Paniolo Pandemonium: The Untold History of Hawai‘i’s Cowboys in “Aloha Rodeo”
Island rodeos give local heroes a chance to rope, wrassle and get bucked into the dirt. A new book and summer events honor the spirit of the three paniolo who took on the world’s best in 1908 and won.
This story was originally published in the July 2019 issue of HONOLULU Magazine.
Mounted from left: Ikua Purdy, Archie Ka‘au‘a and Willie Spencer.
photo: courtesy of bishop museum
Queen Lili‘uokalani attended Eben Low’s Kapi‘olani Park rodeo in late 1907, but its biggest draw was the world champion cowboy from the “real” West.
And when Angus McPhee struggled against Hawai‘i’s best, Low, a renowned one-handed Big Island cowboy-turned-promoter, got his heart’s desire: an all-expenses-paid trip for the rodeo’s top three paniolo—Ikua Purdy and cousins Jack Low and Archie Ka‘au‘a—to Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Super Bowl of rodeo.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1907.
Photo: Courtesy of Wyoming State Archives
Maybe you heard what happened next. But trust us: You don’t know half of it, not nearly, and not as entertainingly as David Wolman and Julian Smith tell it in Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West. A perfect summer read, it’ll also whet your appetite for peak Island rodeo season—including July events on Kaua‘i, Maui and the Big Island. (The biggest, held annually in Waimānalo, is hosted by Hawai‘i country music queen Dita Holifield and draws more than 15,000 spectators.)
(Left) The Cheyenne Daily Leader's special 1908 Frontier Days issue. (Right) The Honolulu Sunday Advertiser carried news of the paniolo's victory.
Photos: Courtesy of the authors
Chapter One’s opening—“The first cattle to set foot in Hawai‘i didn’t live to see their first sunset”—sounds like something a sheriff might say to an outlaw gang. And outlaws are what the second pair of Spanish longhorns soon spawned: snorting, garden-uprooting, Kamehameha-kapu-protected bullies. Three Mexican vaqueros were imported to tame the outlaws and, it turned out, to inspire our homegrown paniolo. Seventy years later, Purdy, Jack Low and Ka‘au‘a won in front of 30,000 mostly white, totally stunned Westerners in Wyoming—making this a thrilling and, for Islanders especially, utterly satisfactory story.
While it moves at a fast clip, the book also italicizes the historical cruelties (racism, Native American genocide, the overthrow of Hawai‘i’s monarchy) in rodeo’s rise to mass entertainment. It also joyfully swings saloon doors wide for the era’s cowgirls and African American cowpokes.
Photo: Courtesy of North Hawai’i Education and Research Center
In that inclusive spirit, “we’re celebrating The Year of the Paniolo on Kaua‘i,” says Joyce Miranda, vice president of CJM Country Stables in Po‘ipū and coordinator of the 20th annual Kōloa Plantation Days Paniolo Heritage Rodeo. The three-day event highlights contemporary rodeo: dirt ring showdowns for serious competitors (typically for a $10,000 winning pot) doing the familiar roping and bull-bucking, but also changes of pace like Bell Races for party-costumed girls, galloping flights of pā‘ū riders and even Mutton Busting—where 6-year-olds cling to the woolly flanks of sheep. (Oh, and don’t forget the big silver belt buckle given to the best Wild Cow Milker—just imagine a ring full of cowpokes chasing down full udders.)
Trailblazing bronco rider Bertha Kaepernick.
Photo: Wyoming State Archives
We can’t wait. But reading Aloha Rodeo is a great way to warm up, preferably over some cold beer and barbecue.
$27.99, William Morrow, 25 photos, available wherever books are sold. To find rodeos year-round go to hawaiirodeonews.net.