Story By: Keith Malloy
Photos By: Jeff Johnson
Film by: Bimarian Films
Location: Makawao, Maui, HI
There’s this story of three cowboys from Hawaii showing up to Frontier Days, also known at the time as “the world’s greatest rodeo” in Cheyenne, WY back in 1908. According to the book, “Aloha Rodeo,” by David Wolman and Julian Smith, few people saw Ikua Purdy, Jack Low, and Archie Ka’au’a as a threat, saying “This was Wyoming, after all, home to rodeo champions and cattlemen as rugged as the landscape they worked.”
Some viewed them with mild amusement; they were different in every way with “ornate leather chaps, long rawhide lariats, flowers around their hats, and dark skin.” The authors go on to emphasize the social context of the time, saying that “to locals and tourists in Cheyenne, the paniolo were not just odd; they were interlopers.”
“But what the press, spectators, and other competitors didn’t know, and indeed no one in the country did, was that ranchers in Hawaii had been breaking horses, roping wild bulls, and herding thousands of cattle before anyone in the American West.”
A decade earlier, the United States had forcibly annexed the Hawaiian Islands. For the Hawaiians, this moment in time at the rodeo was an opportunity to introduce their pride in their cultural identity to a place nearly four thousand miles away and to a group of people who had dismissed them.
But Ikua, Jack, and Archie didn’t just show up. Ikua Purdy took the title Champion Steer Roper. Archie Ka’au’a took third. And all three made a name for paniolo. At a time when those at the Cheyenne Frontier Days considered themselves to be the only true cowboys, Hawaiian paniolo forced them to consider otherwise.
Growing up, my dad had cattle, but I’ve only recently – the past ten years or so – gotten into ranching. In my own experience, learning to work cattle on flat land is difficult enough. Hearing the stories of the paniolo rounding up feral cattle in forests and on hills, the fact that they wrangled these cattle on the side of a volcano out there on that jagged lava rock – it’s incredible what they did.
Back in the ‘90s, I spent about 10 years living on the North Shore of Oahu, living the quintessential Hawaii surfing life. Palm trees, perfect beaches, and world-class surfing in tropical paradise. While living there I learned there’s so much more to Hawaii than waves, and I’d heard about Parker Ranch on the big island of Hawai’i and the stories of the legendary paniolo, but I didn’t really understand the sizes of the ranches and the culture and history. I have to say, I had a pretty singular interest while I lived there.
My good friend Lauren Spalding has recently become somewhat of a self-appointed “rodeo mom” on Maui. She’s a champion ocean paddler professionally, but her then-thirteen year-old-daughter decided to take up rodeo on her own accord. Lauren tells me “she picked rodeo because all her friends were doing it.” That’s pretty incredible…“everyone” is cowboying and cowgirling on Maui? Especially when “everyone” to a teenager means the whole world. I’d been wanting to get down there to check out the rodeo for myself, but with all that was 2020, the Maui rodeo kept getting postponed, until finally in December, local officials felt it was safe to do so in a limited capacity. Lauren invited me down to Maui to check out the rodeo celebrating the new Oskie Rice Arena.
A few days before the rodeo Lauren introduced me to a few people she’s gotten to know at the rodeo. It’s funny, everyone I ask about the Hawaiian paniolo history first pauses, deflects a little, gives the disclaimer that they’re no historian, and then beautifully explains the paniolo origin story, down to the number of cattle King Kamehameha was given.
I spoke with U’i Uwekoolani-Aarona, the Hawaii High School Rodeo Association (HHSRA) Maui District President. She goes by U’i. When I asked U’i about the original paniolo, she hesitated, refreshing her memory for a brief moment, then dove in. She started with George Vancouver. “He brought over the first cattle – longhorns – and gave them to King Kamehameha – I think that was around 1803. And then he put a ten-year kapu on them so nobody could kill them, couldn't touch them. He wanted them to breed. But by the time Kamehameha III comes around in the early eighteen twenties, the longhorns are running rampant, they're making trouble, they're eating all native plants, getting into people's yards and eating their crops.”
