By Léo Azambuja

Makena Murayama at the 2016 Koloa Plantation Days Rodeo. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The Koloa Plantation Days may remind us of a time when sugar plantations dominated the island’s economy. But the 20th Annual Koloa Plantation Days Rodeo, held at the opening of the festival, takes us back even further into Hawai‘i’s history — a time when paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys, learned to properly ride horses to round up cattle.

“The whole idea this year is perpetuating the paniolo heritage; where the paniolo came from, how he learned his skills as a cowboy in Hawai‘i. That all comes back to the vaqueros, the Spanish-Mexican cowboys that came to Hawai‘i to help to control the wild cattle,” said Joyce Miranda, coordinator of the rodeo to be held at CJM Country Stables July19-21.

In 1793, British Capt. George Vancouver gifted Kamehameha I a few cattle. Those cattle fared poorly in Hawai‘i. But on the following year, Vancouver brought additional cattle to the Big Island, and advised Kamehameha I to put a kapu on slaughtering them to allow the herd to grow.

Taylor Langtad leads her horse at the keiki barrel racing competition at Koloa Plantation Days Rodeo in 2016. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Ten years after the first cattle arrived in Hawai‘i, Kamehameha I received a stallion and a mare as a gift from American Richard Cleveland. Those were the first horses to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.

By 1830, herds of wild cattle had grown to thousands of animals, and became a huge and dangerous problem on the Big Island. They destroyed native crops, ate thatching on houses, and injured and killed people. This prompted Kamehameha III to lift the kapu his late father had placed on slaughtering cattle. The king went even further; he encouraged cattle hunting and hired foreign bullock hunters, and in 1832 he sent a high chief to California to bring back cowboys to train horses and round up cattle.

Though there were horses in Hawai‘i, Miranda said, Hawaiians were never trained on horsemanship.

“They didn’t know how to ride, the vaqueros had to come and teach the Hawaiians how to train their horses, how to rope, how to make their ropes, how to make their saddles,” she said.

Jeff Knapp at the 2016 Koloa Plantation Days Rodeo. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Soon after the three Mexican-Spanish vaqueros — Kossuth, Louzeida and Ramon — arrived on the Big Island, they became known as paniolo, a term Hawaiians borrowed from the word Español, or Spanish. Those paniolo were also to teach Hawaiians how to ride horses and round up cattle. It turns out Hawaiians were fast learners, and quickly became experts in horsemanship and roping.

The vaqueros also introduced the guitar to Hawaiians, who loosened up the strings and developed the harmonious slack-key style, known as kī hō‘alu.

“So this is the whole thing this year, we’re trying to bring up the history of why this is such a cultural thing,” Miranda said of the paniolo lifestyle in Hawai‘i.

Adding to the theme, Dr. Billy Burgin, a veterinarian from the Big Island, will be a guest historian at the rodeo. The former president of the Paniolo Preservation Society has written four books, and is one of the most knowledgeable people on paniolo history, according to Miranda. He’ll be talking story with the public under the big tent Saturday and Sunday.

The 20th Annual Koloa Plantation Days Rodeo will be at CJM Country Stables in Po‘ipu July 19 from 4:30 to 10 p.m.; and July 20 and 21 from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Visit cjmkoloaplantationdaysrodeo.com or call (808) 742-6096 for more information.