackson catches a wave and is semi-crouched on her board.
“Yeah, Nevaeh, eyes up!” Potts shouts emphatically. “Nice job, girlfriend, nice job!”
Nevaeh Jackson attempts to stand but loses balance and falls off her board. Although the girls have surfed with Potts before, they are all still relatively inexperienced. However, with each retreat, Potts recognizes the progress they’ve made.
“I can see their confidence build each wave they catch,” Potts says with a laugh. “That right there is the most empowering thing for me to witness, knowing that they just experienced something that they didn’t think that they were capable of doing. And by the end, they were really good at it. A lot of these kids are really, really good at it.”
Lexi Jackson catches a wave and manages to stand up, riding it all the way to the shore. She has a look of disbelief, as if surprised by her own ability.
“It definitely feels joyful,” Lexi Jackson says, “because once you get on and like, know what you’re doing, it’s really fun, and you get way better.”
After about an hour of surfing, Potts motions for the girls to head back to the beach. As everyone slowly congregates in a circle on the beach, smiles and laughs abound. There is a sense of joy and connectedness that is palpable amongst the group.
“Bring it in ladies,” Potts says.
Everyone moves in closer, forming a tighter circle.
“And now we are all connected, and the ocean is what connects us,” she says. “Now we’re a community. We’re a community of surfers. We’re a family. We get to be here for each other, look out for each other, take care of each other, right? I love you all. I’m so proud of you.”