Paniolo: The Pride of a Nation

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Photo: Native Hawaiian paniolo
Native Hawaiian paniolo were renowned for their skills winning at rodeo competitions across America in the early 20th century. – Photo: Hawaiʻi State Archives

We associate cowboys with the “Wild West,” but the Hawaiian Kingdom had cowboys long before the United States and it all started with seven cattle.

In 1793, British Capt. George Vancouver gave seven longhorn cattle as a gift to King Kamehameha I. The following year, Vancouver gave an additional 12 longhorns to the king to encourage him to engage in the dairy and beef industries.

The king placed a kapu on the longhorns, and for the next 20 years they roamed free on Hawaiʻi Island and bred to the point of becoming a serious problem.

John Parker, a sailor from Massachusetts, was allowed by the king to establish a ranch where he domesticated wild horses and cattle. And by 1819, Native Hawaiians were allowed to build walls and trap wild cattle as a way to keep them away from their farms and homes.

Eventually, there was such a large number of wild cattle that by 1830 King Kamehameha III removed the kapu on cattle and this was the beginning of the beef industry in Hawaiʻi.

In 1833, with the help of John Parker, King Kamehameha III brought three Mexican vaqueros, or cowboys, from California (then part of Mexico) to the Hawaiian Kingdom to tame the cattle and train Hawaiians to be cowboys.

These first vaqueros, whose last names were recorded as Kossuth, Ramón and Lauzada (Lazada), spoke Spanish (Español) which is where the term “paniolo” comes from.

They trained Native Hawaiian paniolo to be among the best in the world. The vaqueros shared their knowledge of crafting saddles, brood winged stirrups, hair rope, and lassos as well as leather tanning. Waimea became the heart of “paniolo country” and Honokaʻa was a major ranching town.

Over the next 10 years, more vaqueros came to Hawaiʻi as ranches opened on all the major islands. The vaqueros continued to introduce their music, cuisine, and guitar to Hawaiians and much of that remains to this day. Pīpī kaula (jerked beef), for example, is a version of the Mexican “carne seca” and is still enjoyed today.

The vaqueros were so successful in teaching ranching to the paniolo that by 1849, Hawaiʻi began to export beef to the U.S. territory of California to meet their demands. With beef and other agricultural exports, Hawaiʻi helped to feed California throughout its Gold Rush and the U.S. Civil War periods.

The vaqueros also taught Native Hawaiian women about ranching and horse riding. Native Hawaiian women in ranching history remains an under-researched topic, but the equestrian skill of these women was well-known.

Unlike European women who primarily rode side-saddle, Native Hawaiian women rode astride like men.

Women riding astride was considered by some Europeans to be immodest. Native Hawaiian holo lio wāhine (female horse riders) wore a form of a devantiere, or riding habit, that allowed them to ride astride. To keep their riding habits clean, comfortable and modest, some draped fabric (pāʻū) around them. The patterns and colors of these pāʻū began to serve as indicators of one’s family or where one was from.

These holo lio wāhine became the pioneers of our pāʻū riders today. Some of the more famous pāʻū riders include Kamaka Stillman; Adele Kauʻilani Lemke; Rose Davison; and Princess Liliʻuokalani Kawānanakoa Morris. These women were also instrumental in forming women’s riding clubs and bringing pāʻū riding into our parades. By doing so, they also helped to maintain these traditions until this day despite the closure of many ranches in the later part of the 20th century.

By the 1850s, a paniolo subculture blending Mexican vaquero and Hawaiian traditions developed. This can be seen in their wide-brim hats made of lauhala and decorated with lei poʻo. And ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi replaced Spanish as the language of the paniolo.

In addition to handling cattle and horses, paniolo also managed hogs, sheep, and goats. King Kamehameha V was keen to produce wool on his ranch on Molokaʻi. Emperor Napoleon III of France hearing of this, gifted four hand-picked rams from his royal estate at Rambouillet to start this venture. Thus, paniolo helped to establish other industries.

From the 1860s and onward, ranching continued to expand on all islands through the mid-20th century. This not only helped to spread paniolo traditions throughout Hawaiʻi but also made the paniolo community more diverse. After finishing their plantation contracts, quite a few Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, and Portuguese became paniolo. Many Portuguese already were campinos or “cowboys” in their own country and would help maintain the horses and mules on the plantations. These campinos brought their traditions to Hawaiʻi and, after leaving the sugar plantations, they opened up dairy farms and small ranches.

Three of the most famous Hawaiian paniolo were Ikua Purdy, Archie Kaʻauʻa, and Jack Low, all of whom competed and won various rodeos in the U.S. in the early 20th century including the Wyoming Frontier Days in 1908.

Their victories at these rodeos stunned American cowboys and rodeo audiences. Many Native Hawaiians felt a deep sense of pain in the aftermath of the takeover of our lāhui, so when these paniolo outshone their competitors it helped to restore a sense of dignity to all Native Hawaiians. Paniolo, therefore, embodies a spirit of resiliency but also the pride of a nation.