Inez Ashdown and the Paniolo, 1939.

Cowboys of Hawaii Nei


There are numerous books about cowboys. Some are written by the cowboys themselves, others were compiled by admiring friends. Whatever the manuscripts, all were written by those who wished to keep alive the old traditions and the romance of the western United States.

Yet while some of the finest American cowboys are those born and raised in Hawaii, no one has ever written about the native paniola and little is heard of them except for occasional news items, or, as during the recent Hoolaulea, one or tow are included in the general publicity.

Who were the first cowboys in Hawaii, who are the cowboys of today, where do they live and what do they do other than rope cattle and ride broncos?

To answer these questions research similar to that done by David Malo and the first missionaries when they endeavored to separate legend from actuality, would have to be followed. Yet who, in this modern day, can remember some long-forgotten mele telling of the first cowboys to visit this group of islands?

That they are Mexican or Spanish is known, because the name “paniola” is a derivation of the term “Espanol.” Some of the present day cowboys will tell about a father or grandfather who was of the Latin people.

Jack Aina, one of Maui’s most popular knights of the saddle, will say “Ai. My father Mexican. Those first paniola bring noho (saddles), kaula (rope), kaula waha (bridle), kipa (spurs), and all the things we get today.”

Aina is past 60, but is still the fastest shipping man and one of the best ropers on the island, and younger men will stand watching and shouting “Aina! Hu ka makani!” (Aina, go like the wind!) as he dashes out of a corral on his big shipping horse, a bawling crow-hopping steer at the end of his 20 foot manilla line, and into the sea with a fountain of spray.

The larger his audience the better he works and laughs and indulges in horse-play, particularly if there be present any malihini. Later, after he has washed and oiled his saddle and bridle, and done himself up in fancy shirt, chaps, boots and kipa pele (jingly spurs) and topped all the finery with a ten-gallon hat he enjoys singing and dancing the Hula for his Boss and guests.

He is now horsebreaker and trainer for Angus MacPhee at the Maui Agricultural Company’s Keahua stables where the Kahoolawe and company horses are kept. He is a master at braiding kaula ili (rawhide ropes) and uses most of his spare time for this and for putting fancy work on saddle or bridle, for he takes pride in his “jewelry” and “watches his shadow” as all fancy cowboys do.

He worked at Ulupalakua ranch when Mr. MacPhee was manager there, in company with the famous roping champion, Ikua Purdy, who is foreman of the ranch. Ikua who knows ranch work from A to Z, who jogs quietly along but seems to know by instict where the pipi ahiu (wild cattle) will be hiding. Then as they “scare” he and his horse unwind like clockwork, to rope and tie like lightning.

Aina knew old Hapakuka, now dead, whose sons quietly carry on his famous work and name. And Kinau, who looked like an ancient time warrior, and who brought to mind that first noted horseman, Kamehameha the Great, whose horses and cattle, the first in Hawaii, were brought as gifts by Vancouver and Cleveland in 1793–4.

Those first animals were placed under a ten year tabu by the Hawaiian monarch, and that tabu was probably the beginning of the wild cattle which roamed the mountain slopes of Hawaii and Maui until ranchmen who wished to have pure bred cattle and thoroughbred horsses, killed them off. Today’s roping does not need the wild riding, the pinning of roped animals to pipi kauo (pin oxen), any more than kaa pipi (bullock wagons) are needed for hauling.

George Davis of Hawaii was another of the ranch’s finest, working with Willie Purdy and his brothers, Moku Smythe, George Swift, and many others who have moved away or have died, but who remain unknown although their stories would equal, and, in some instances, surpass, many stories told of heroes of the old West.

There is another paniola man on Maui who is an artist as well as a cowboy. This Hawaiian Charlie Russel is called John Lihau Kaaihue and is foreman of the cattle work at Honolulu ranch. He is 41 years old, was married in Kaupo in 1919 and is proud of his fine wife and nine children. Six husky boys and three pretty girls who help Father with the chores, or Mother with housework or the preparing and weaving of lauhala.

Lihau can make a fine saddle tree and cover it to perfection, can strip and scrape a green hide for braiding a fine kaula ili, makes his own ili kalapu (knee leggings), ordinary leggings, or chaps; repairs the family shoes when they need half-soling, makes most of the household furniture, and can repair anything from a pan to a roof.