She went on to explain that Kamehameha III got an American from California – Spanish California at that time – to bring over a Spaniard to teach their riding and roping methods to the Hawaiians to manage the longhorns essentially launching the cattle and ranching industry in Hawaii.
There’s a beautiful language tree that evolves from the Spanish traditions in what is today Mexico and the Southwestern United States. In Spanish, vaquero essentially means “herder of cattle.” Over time, the anglicized pronunciation of vaquero sounded more like “buckaroo.” Still today, the cowboys of the Great Basin and California region are known as buckaroos.
In Hawaii, the etymology is understood to have arrived at paniolo from the Hawaiian pronunciation of the word español. Both paniolo and buckaroos have Spanish origins; the resulting terms just evolved in different directions.
U’i is fifth-generation paniolo. She tells me she believes the Hawaiians adopted so much of the paniolo customs and traditions because they shared similar values. Original paniolo had a sense of responsibility for others – taking care of the land, providing for the family, caring for animals – and were very disciplined, as the ranching lifestyle demands. Responsibility and discipline still define the lifestyle for her and her family and the paniolo community today.
This weekend, that community is coming together for the first rodeo in months after a year of cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19. The rodeo is being held at the newly renovated Oskie Rice Arena as a memorial to its namesake. Morag Rice Miranda, Oskie’s granddaughter, explains that Oskie gave the use of the land to the Maui Roping Club 65 years ago for the purpose of building an arena giving the community and neighboring ranches a place to showcase their skills. “He had a very generous heart and was very community minded,” she tells me while walking me through a room of framed archival photos on their Kaonoulu Ranch.
The Kaonoulu Ranch has been in the Rice family since 1916. Its 13,000+ acres has the remnants of a complete ahupua’a – a narrow wedge-shaped land section spanning from the mountains to the sea. If you were to look at the island from above and slice it like a pie, the land runs from the mountain as the center point with the “wedge” extending down to the ocean. Land was divided in this way because each ahupua`a provided a full range of resources to its community. The Kaonoulu Ranch is one of the few properties remaining on Maui from this ancient Hawaiian system of land division.
A commitment to community has always been at the heart of the Rice family, and it lives today most visibly in the rodeo. With Morag and her husband Ken at the helm, they very intentionally make the ranch available to high-school kids and their families who are welcome to ride the horses and use the property so long as they take care and clean up. They also often host events (like this weekend’s memorial) on their property, alleviating any arena fees charged to the competitors.
Whether you’re rodeoing on the mainland or in the middle of the Pacific, competitors and their families bear a significant financial burden in the sport of rodeo. Usually, rodeos pay a stock charge each time a steer, goat, or bucking bull has an out (a run). There are stock-contractor fees for the cattle, judges’ fees, and fees paid per event competed in. For example, it might cost about $35 to enter only the barrels event in high school rodeo, and many kids enter multiple events. Considering that the rodeo season is long and there can be rodeos almost every weekend, it adds up.
Kaonoulu Ranch’s generosity helps alleviate fees because they own the property and some of the animals. The money saved can also go towards helping kids travel to states (on the Big Island of Hawai’i) and Nationals on the mainland. Additionally, the Maui District Hawaii High School Rodeo Association (HHSRA) is able to put more money back into the district as travel funds for state qualifiers, clinics, and national qualifiers.
The generosity and community-forward approach sets in motion a cycle of good. “We’ve found that when the financial burden is intentionally relieved from competitors and their families, the mindset shifts to ‘What can I give or do in return?” Morag explains to me.
Being at the Oskie Rice Arena, it’s clear to see how the community shows up in really personal ways. Alumni parents return to volunteer, supporting the other competitors they’ve gotten to know over the years. The concession area is stocked with home-made goods, like pulled pork sliders on Hawaiian rolls. One woman brings handmade leis for hats, horses, and the arena gate. It’s her makana, or gift. From hanging banners to cleaning, to caring for cattle, everyone contributes in some way. “It's a kākou thing. Everybody together. Many hands make for light work, we like to say,” Morag explains with a bit of pride as we walk the arena grounds. It’s evident this is a place where the community feels at home. Especially this weekend where it really is a reunion for the people with one another, and with their paniolo heritage.
