While Hawaii (the “big island” of the Hawaiian Islands) may nowadays be best known for its tourist hotels and dreamy beaches, a rich paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) and ranching tradition was in place long before tourism took hold, and is still today a driving force in preserving the culture and beauty of the islands.
In 1788, British sea-captain George Vancouver presented five cows to Kamehameha I, the great ruler who united the islands; he set them free to roam his native Hawaii Island. The cattle multiplied so rapidly that in 1832 Kamehameha’s heir, Kamehameha III, sent one of his high chiefs to California to hire Spanish-Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) who would help train Hawaiians to manage the burgeoning wild cattle population.
These vaqueros brought the first horses to the island, as well as a deep knowledge of saddle making, riding, roping, and other skills of the range. Because they spoke Spanish, they were called paniolo and the island people quickly embraced their colorful traditions of music, cuisine, family values, and hard work.
Parker Ranch, once the largest privately held cattle ranch in the U.S., was established on Hawaii Island in 1847, employing a good number of paniolo, and by the 1870s, horses had been introduced on all the major islands. One early newspaper article describes “hundreds of native horsemen and horsewomen” in Honolulu in 1873. “The women seemed perfectly at home in their gay, brass-bossed, high-peaked saddles,” the author writes, “flying along astride, bare-footed, with their orange and scarlet riding dresses streaming on each side beyond their horses’ tails, a bright kaleidoscopic flash of bright eyes, white teeth, shining hair, garlands of flowers, and many-colored dresses.”
These elaborately decorated horsewomen became known as pau riders, a pau being the Hawaiian word for the long overskirt worn by women to protect their more formal attire as they rode their horses to church on Sundays or to gatherings and social events.This unique aspect of the paniolo tradition is honored as part of the Aloha Festivals that take place across the state each year to celebrate Hawaiian culture. Horseback riders representing every island decorate themselves and their horses in traditional garb and colorful flower leis, gathered from the island or region they are representing, and take part in a much-anticipated paniolo parade, with the pau unit always drawing large cheers.
Much of the knowledge of pau making and lei making is passed down from generation to generation, mother to daughter. Several weeks before the parade, the girls, their mothers, and their grandmothers begin gathering the flowers and ti leaves (Cordyline fruticosa) in the mountains and pasturelands near their homes to make leis for themselves, their horses, and the boys’ hats. Being regionally distinct accounts for a wide variety of flora used.
Then, on the day of the parade, the riders gather early in the morning to make exacting final preparations and dress and mount their horses, a process that takes two to three hours but has been many years in the making.
“It’s like a princess going to the ball,” says DeeDee Keakealani Bertelmann, a fifth-generation Hawaii Island rancher and paniolo who has participated in the pau unit since she was a young child and is now the chairperson of the Waimea Paniolo Parade. “It comes down to dedication making your lei,” she says. “I ask everyone to share that, portraying a culture of the people. Simplicity is elegance.”
The 2018 Aloha Festivals took place on September 1-29, with this year being the 43rd consecutive Paniolo Parade in Waimea on Hawaii Island, where these images were taken.
About the Author: Based on Hawaii Island, George Fuller has photographed and written extensively about his adopted home state over the past 30 years, with work appearing in such newspapers and magazines as the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic books, Alaska Airlines inflight, and many more. This is his first appearance in Equestrian Living magazine.