The State of Aloha

Saturday marks the start of the annual rodeo at the Oskie Rice Arena among the tall trees and green pastures above Makawao town. Before that, Makawao’s annual parade, a chili cook-off and a stick horse race up Baldwin Avenue will be an homage to our local cowboy culture.

For the uninitiated, cowboys in the middle of the Pacific may be surprising. But it turns out that herding cattle in Hawaii has been part of the islands for more than 200 years. How’d this happen?

Well, you can’t have a cowboy (or cowgirl) without cows. That started when English explorer Capt. George Vancouver brought his friend Kamehameha I a present.

In 1793, he delivered to Kealakekua Bay four cows, two ewes and a ram. Their delivery caused quite a splash. Contemporaries of Vancouver noted that the locals ran for the hills at the sight of large animals “prancing about their country in a state so lively and vigorous.”

Vancouver’s cows were the first of many new animals to the islands. Native Hawaiians called them “pua’a pipi,” which translates roughly to “beef pigs.”

Vancouver brought more the next year and the king put a kapu on killing them. The animals were doing quite well on the Big Island and many English observers speculated they would soon thrive on all of the islands.

Native Hawaiians were thrilled by the beef pigs. In fact, when the first calf was born in Hawaii, it was transported on the backs of strong men from the Kona side over to Hilo to show the governor residing there. (The calf was fed fish and water much to the dismay of the English, but it seemed to do just fine.)

Nonetheless, Kamehameha soon designated great swaths of land in Kohala for the raising and grazing of cattle. In just a few years, travelers marveled at the many herds that spread across the island. When an earthquake broke the stone walls that penned them in, the cattle went feral and roamed freely.

Not long after the beef pig, another essential animal for cowboy culture was introduced. In 1803, an American showed up with three horses at Kealakekua Bay. He dropped one off there for a chief and moved on to Maui and landed the other two there for Kamehameha I.

Horses and cattle spread rapidly across the islands. After a while, Hawaii had a lot in common with modern-day Hindu communities that prohibit the killing of cows. Gardens and yards were ruined by wild cows trampling through. Forests and fields were also the home of feral cattle. Kamehameha III finally lifted the kapu on cows in 1830.

The beef pigs thrived and needed to be brought under control. Kamehameha III also saw the need to turn the wild cattle into a commercial profit. Whaling and trading ships were ready to pay for salted beef.

It wasn’t long before the king invited Mexican Californians who specialized in “beef catching” to come to the islands. In 1832, two years after the lifting of the kapu, three vaqueros, Kossuth, Lozuida and Ramon, arrived in Waimea. These were Hawaii’s first cowboys. About 200 followed.

They brought with them their saddles, ropes, spurs, stirrups and their Spanish language. Hawaiians soon called them by the language they spoke: espanol. Of course, the Hawaiian language morphed this word into the now recognizable paniolo.

The Mexicans brought more than their gear. They were highly skilled on horseback and could catch wild cattle and herd them onto ships and into slaughterhouses. They also proved to be good teachers. Native Hawaiians were quick to learn to ride and herd too.

But as everyone knows, Hawaii is not California. The terrain of the islands caused the vaqueros to adapt their herding skills. Unlike the cowboy culture most people know about in the western states, Hawaii’s paniolo had a culture of its own.

Our cowboys pursue cattle through scorching lava fields, steep and muddy terrain in rainforests and on the large plains of Haleakala or Kohala. Shipping cattle required herding the cows through chutes at beaches and onto a boat. Perhaps Maui’s most well-known loading chute was at Makena. For most of the history of the kingdom and territory, Hawaiian cowboys had bred large, calm and strong “shipping horses” that were powerful enough to pull reluctant cows from and into the water.

Paniolo culture continues to this day. Ranching has outlasted whaling and sugar, and is quietly carrying on in the shadow of tourism. There are no signs of it waning, either. In fact, now that sugar cane is a thing of the past, Alexander & Baldwin Inc. has turned to cattle. You can see cows standing and grazing in former cane fields across the road from Hookipa these days. And where there are cows, there are usually paniolo.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”