From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to rodeos that draw ten thousand spectators, people have long been enamored with the cowboy culture.
And while Hawaii rarely brings to mind the cowboy country we’ve come to know from films and books, the islands have a rich ranching past that predates the American West’s by decades.
To glean an appreciation for Hawaii’s cowboy culture, one must circle back to the islands’ immersion with both the east and west.
Prior to Western contact, the grasslands of Hawaii were devoid of the cattle, horses, and axis deer one is prone to see today on, say, the slopes of Haleakala or the rolling hills of the Big Island’s Waimea. After all, the Hawaiian Islands were and are the most isolated archipelago in the world; flora and fauna on these sunny coasts were restricted to what ancient Polynesians brought to shore aboard their boats.
That landscape was forever reshaped ten years after Captain James Cook first landed in the “Sandwich Islands.”
In 1793, George Vancouver—an esteemed officer with the British Royal Navy—gifted King Kamehameha I with a flock of sheep, one bull, and five longhorns.
Kamehameha—the first chief to unite the eight disparate islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii—accepted the gift, even carrying some to shore on his own canoe, whereupon he promptly placed a kapu on the cattle. That customary restriction banned hunting of the cattle for a decade. Liberated, the longhorns took to the lava fields and forests—and proceeded to flourish.
By the time nineteen-year-old John Palmer Parker jumped ship and arrived in the islands, the progeny of Vancouver’s cattle had multiplied into the thousands. The Massachusetts native caught the attention of the king, who entrusted Parker with tending to his fishponds. After braving the seas once again to travel to China during the War of 1812, Parker returned with an ultramodern American musket, which prompted the venerated king to permit him to shoot the cattle that, now feral, roamed through villages and devastated much of the local agriculture.
Removing that kapu translated into a rewriting of Hawaii’s future.
The king began allowing limited hunting, and, shortly after his death in 1819, the Hawaiian monarchy started hiring foreigners, otherwise known as “bullock hunters,” to pursue, ambush, and shoot the cattle to feed the burgeoning beef trade that was quickly replacing sandalwood as Hawaii’s biggest and most profitable export. Amid all of this, Parker married Kamehameha’s granddaughter Kipikane and was granted 640 acres of land on the Big Island. Today, that land comprises the start of Parker Ranch—the largest ranch in Hawaii and one of the oldest in the United States, preceding many Texas and Southwestern ranches by more than three decades.
With the increased demand for cattle products—thanks in part to the Gold Rush, the whaling industry, and new plantation laborers—came a heightened demand for ranch hands, and in 1832, King Kamehameha III sent one of his chiefs to Alta California to enlist cowboys who could aid in corralling the wild cows and teach Hawaiians horse-handling skills. The chief returned from what was then Mexico with three vaqueros (Spanish for cowboys) and the culture of paniolo—a twist on the español the vaquero spoke—was born.
“Unlike the bullock hunters,” Samir S. Patel writes in “Ballad of the Paniolo,” “they (the vaqueros) came on horseback and didn’t shoot cattle; the blasts scared off other cows and bullet holes decreased the value of hides.” Instead, the vaqueros “lassoed ‘em, hamstrung ‘em, and finished the job later. If the first bullock hunters provided the genealogical roots of many paniolo, their skills and style came from vaqueros.”
“But where the Clint Eastwood cowboy is all piss and pistol,” Hawaii-raised journalist Constance Hale writes, “the Hawaiian paniolo is possessed of a gentle soul, a lovely language, and a music that is more soft-and-sweet than achy-breaky. The paniolo knows his flower species as well as his cattle breeds. The paniolo weaves blossoms into leis he then wraps around his hat. He teaches his horses to swim in the ocean and to pick their way through sharp fields of lava.”
Sound unique? Indeed: Hawaii’s cowboy culture was impacted by a number of factors.
From the vaqueros Hawaiians received brightly-colored ponchos, long spurs, bandanas, braided lariats, floppy, wide-brimmed hats, and Spanish practices; these were entwined with their Hawaiian roots and the European, Asian, and Australian influences brought with Hawaii’s pools of immigrants. “I think it’s one of the best examples of ethnogenesis,” Peter Mills—an archeologist at the University of Hawaii, Hilo—says of the paniolo tradition, citing it as evidence of new, distinct ethnicities that emerge within larger cultures.
Mechanization—including the institution of tractors, hay balers, and post hole diggers—moderated the need for paniolo on cattle ranches throughout the Aloha State, but Hawaii’s original cowboy culture continues to thrive today, particularly on the Big Island and Maui.
On the latter, one simply has to meander upcountry to get a taste of it. Weekly line dances are offered in Pukalani. Makawao’s Stopwatch Sportsbar & Grill possesses all the rough and tumble one readily associates with taverns of the wild west. Grandma’s Coffeehouse in Kula serves up plantation-grown joe to farmers heading out to the working cattle ranches in Ulupalakua and Kaupo. Western facades, relics of ranching, and a museum that exhibits photographs of paniolo in action are just a few of Makawao’s biggest draws. And the small, often-sodden settlement has, for 51 years, presented the much-loved Makawao Rodeo and Paniolo Parade, complete with horse stick races, a bull bash, and nearly 350 cowboys from around the globe.
As for the fact that Hawaii’s cowboy culture predates the mainland’s?
Nowhere else is this perhaps more evident than in the awards our paniolo have taken home. Parker Ranch’s own Ikua Purdy waltzed into the Frontier Days Celebration in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1908—dressed in vaquero-inspired chaps and a hat adorned with a lei—only to win the world steer-roping contest in a mere 56 seconds. Meanwhile, Archie Ka’au’a and Eben “Rawhide Ben” Low—who also hailed from Hawaii—placed second and sixth, respectively. And in 1999, Purdy was voted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, ultimately going down as the first Hawaiian ever to be nominated. Today, a bronze statue of him glistens in the Waimea sunshine on the Big Island.
“So many things have disappeared from the islands in a generation,” Hale laments, “certain small native birds, lobsters in the coral reefs, Japanese fisherman who throw their nets at dawn, sugarcane fields and the thrice-a-day mill whistle, the manapua truck.” The paniolo, however, endure—whether it’s on the slopes of Haleakala, the unpredictable lava terrain on the Big Island, or along the Maha’ulepo shoreline on Kauai. “In place of the feral cattle, purebred, domestic cattle now graze in smaller, fenced pastures,” Thomas Michael Carpenter writes in “Hawaii’s Cowboy Tradition.” “Fewer ranchers employ paniolo, just as on the mainland, fewer ranchers employ fewer cowboys. Yet…as long as there are those who savor a good rib eye steak, then there will be people who work the land, who tend to the cattle and who sustain the tradition and culture of their world. There will always be the paniolo.” To which we say, gracias. Or, rather, mahalo.