documenting the last of the Hawaiian cowboys

Retired cowboy, Jamie Dowsett, 85, is photographed at his home in Waimea, Hawaii.

Most people don’t know this but there are actually cowboys in Hawaii. Yes, there are also palm trees, mai tais, surfers and hula dancers and the weather down by the shore is pretty near perfect every day but the cowboys or “paniolos” as they are called locally, have been around longer than cowboys in the west and must certainly have preceded mai tais. The Hawaiian cowboy culture emerged back in the 1800s and to this day remains insular and completely unique to Hawaii with its own music, rituals, language etc.

Sadly, in recent years, high land taxes, increases in energy costs and a changing climate have all negatively impacted the viability of ranching in Hawaii. As a result, large areas of ranchland have been sold for development and many of the ranches struggle to survive. ATVs have begun to replace mounted horses for herding cattle in open ranges and many cowboys have been laid off. Today, the number of cowboys are small and they hold tightly to the community they live in. Nobody knows how long they’ll be around for.

Determined to document and preserve this culture before it disappears completely, I spent many months over a two year period photographing this community and recording interviews, music and ambient audio. I focused primarily on two large multi-generational paniolo families–the Ho’opais and the Keakealanis– to create a photo story and multi media project that would reflect the cultural richness and examine the paniolos’ future outlook.

I had such a wonderful experience working on this story. I photographed on horseback during a few cattle drives, shot aerials from a tiny 1955 piper cub about the size of a mini cooper, woke up at 4am on too many mornings, ate calf testicles (a paniolo delicacy) five minutes after “removal” and got to experience the closeness of these multiple generational families. I was struck by this extraordinary privilege to document a piece of living history and the power photography has to create a visual record of a culture that may be on its way out.

On December 30th, 2012, my multi media piece “The Last of the Hawaiian Cowboys” will finally debut at a movie theater in Waimea, Hawaii–the hub of the Hawaiian cowboy culture. While some of the paniolos and their families have seen the piece, most in the community have not and I’m excited to share it with them. In February, a print version of the story (in photo essay form) will appear in American Cowboy Magazine. I know the paniolos will be thrilled to see it there since I’ve seen that magazine in all of their bathrooms! I thought I’d share a few of my favorite images from the story.

Wearing a flower lei made by his mother, Hawaiian cowboy Bernard Ho’opai maneuvers his horse to open a gate while separating calves from their mothers at Ponoholo Ranch’s branding in North Kohala, Hawaii. Despite the introduction of ATVs to herd cattle on many of the ranches, the cowboys use horses for the skilled, nuanced work required in the confines of a coral during brandings and weanings. Ho’opai comes from a family with four generations of Hawaiian cowboys.

Parker Ranch cowboys herd over 800 cattle into a coral in preparation for weaning calves from mother cows in Waimea, Hawaii. While each cowboy has responsibility for a different section of the 135,000 acre ranch, all the cowboys work together when working with large herds such as this one. Parker Ranch was the first ranch established in Hawaii and is the largest privately owned ranch in the United States. It’s history is closely connected to the history of the Hawaiian cowboy community.

Elijah Tabiolo,4, practices his roping at the Ponoholo Branding in North Kohala, Hawaii. While mainland children learn to hit a baseball or throw a football at an early age, in the paniolo community, learning to rope and ride is given the highest priority. Kids practice by roping each other, a calf dummy and even the family dog.

Godfrey Kainoa, one of the few known descendents of the original Mexican “vaqueros” who taught the Hawaiians their cowboys skills, dances with his girlfriend, Johnelle “Amoo” Ching in the Kahua Ranch barn in North Kohala, Hawaii–which sports a bar–after a long day of branding. Kainoa is employed as a cowboy by Kahua Ranch and through the Hawaiian Homelands Commission Act, leases land on which he raises his own cattle.

Bull riders wait their turn to participate in the bull riding event at the 4th of July Makawao Rodeo which is held annually at the Oskie Rice Arena in Olinda, upcountry Maui. Overhead a rainbow arcs across the sky.

Wayne Tachera, a cowboy for Kahua Ranch, lets the ranch’s herd of horses out of the coral after spraying them with a fly repellent. In the distance, one can see the ocean. The ranch is located at 3,000 feet above sea level where some of the best grazing lands are.

Retired cowboy, Jamie Dowsett, 85, who spent most of his life on horses and has rich stories to tell, prepares a rope before riding one of his horses near his home in Waimea, Hi. “I’m 85 years old and I still think that cows and horses are the best things that ever walked on earth. I would give anything if I could still be a cowboy…being out there on the land where nobody bothers you, out in the open where it’s quiet…the horses are giving you a wonderful ride in the beautiful countryside…that is a feeling not many people have the opportunity to experience,” says Dowsett wistfully.

To see my multi media piece, “The Last of the Hawaiian Cowboys”, click on this link:

or to see a slideshow version, go to my website:

2 Comments on “documenting the last of the Hawaiian cowboys

%d bloggers like this: