International Cowboy Culture: Hawaii's Paniolo

I feel a bit odd about labeling this article "international cowboy culture," as Hawaii is part of the United States, and so not actually international.

But there are Hawaiian cowboys, called Paniolo, and they have their own history and tradition which started long before Hawaii entered the Union, back when it was an independent kingdom in the Pacific. In fact, they exist because of one of Hawaii's kings, King Kamehameha I. He had been gifted four longhorn cows and one bull from explorer George Vancouver,. The steer thrived on the island, and by 1860 they numbered in the thousands and were a bit of a nuisance.

Enter John Palmer Parker, born in Massachusetts, who literally jumped off a ship to get to Hawaii. He performed a number of odd tasks for Kamehameha, including beinging the king a state-of-the-art musket from the War of 1812; the king granted Parker permission to use the musket to shoot some of the island's feral cattle.

Over time, Parker developed a business with the cattle, selling salted beef to whaling vessels. In 1832, Needing assistance, Parker began hiring Mexican vaqueros to drive the cattle. The locals called these men "paniolo," perhaps derived from "EspaƱol," or Spanish. The paniolo taught locals their skills, and so began the tradition of the Hawaiian cowboy.

Paniolo had to develop different skills than mainland American cowboys. The cattle were loaded at sea, with paniolos leading them out, three at a time, to a longboat, tie them to the side, and, when the boat was surrounded by floating cattle, they would row the longboat our to ships docked nearby. This meant that a fair amount of a paniolo's time was spent in the water, and they trained large draft horses for this, riding them in the surf up the the horse's chest.

Journalist Constance Hale wrote about paniolos for National Geographic, and described gentle horseback riders with leis around their hats, riding at night, when it was cooler, and singing in Hawaiian. The paniolo look is still inspired by its vaquero roots, with neck scarfs and wide-brimmed hats, but it has also absorbed Hawaiian and mainland American influences, including floral patterned cowboy clothes and American-styled rodeos.

Paniolo's also have their own music, which draws from the cheerfully strummed, brightly vocalized music of Hawaii; the music has a genial, swaying quality, but typically lacks the clip-clopping sensibility of a lot of American cowboy music. Nonetheless, it is instantly recognizable as cowboy music, thanks, in part, to occasional whooping and hollering, which seems to be universal to cowboys in the Western hemisphere, and thanks to song titles like "Kilakila Na Roughrider," which means "Hawaiian Roughrider," and "Adios Ke Aloha," which combines Spanish and Hawaiian, was directly influenced by vaquero songs, and was written by Prince William Pitt Leleiohoku.


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