Who Are the Paniolo?

Paniolo Statue

Paniolo are the cowboys of Hawaii. Obviously there wouldn’t be cowboys without cattle, so it is important to start with the introduction of the first cattle in Hawaii when discussing the history of the paniolo. For a much more detailed and descriptive history of cattle in Hawaii it is mandatory that I mention the comprehensive history of the paniolo and Parker Ranch by Dr. Billy Bergin and his series of books “Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch” which I owe an immense of amount of debt to as a source for much of the following information.

Sea captain George Vancouver was the first person to bring cattle to Hawaii with a gift of California longhorns to Kamehameha I in 1793 (Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch 750-1950 pg. 21). Due to the afflictions of long sea travel and an inhabitable tropical environment, the first cattle (now called pipi, a Hawaiianization of beef) did not fare well in Hawaii (pg. 3, all references are to the above noted book so only page numbers follow in the parenthesis). None the less, due to a strict kapu placed on the killing of them by Kamehameha I and the availability of an abundance of farmed vegetables, they were able to survive and soon thrive (pg. 22). During the next twenty years they caused immeasurable damage to the native food supply through their trampling of gardens, family farms and native forests. Realizing the perilous infliction the cattle were having on valuable food crops Kamehameha I lifted the kapu and declared it permissible to shoot and kill cattle (pg. 4).

Even with the lifting of the kapu, cattle continued to grow to large numbers and Kamehameha I realized more intensive efforts were needed to control these large beasts. In 1815 ex-sailor and employee of Kamehameha I John Palmer Parker was hired to develop a plan to control the wild cattle. Parker was young, able bodied and more importantly owned a gun and was knowledgeable about its usage (pg. 28). This proved to be an overwhelming task as, according to Dr. Bergin, by 1850 there were over 8,000 domestic cattle and 12,000 wild cattle on the Big Island (pg. 4). Parker tried the best he could and created a homestead in North Kohala and used acreage around Waimea, given to him by Kamehameha after his marriage to Kamehameha’s great-grand daughter, as his working cattle ranch (pg. 4).

In the midst of this immense growth of the cattle population, an additional attempt was made to implement a plan to controlling their numbers. In 1832 Kamehameha III invited vaqueros from Mexico to come to Hawaii to train the native Hawaiians in the skills needed to be a successful cowboy (pg. 28). Their influence was enormous, as not only did they pass on their skills with the horse and lasso, but they brought the guitar and their music as well (for more information see my blog entry about the vaqueros and music). For further reading about the role of the Mexican cowboy you can consult Kyle Shinseki’s masters thesis “El Pueblo Mexicano de Hawaii.” Soon much of the Kohala area was centered around the cattle trade as most of the cattle preferred these higher elevation areas (pgs. 29-30).

The early cattle business centered mostly around butchering the cattle for meat that was cured with salt and sold to whalers and the Hawaiian navy for sea voyaging (pgs. 31-32). In this sense Waimea and the Kohala region began to establish itself as an area with a distinct cowboy culture as its society was centered around the ranch. I’d suggest if you are interested in cowboy culture and how it is developed you read Cowboys in America by R.W. Slatta. In 1847 Parker formally created the Parker Ranch with its crew of “animal caregivers, the fence men, drovers, herdsmen, milkers and grooms.” (pg. 4)

Praise and pride for the paniolo reached its apex in 1908 with the successful journey of three paniolo to Cheyenne Wyoming. With the encouragement of his father, Eben Low, along with Ikua Purdy and Archie Kaaua, took the long ferry and train ride to compete in the Frontier Days World Championship roping competition. It is here that the skills of the Hawaiian paniolo were firmly established with the outside world as Ikua Purdy won first place in steer roping with a new world record of 56 seconds. In addition Kaaua placed 3rd and Low 6th. Upon returning to Hawaii they were greeted as heroes and the legend of the “Hawaiian Roughrider” was born with songs of praise composed to commemorate this important event (see “Kila Kila Na Roughrider” and “Waiomina“.

During the 200 year history of cattle in Hawaii, ranching in Hawaii has extended to all the islands and has become an integral part of the communities in which they exist. These communities can be found in a variety of areas, from the mountainous regions the cattle frequent to the shores where the ports are located for their shipping. Fitting within the Hawaiian land concept of the ahupua`a, many of these communities exist within the same region of land extending from mountain to sea.

Regardless of their location these paniolo communities share a common bond and common traits. The ranch and the paniolo way of life has a way of extending beyond those who primarily work on the ranches to those that serve these communities. Everyone, from doctors, teachers, clerks, bankers, politicians and policemen are all paniolo by extension as their lives are so strongly influenced by the distinctive way of life of the paniolo. This is seen in the shared values of being hard working, living close to the land, having a respect for the family, and the deep love of slack key music and the folk songs from the days of before that survives.

It is in this environment in which I was raised, from the smaller family ranches of Honaunau in South Kona to the expansive Parker Ranch of Waimea in Kohala, and where I developed my love for the paniolo and the paniolo way of life. It was inevitable that this would find its way into my music and how I express myself musically. Blending the sounds of country with the musicality and feel of Hawaiian music I play what I call “Paniolo Music.”