The first cowboys were Mexican vaqueros. It was these men who taught Texans how to use lassoes; how to ride, and how to round up cattle. But fifty years before the Texans started herding cattle, the vaqueros traveled to Hawaii and began a tradition many people don’t even realize exists. The first longhorn cattle were delivered as a gift to King Kamehameha I by Captain George Vancouver. Kamehameha protected them by making it illegal to harm them and they reproduced in the wild until they became a nuisance, knocking down fences and destroying crops. Portuguese and Mexican vaqueros were imported to control the cows, and then local ranchers hired native Hawaiians to oversee and control the herds. Honolulu film maker Edgy Lee has constructed an entertaining and informative history of these paniolos who developed into a close knit and skilled group of proud tradesmen who exist even today.
Using archival film footage, new interview material, reconstructions and voice-overs by actors reading period diaries, as well as contemporary reminiscences, Lee creates a masterful portrait of these cowboys. We see them sitting around in the bunkhouse in their workclothes, denim shirts, straw hats (each one decorated with a handmade lei) and cowboy boots. They are older now, maybe a bit tired, but filled with quiet dignity as they recall breaking horses, driving herds to the ocean, and floating the cows one at a time out to the ships. They discovered ways of breaking horses, using the ocean. The resistance of the sea on the animals’ legs, made it impossible for them to throw off the riders. Because there were no wharves each cow would have to be led into the ocean, suspended on the side of a rowboat, and when a half-dozen were so suspended, they were rowed out to the ship and hoisted aboard via crane and belly strap for transport. The original film of this is fantastic to watch. I’ve seen it over a dozen times and still marvel at it.
Lee shows the cowboys relaxing during a jam session. The great slack-key guitarist Ledward Kaapana leads them, but everyone plays a guitar or a ukulele. They confess to spending their weekends gathering flowers in the hills, and making the beautiful leis they wear as hatbands). They speak with pride of braiding rope, and show one that is decades old. The past is remembered with affection. The job they did was one that was hard, exhausting, but satisfying. No one would trade their experiences for a different life. An archival film shows the woman paniola who rode and roped alongside the men. They speak about passing on their job to their children, but another voice speaks of the end of this kind of ranching.
This is an evocative and moving film about Hawaii, about love for the land, and about pride in a job well done. It shows a different attitude toward ownership of natural resources, ownership of property, community, and the clash of cultures that resulted in the development of the fiftieth state. Lee is rightly proud of the accomplishments of these men, and has made a wonderful tribute to their lives and calling.
(Filmworks Pacific, 2001)
More information about Paniolo O Hawaii is available here.