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Photograph by Ben Masters

Home on the Ranch: Saddling Up With Hawaii’s Cowboys

I’m glad I didn’t ask the paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys, to wear flower leis and cowboy hats. That’s a huge pet peeve of theirs.

I was in Hawaii for the Waimea Ocean Film Festival, where I was showing Unbranded, a documentary I produced about four guys, included me, who rode 16 wild mustangs across the American West. Some paniolos came to a screening of the film, and when they invited me for a cattle gather and branding the following week, I jumped on the opportunity.

And asked to bring my camera.

They told me most people, photographers especially, come to Hawaii with preconceived notions that cowboys wear flowers, everyone surfs, and hula girls serving mai tais are behind every palm tree.

While my stereotype wasn’t nearly that bad, I certainly wasn’t expecting huge ranches, dusty conditions, and a paniolo culture that predates the cowboy era of the American West.

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Paniolo Tyler Cox successfully ropes a calf on the Parker Ranch; Photograph by Ben Masters

Hawaii wasn’t spared the sad fate of most of the islands in the world in the past few hundred years: the attempt to make them “better” by chronically introducing invasive species. Hawaii land managers are now scratching their heads, trying to understand what “good” land management means when a large portion of flora and fauna is exotic.

Cattle are no exception. Hawaiian cattle are hated by some and loved by others, but they are undoubtedly the lifeblood that allows the famed 130,000-acre Parker Ranch on Hawaii Island to stay financially viable and intact when developers, subdivisions, and resorts come knocking.

Five longhorns were introduced to King Kamehameha I in the 1790s as a present. He declared them kapu, or taboo, and freed them to the island, where they flourished on the grassy volcanic steppes. Twenty years later, sailor John Palmer Parker married the king’s granddaughter, Kipikane, and began gathering the feral cattle that were by then overrunning the island.

The Parker Ranch was born.

In 1832 John Parker hired Mexican vaqueros to help with the cattle gathers and to establish a large ranching operation. The Hawaiians called the vaqueros “paniolos,” and the name stuck.

Paniolos today could have Mexican, Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Filipino, or any combination of ancestry. I didn’t really care where the paniolos came from because I noticed right off the bat that they all gave the photographer—me—an equally hard time.

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Calves are roped, dragged to the branding pens, branded, vaccinated, and castrated. The entire process takes about two minutes; Photograph by Ben Masters

I met the 20 or so Parker Ranch paniolos needed for roundup and branding before daylight. They thought their jokes about how far the horse would buck me off were pretty funny. Thankfully, Jason, one of the cattle bosses, gave me his personal horse, a younger sorrel quarter horse gelding with a quiet demeanor. We mounted up and took off as the sun was beginning to touch the peaks of Mauna Kea Volcano in the distance.

The pasture we were gathering had about 500 cows on 10,000 acres. The paniolos split up to push all the cattle into a corner at the bottom of the volcano, where the branding pens are located. They positioned themselves above the cattle and allowed them to slowly amble downhill. Occasionally a cow would attempt to bolt between riders and make a break for it, but the paniolos are excellent horsemen and quickly turned them around.

I rode with a paniolo named Tyler, mainly because he picked on me the hardest, and we spooked up a band of feral hogs, an invasive species that causes a lot of damage. Tyler ran after the pigs, untied his rope, and threw the lasso. He caught a pig by the snout, but after a moment’s struggle it got away and ran up the hill. I told Tyler that a mainland American cowboy would’ve made such an easy catch and then rode off before the rebuttal.

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Jesse Hoopai, a fourth Generation Paniolo, surveys the Angus calves; Photograph by Ben Masters

It took about two hours to gather all the cattle into one corner of the pasture. From there we slowly pushed them into some working pens for the branding. We started by separating the calves from the mothers and segregating them into different pens. The volcanic dust began to rise, the wind howled, and it looked like a scene more fitting for West Texas than Hawaii. I felt right at home.

The roping and branding began as soon as the calves were separated. The Hawaiian style of roping is as unique as the paniolo culture and the gear they use. They swing the rope in the opposite manner of mainland cowboys, and this “houlihan” shot is extremely effective: The paniolos rarely missed their rope tosses and would catch the calves by the hind feet and drag them to the branding fire. Another cowboy would then quickly throw the calf to the ground and sit on it as the calf was ear-tagged, vaccinated, castrated, and wormed. The entire process takes about two minutes per calf.

While the dust was swirling and setting roots deep inside my camera, I had the opportunity to talk to Jason about Parker Ranch and the Hawaiian ranching industry. The Parker Ranch alone pastures around 17,000 heads of cattle. Over the past several decades, its business model has focused on producing calves to be shipped to feedlots on the mainland and entered into the mainstream beef supply.

But they’re getting new ideas spurred on by the grass-fed and sustainability movement. The transition is carefully slow, but the future of Parker Ranch beef will likely be grass-fed, locally produced cattle that are raised, finished on grass, and slaughtered in Hawaii for Hawaiians. This transition would cut carbon emissions and transportation costs and provide Hawaiians with ethically sourced proteins.

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Paniolos gather cattle at a slow controlled pace to reduce stress and risk to both cattle and horses; Photograph by Ben Masters

Another future for Parker Ranch? Staying intact. Broadway performer Richard Smart, the most recent heir to the once 500,000-acre dynasty, died in 1992. He left the Parker Ranch in a trust that encourages open spaces and habitat for wildlife. Many of the ranches on Hawaii are being repeatedly split up by developers to satisfy a growing population, luxury homes, and resorts. That won’t happen any time soon on the Parker Ranch and because of that, the strong paniolo culture has a bright future.

The black volcanic dust was caked deep in my eyes, ears, nose, and clothes as I left the branding and headed for the coast. It always surprises me how fast the romanticism of a cowboy lifestyle is killed by the reality of the cowboy lifestyle. But the paniolos have one very large benefit over most cowboys: the beautiful, clear waters of the Pacific Ocean.

After a quick dip in the ocean to wash the filth off my body I already wanted to go back. The life of the paniolo is one to be envied.