How Three Hawaiian Cowboys Won the Wild West

A new book, “Aloha Rodeo,” takes readers through the history of Hawaiian cowboys.
aloharodeo-Ikua Purdy, Archie Ka'au'a, and Willie Spencer (credit, Bishop Museum)
Mounted from left: Ikua Purdy, Archie Kaaua and Willie Spencer. Photo: Courtesy of the Bishop Museum

There are many things Hawaii is known for: pineapples, sandy beaches, Duke Kahanamoku and surfing, to name a few.

Oh, and cowboys.

You heard us correctly. Cowboys, or paniolo in Hawaiian.

Few realize that long before cowboys made their way across the Wild West, paniolo were wrangling wild cattle—known for their often-deadly combination of aggression and sharp horns—up and down the slopes of Hawaii Island. It wasn’t until the 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming (the biggest rodeo at the time), when three men from Hawaii Island arrived to take on the fierce competition—and the racial tension that came with it—that these two cowherding cultures met.

Eben Low, center, a renowned Hawaii Island cowboy-turned-promoter who got three Hawaiian paniolo
to compete in 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming.
Photo: Courtesy of North Hawaii Education and Research Center

“Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West” ($27.99, William Morrow), a new book released this summer, takes readers from the moment a cow first touched down on Hawaii’s shores (and shortly thereafter died) to Ikua Purdy, Archie Kauaua and Jack Low’s fateful days in the Wyoming arena, where they proved themselves amid prejudice and the scrutinizing watch spectator packed in the stands.

The Honolulu Sunday Advertiser carried news of the paniolo’s victory.
Photo: Courtesy of the authors

Journalists David Wolman and Julian Smith’s rich description—the product of immense research and interviews—does so much more than just reiterate the stories of these men. They capture their very emotions and characters, sculpting a vivid world within the confines of the pages of “Aloha Rodeo.”

Smith and Wolman even bring readers to the present day and share the continued impact these three paniolo—and ranching in general—have had on this unique subculture of Hawaii. Although Hawaii ranches may have diminished in size and some paniolo may have changed their methods (goodbye horses, hello ATVs!), cattle ranching and rodeos are still alive and well today.

There are other books on paniolo, but this one delves into the rich significance of the 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days, when Americans began to see beyond stigmas and understand the abilities of Hawaiians—while also learning that the cowboys of the Old West weren’t the original herding aficionados.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1907.
Photo: Courtesy of the Wyoming State Archives

“Aloha Rodeo” certainly is a book about Hawaii’s cattle ranches and the people along the way who built up the industry, but it’s also a story about the unseen faces in ranching history, both on and off the Islands.

“We want people to see diversity everywhere in this book. The fact is that conventional thinking about the Wild West is still too John Wayne-y—a narrative casting the heroes as almost exclusively white men. The reality was much more diverse, with cowgirls, Chinese laborers, Hispanic and African American cowboys, paniolo and more. Maybe that’s what we want most: for readers to delight in this little-known tale of outsiders besting the insiders, and to come away from it feeling that the diversity reflected in these pages—and by extension in the population at large—makes the country and its stories that much richer,” Smith and Wolman say in a press release.

It’s a great beach read for the summer, with the cultural content of a history book hidden between the lines of a leisurely novel. Wolman and Smith take you beyond the Hawaii you thought you knew into the rough wilderness of Mauna Kea and the time when three Waimea boys showed the American West the strength and expertise of West Hawaii.

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