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Letter from Hawaii

Ballad of the Paniolo

On the slopes of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s cowboys developed a culture all their own

Monday, December 07, 2015

Letter From Hawaii Purdy HomesteadThe 19th-century homestead of Jack Purdy, an early bullock hunter on Hawaii’s Big Island, is located on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea. Hunters such as Purdy represent the beginnings of Hawaii’s unusual cowboy culture.


The Frontier Day Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in August 1908, brought together some of the best riding and roping champions from across the Americas, from Alaska to the Argentine Pampas.  Among them were three unusually dark-skinned cowboys who, according to a newspaper report, were initially mocked by other competitors. But after two days of steer roping, Ikua Purdy, Archie Ka‘au‘a, and Jack Low finished first, third, and sixth—with Purdy cementing a claim as the champion steer roper of the world.


What the other competitors didn’t understand about these cowboys was that they had earned their spurs roping irritable feral cattle on the unpredictable terrain of a dormant volcano: Mauna Kea. The rodeo proved to the mainland what Hawaiians, who greeted the returning heroes with a parade, already knew: that Hawaiian cowboys, called paniolo, are some tough customers.


The Hawaiian monarchy had been overthrown in 1893, and the island chain was annexed by the United States five years later, so the paniolo who beat the mainlanders at their own game became a great source of native pride. They were cowboys, to be sure, but also Hawaiian by blood, culture, and temperament. The paniolo folk tradition evolved over decades, entwining European, Hispanic, and Asian influences with Hawaiian roots. Archaeologists and anthropologists have a term for the creation of a new cultural identity: ethnogenesis. “I think it’s one of the best examples of ethnogenesis,” says Peter Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who has studied the history and archaeology of ranching on Mauna Kea for more than a decade. By surveying and excavating ranching stations on the volcano’s slopes, Mills and his colleagues have added a new layer of understanding to the oral history, journals, and ledgers that document the ethnogenesis and life of the paniolo.




You don’t have neck problems, do you?” says Mills as he guides a 4x4 along the first of a series of increasingly harrowing dirt tracks through the ranchlands of Mauna Kea, on the Big Island. After a stop at the palatial headquarters of Parker Ranch—one of the United States’ largest and oldest—for permission to enter its holdings, Mills guides the truck along the lower north slope. The destination is the Humu‘ula district, around 250,000 acres halfway up the mountain’s eastern flank. Humu‘ula has been an important site for Hawaiian ranching since it began in the mid-nineteenth century, and is home to all the ranching stations Mills has studied.


After a few minutes, the clouds part and a crown of white spheres appears briefly on the volcano’s peak, collectively the world’s largest astronomical observatory, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. Native groups are opposing the construction of another, the massive, sophisticated Thirty Meter Telescope, because Mauna Kea is considered by native Hawaiians to be the islands’ most sacred place. Hawaii’s tallest peak has a long history of visitors from across the ocean, and the earliest of these international migrants—cattle—completely reshaped its landscape.