PANIOLO PRESERVATION SOCIETY VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Paniolo Preservation Society is commemorating the Hawaii cowboy heritage this year during its Waiomina Centennial Celebration. In this undated photo, paniolo, their horses and cattle swim out to a freighter anchored off the Big Island.
Pride of the paniolo
Native cowboys played a major role in the islands' development
KAMUELA, Hawaii » When cattle arrived on the Big Island in 1793, King Kamehameha I was so enchanted with the cows that he decreed a death penalty on anyone who harmed them.
It was not long before wild herds freely grazed the slopes of Mauna Kea, damaging the growth of native plants and trees.
The king realized something needed to be done.
He appointed John Palmer Parker, an enterprising young sailor who had jumped ship in 1815, as the first authorized cattle hunter.
His reward was a swath of land, aptly named Parker Ranch, that kick-started the Hawaii ranching industry and held the title of the nation's largest ranch for many years.
And so began the legacy of Hawaii's cowboys -- the tough, sturdy, resourceful and courageous paniolo.
That heritage will be honored with an entire year of events during the Waiomina Centennial Celebration.
The celebration will highlight the past, present and future importance of the island ranching industry and the crucial roles played by paniolo in developing modern Hawaii.
Events during the year include pageants, rodeos, trail rides, tours, workshops and school projects.
The Waimea-based Paniolo Preservation Society also has been invited by the Old West Museum in Cheyenne, Wyo., to display exhibits from May through September. The Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo will host musicians, artisans and displays at the 2008 rodeo. A sister-city relationship has been initiated between Cheyenne and Waimea.
The centennial also marks the beginning of a fundraising campaign for a Regional Ranching and Paniolo Cultural Center, which will feature an Internet-accessible library of historical archives and thousands of maps and photographs.
"The cattle industry just brought in cattle, but it also preserved the land. It's untouched. You can still ride on horseback right through hundreds of acres," said Dr. Billy Bergin, former veterinarian for Parker Ranch and author of "Loyal to the Land."
Bergin, co-founder of the Paniolo Preservation Society, said the ranching industry and paniolo lifestyle contributed more than just beef to Hawaii.
"The industry kept the wide open spaces wide open. A lot of other industries, like sugar and pineapple, came in and cleared the land. Ranching didn't. All the plants, artifacts, archaeological features are still there," Bergin said. "It's made very important contributions to Hawaii's heritage, to cultural preservation, even the language."
With influences from Mexico, Portugal, Japan, China and the mainland, the cowboys developed their own style.
"The combination of all those influences made for an outstanding paniolo," Bergin said. "Everybody wanted to be Hawaiian."
The Hawaiian style of ranching originally included capturing wild cattle by driving them into pits dug in the forest floor. Once subdued by hunger and thirst, they were led by a tame steer back to a paddock with food and water.
The Hawaiians became skilled at salting the beef and supplied it to passing ships. The pelts and tallow tended to be used in Hawaii.
"The wisdom of those sea captains from the U.S. and Great Britain was to bring sheep, goats and cattle here to have fresh meat for their South Pacific journeys," Bergin said. "And, of course, the Hawaiian crops like sweet potato and taro were already well established. It was an effective pantry for them."
Parker Ranch still is the fifth-largest ranch in the country, but the heyday of the paniolo likely has passed. Following World War II, military vehicles became a familiar site around the paddocks, and the ranch's dozen paniolo are now just as likely to be seen astride an all-terrain vehicle as a horse.
Hawaii's paniolo reached its zenith in 1908 -- which gives this year's gala the centennial theme -- far from the shores of the Pacific islands.
Ikua Purdy, Jack Low and Archie Kaaua traveled to Cheyenne for the Frontier Days Rodeo. They were bothered by the cold and drew looks of curiosity for their slouched hats, colorful hatbands, bright shirts and the language they spoke.
Still, Purdy changed everything in just 56 seconds -- the time it took him to rope his steer and win the championship. Low came in third and Kaaua placed sixth.
"That really put the Hawaii paniolo on the map," Bergin said. "From a standpoint of pride, Purdy was our Babe Ruth."
A 16-foot-high statue of Purdy atop a bronco still greets visitors to the Parker Ranch Shopping Center in Waimea.