“SINCE THE KIDS HERE DON'T HAVE THE BROAD COMPETITIVE POOL THAT MAINLANDERS DO, THEY KEEP EACH OTHER SHARP.
Saturday’s events are well underway. We’re in what’s known as Upcountry in the town of Makawao, which gets a lot of rain especially this time of year. Well the morning’s rain has cleared, revealing one of Hawaii’s impossible-to-miss, full-arc rainbows. I’m with Lauren in the stands, and she’s giving me the details on each rider as we watch the barrel races. Her daughter Lea is standing by for her turn; she’s instructed by the announcer to be “thinkin’ about it,” which we all get a kick out of every time.
Lauren knows everyone, she knows the horses, she’s rooting for each rider. As the events move along, she continues to point people out. “That’s our friend Sale. He lives on Molokai Island and flies here for rodeos. He’s an amazing hat shaper. People send him home with a hat to fix almost every rodeo.”
Lauren continues, saying, “Look, that’s Cliff Lorenzo down there. Cliff is a volunteer barrier judge. He flies himself over from the Big Island to be here because he wants to volunteer and donate, and this is a place he can do that.” She explains that he volunteers in the rodeo (one fewer judge who is charging a fee), but he also sponsors a kid every year. “Just last year the kid he sponsored made it to the National High School Finals Rodeo and secured a full scholarship to college from that.”
And that should tell you something – not just that this community is committed to one another and the successes are shared and celebrated, but the talent coming out of Maui (and the island state as a whole) is very, very competitive.
Watching them this weekend, I can see that for myself. At first glance, the mainlander in me notices the attire is more relaxed, and it’s a mix between t-shirts, and traditional rodeo attire of cowboy hats and button-downs. I should clarify that this weekend’s rodeo is not an HHSRA event (which have strict attire rules) – it’s considered an open community event. But button-up shirts or not, this rodeo boasts serious talent across all events and age ranges. While the Oskie Rice Memorial Rodeo isn’t a qualifying event, all rodeos are treated as an opportunity to practice, sharpen skills, and keep eyes trained on states and nationals. Since they don’t have the broad competitive pool that mainlanders do, the kids here keep each other sharp.
“These kids, they always feel – as everybody in Hawaii does – that when we go to the mainland, we're just going to get our butts handed to us. But our kids are really competitive, not just in heart, but in skill and talent,” U’i shares. She points out that one significant difference between them and the mainland is the use of their horses.
On the mainland they don’t cross-train their horses over events. But for many families on Maui, they have one horse that does every event. Owning multiple horses while living on an island sometimes just isn’t an option. “My horse does barrels, poles, heads, heels, mugging, breakaway. So, we have all-around kids and all-around horses,” U’i explains.
So when they go to the mainland for the National High School Finals Rodeo, it makes sense to bring their own horse. Sure, they could ride borrowed horses (like the paniolo did in the Cheyenne Rodeo), but if you qualify for barrels, you’ll need to rent a barrel horse. If you qualify for breakaway, you need a breakaway horse, and so on. While the costs to ship horses are ridiculous, she tells me it’s actually more financially sound – plus then they get to ride their own horse in competition.
I spoke with Shelby Rivera, a local cowgirl and rodeo mentor. When I asked if she’s competing this weekend at the Oskie Rice Memorial, she rattled off half-a-dozen events: “I'm in the mixed team roping, breakaway roping, steer undecorating, barrel racing, and then I’ve got one of Hawaii's own events called Po'o Wai U. It'll be my first time doing this event, but I feel pretty confident.”
Shelby rides her own horses and makes use of them not only for competition but for teaching anyone willing to come out and learn. It takes great commitment to compete in rodeo in Hawaii. Unlike on the mainland, where most rodeo competitors have multiple horses for each event and can drive to competitions statewide and around the country, in Hawaii they have to cowgirl- or cowboy-up and learn to make do with what they have. But, when they qualify to do so and show up on the mainland, they definitely represent strongly.
Shelby reiterates the story of the paniolo at Frontier Days, saying, “They got to be ambassadors for paniolo heritage there in Cheyenne. They pretty much opened up the Westerners’ eyes and showed that, hey, we're this little island in the Pacific, but you know what? We're dang tough and we know how to rope.”