The paniolo cowboys of Hawaii

photo courtesy of yark64/FlickrPaniolo is the Hawaiian word for “cowboy” (though the literal translation of the word really means “sitting”), and the paniolo culture has thrived on the islands ever since 1809, with the arrival of a 19-year old sailor from Massachusetts named John Palmer Parker. As Parker passed along the islands on his way to China, he decided to jump overboard and try his life as a marksman on the Big Island, thus beginning a 200-year cowboy tradition that has lasted in Hawaii since the rule of King Kamehameha I.

Word of Parker’s ranching abilities got around to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I, and the king asked Parker to round up the wild cattle roaming the hills of Waimea, a town well-known for its paniolo history. Since then, Parker became a close companion to the king, eventually marrying into the royal family and building what would become one of the largest cattle operations in the United States. By the 1920′s, Parker Ranch was a 500,000 acre estate that held the biggest herd on the planet.

In order to tend the ranch’s vast land, Parker hired Mexican cowboys called vaqueros, who taught the Hawaiian cowboys important riding and ranching techniques. The original paniolos of Hawaii are a dying breed, though, as more and more Hawaiian ranchers apply modern techniques as opposed to the ones brought by Parker 200 years ago.To get a real taste of the paniolo lifestyle and culture, head to the country in Maui (the Kula area) or the Big Island (Waimea).

Maui has a popular 2-hour Paniolo Ride across scenic and historic Haleakala Ranch, which is located at the 4,000 ft. elevation of Haleakala and is the largest working cattle ranch on the island. The ride offers awesome views of the ocean and valley while riders trot through green pastures and amid eucalyptus trees. For real ranch-like accommodations, stay at the Silver Cloud Guest Ranch in Kula.

If you on the Big Island, two of Parker Ranch’s historic homes in the Waimea area, Puuopelu and Mana Hale, are open for tours. Also, as part of the month-long Hawaii Island Festival, the town of Waimea celebrates a Paniolo Parade, usually in September. The parade celebrates Hawaii Island’s oldest ranching community with floats, marching bands and equestrian units. Paniolo and pa’u riders will ride to display their colorful costumes, lei and riding skills. Immediately following the Paniolo Parade is the Annual Waimea Ho’olaule’a featuring “ono local grinds” (a.k.a. “yummy food”), beautiful crafts, and day-long entertainment featuring local entertainers.