He makes canoes and boats, fish nets, lauhala hats or mats, and likes to employ old Hawaiian methods whenever possible. But in those akamai (clever) fingers, according to trained artists who have seen his carvings, is genius.

Charlie Russel, famous cowboy artist, liked to fashion little figures of men, horses or other things from candle wax as he yarned with the cowboys in a Wyoming bunk-house. His picture, The Last Stand, according to an old story, was given by him to a saloon owner in payment of a board-and-keep bill, and the owner later refused an offer of several thousand dollars for the now famous picture. Yet Russel did not, as he joked and worked with the men, believe he would someday be famous.

Nor did Lihau, a few months ago, think that he was doing exceptional carving with his pen-knife. He often does carving for friends just to please them. But some weeks ago he found a friend who was very much disturbed. The vocational school at Kahului had made a fine table of monkey pod wood and the owner desired that the legs of the table be carved as an akua (god or idol).

The only artist available for the carving had asked a prohibitive amount, others had no time or honestly admitted that they did not believe they could do justice to the exceptionally fine piece of wood.

Lihau inspected the table, looked at a drawing made by the owner, studied some old history pictures of ancient idols, and finally said quietly that he could do the work.

At the friend’s glance of incredulity Mrs. Lihau nodded and announced that indeed John could carve anything, when he had spare time.

Two weeks later they brought the table back to town from their ranch home. It was taken by the enthusiastic owner to the vocational school principal, Ernest Hood, whose own beautiful native-wood furniture is famous. At the school the coffee table was polished and completed, and people from all parts of Maui have called at the owner’s home to see that and other carvings done by Lihau, and mats made by his wife.

One and all agree that genius created this masterpiece of art and legend, for with a few deft lines the wraith of an akua rises from the “flames” of the wood-grain.

Lihau listens to their praises, accepts their congratulations, while his wife smiles proudly, and returns home to his family and his work wondering why they all give him so much attention, for he is a quiet unassuming man who does not look for attention but who does things because they are his jobs or because he wants to. And he would not be guilty of turning out poor work of any sort.

Is he a throw-back to those old ancestors who carved idols from forest trees for the ancient temples? Or is it just simply that real cowboys must use their heads and hands to such a degree that they can do anything they wish to do?

Lihau has had very little schoolhouse training, no one has ever taught him of Art and its principles, and he does most of his carving with his knife, although he does have a few tools now which were lent by a friend.

While he works at his hobby he teaches his boys also just as he teaches them to rope and to ride and to save time a trouble by learning to think quickly, such as at the time of the big flood at Punalau.

He was driving a truck-load of laborers home from the pineapple fields but when they came to the gulch the road was impassible. He could take the men back to the main camp where they might be able to stop with friends or get food at the ranch store and sleep in the big garage used for trucks, but that meant a lot of bother for everyone concerned, and the use of a great deal more gasoline.

Why not swim? But eighteen of the men could not swim enough to breast those swirling waters rushing to an angry sea.

Eighteen times Lihau swam back and forth across the flood to take the non-swimmers to a spot from which they could easily reach home, while others stood grouped about watching and wondering just how long the man could stand the strain.

When the last man was across Lihau turned his truck, drove it back to the garage and arrived home a little late for supper. He was bothered a bit by hunger because his habit is to eat breakfast, skip lunch, and eat a hearty meal at evening.

Ranch work and its life are always varied, interesting and romantic. Other walks of life may be as exciting, or so much more dangerous that all the fun is lacking, but for sheer freedom and soaring of the spirit no other work is more satisfying than that done by the cowboy. And of all the cowboys in the world there are none who are more joyously reckless, more dependable in tight spots, more full of song and versatility than the paniola of Hawaii.

Outstanding among them are always Eben Parker Low and Ikua Purdy, whose names and skill are known far and wide even as of their haole friend, Angus MacPhee of Wyoming, whose champion roping record of 1907 still holds first place, and who is a kamaaina here.

These men are known, but there are many fine paniola whose names have never been heard outside their home ranches or islands, and among these is Lihau, the cowboy-artist of Maui.

(Hoku o Hawaii, 4/26/1939, p. 6)

Cowboys Of Hawaii Nei

Ka Hoku o Hawaii, Volume XXXIII, Number 52, Page 6. Aperila 26, 1939.