History of Paniolo in Hawaii

Paniolo Life

Sprinkled along the slopes of Waimea on Hawaii Island, dotted along the mountainsides of Kauai’s south shore, and spread throughout pockets of the rest of the main Hawaiian Islands are hundreds of cattle, an ocean away from where you would expect to see them. What might be even more surprising are the paniolo (cowboys) who raise them and spend their days on horseback rounding them up.

These pipi (cows) and cowboys actually have a lengthy history in the Aloha state. British Captain George Vancouver first gifted cattle to King Kamehameha in the late 1700s. Delighted by the livestock, Kamehameha forbade anyone to hunt them, which caused their population to swell beyond what the island could support. The cattle became a destructive force.

At this point, Mexican vaqueros were brought to the islands to teach Hawaiians the art of roping and riding. The Hawaiian riders took on the name paniolo, possibly a mistranslation for Espaniola, or perhaps from the Hawaiian words meaning, “to be sitting there, straight up.” Either way, the tradition flourished as paniolo became experts in their craft, long before cowboys roamed the American west.

These Hawaiian riders were largely unknown on the Mainland until the early 1900s when three paniolo, including Ikua Purdy, entered the World Roping Championship in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Locals jeered at the Hawaiians and even provided them with unbroken horses for the competition. Purdy and his friends were undeterred. They took the horses to a nearby river and tamed them in chest-high water, quickening the time it took to break them.

The following day, Purdy took first place, stunning the crowd by roping a steer in a record 56 seconds. Since then, Purdy has been inducted into the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Paniolo Hall of Fame. He is remembered today as a man who embodied the true spirit of the paniolo.

 

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