The Paniolo

The Hawaiian cowboy, the paniolo, is a direct descendant of the vaquero of California and Mexico. Experts in Hawaiian etymology believe “Paniolo” is a Hawaiianized pronunciation of español. I have also heard that the word is a derivative of “Hispaniola,” a descriptive word applied by Hawaiians to Mexicans (Hispanics) that came to the islands.  (The Hawaiian language has no “s” sound, and all syllables and words must end in a vowel.) Paniolo, like cowboys on the mainland of North America, learned their skills from Mexican vaqueros.

By the early 1800s, Capt. George Vancouver’s gift of cattle to Pai`ea Kamehameha, monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, had multiplied astonishingly, and were wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. About 1812, John Parker, a sailor who had jumped ship and settled in the islands, received permission from Kamehameha to capture the wild cattle and develop a beef industry.

The Hawaiian style of ranching originally included capturing wild cattle by driving them into pits dug in the forest floor. Once tamed somewhat by hunger and thirst, they were hauled out up a steep ramp, and tied by their horns to the horns of a tame, older steer (or ox) that knew where the paddock with food and water was located. The industry grew slowly under the reign of Kamehameha’s son Liholiho (Kamehameha II).

Later, Liholiho’s brother, Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), visited California, then still a part of Mexico. He was impressed with the skill of the Mexican vaqueros, and invited several to Hawai`i in 1832 to teach the Hawaiian people how to work cattle.  The Mexicans came to Hawai’i, showed the Hawaiians how to manage cattle ranches, then in time returned to Mexico and California.

There is another very interesting spin-off from this story, and that is the story of how the Mexican cowboys and paniolos were involved in the evolution of Hawaiian “slack key guitar,” known as ” Kī hō’alu ” in Hawaiian.  Kī hō’alu is one of the most beautiful genres of music you will ever hear…so beautiful, in fact, that I am doing research on the subject in hope someday of writing a book about it.  If you want to hear the best “slack key” guitar in the world, just do a Google or Youtube search for Led Kaapana, Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, Cyril Pahinui (if you can find Cyril’s instrumental rendition of “Makee ‘Ailana”, you will be listening to perhaps the most beautiful guitar solo ever recorded), Martin Pahinui or George Kuo.  These artists are the best in the world at what they do, and they merit your closest attention and respect.

One version of the origin of slack key guitar has it that when the vaqueros came to Hawai’i they of course brought their guitars with them.  Then, over the years and around a thousand different camp fires, the vaqueros showed the Hawaiians how to tune and play the guitar.  When the vaqueros returned to California, they left their guitars behind and the Hawaiians, over many years, developed their own tunings for them.  No one can argue that the results were not, are not absolutely striking.  It is magnificent music.

Even today, traditional paniolo dress, as well as certain styles of Hawaiian formal attire, reflect the Spanish heritage of the vaquero. The traditional Hawaiian saddle, the noho lio, and many other tools of the cowboy’s trade have a distinctly Mexican/Spanish look and many Hawaiian ranching families still carry the names of the vaqueros who married Hawaiian women and made Hawai`i their home.


Back to Previous Page