Thinking about the American West, you conjure up images of cowboys riding through the dusty plains on their trusty horses. They’re probably roping cattle, avoiding battles with Native Americans or hanging out in old-timey saloons.
But if your thoughts drift over to the beautiful islands of Hawaii, you probably imagine more of a laid-back lifestyle. The reflection of beautiful sandy beaches, big blue waves and a tropical environment is probably the most obvious way to picture the 50th state.
But you generally don’t think of the two mixing, right?
In David Wolman and Julian Smith’s new nonfiction book “Aloha Rodeo,” those two worlds combine in a major way.
“David has some in-laws in Hawaii, and during one of his trips down there, he saw something at a museum about these Hawaiian cowboys that are reasonably famous down there, but there wasn’t much detail about them,” Smith said. “We’ve been friends a long time, and we’ve been together quite a bit, so we got to talking and our writers’ instinct just kicked in and we knew this was a story. The more we started digging, the better the story got.”
The book covers three paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys, who traveled to Cheyenne in August 1908 to compete in Cheyenne Frontier Days. It tells the stories of Ikua Purdy and cousins Jack Low and Archie Ka’au’a, and their quest to ride with some of the best and toughest cowboys in the West.
Purdy ended up winning the world steer roping championship by roping, throwing and tying a steer in 56 seconds. Ka’au’a and Low took third and sixth place, respectively. There is now a statue of Purdy and a steer in Waimea, Hawaii.
But Smith noted the book is about more than just these men taking home prizes from CFD.
“It’s also a story of Hawaiian history and the American We-st,” he said.
“The thing that jumped out to us is that, normally, the stories about the West are pretty white. But as we dug in, we found this real clash of cultures with Polynesian people and stories about women and people of color in the West. Our history isn’t as black and white as it originally seemed.”
The book is now in stores and can be purchased on Amazon for either the Kindle or in hardback, or through Barnes and Noble.
Since this was the first book the two writers have worked on together, they were grateful that the story was basically evenly split already – with one portion taking place in Hawaii and the other in Cheyenne. They decided Wolman should work on the research in Hawaii, while Smith researched the Cheyenne half of the events.
Smith noted he utilized various museums, archives and old newspaper clippings (including from the Wyoming Eagle and the Wyoming State Tribune, predecessors of this newspaper) to help fill in the details of these three men and their time spent in Wyoming.
Paniolo are direct descendants of vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys. Cattle and sheep were brought to Hawaii in the 1700s, and Hawaiian monarch Kamehameha outlawed the slaughtering of these animals. But as the cattle became wild and a major issue on the islands, cowboys were needed to control the population and make them at least a bit more domesticated. So vaqueros were brought in to teach some of the Hawaiian people about their ways.
Smith noted he and Wolman hope people come away from the book with a new insight about Western history, as well as an appreciation for Hawaiian culture they didn’t know about originally.
“We have that romantic myth of cowboys, but this expands on that myth a bit,” he said. “I think people will be really interested in hearing stories about these Hawaiian cowboys and how much work it took for them to control cattle and sheep. We already thought being a cowboy was difficult, but this was a whole new level.”