Local cowboys scoffed when three mysterious riders arrived at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Arena in 1908. Their spurs were smaller than the local cowboys’ spurs, they carried rawhide lassos, and they adorned their wider-brimmed hats with—wait for it—flowers. However, these Hawaiian paniolos (cowboys) quickly silenced skeptics with their record-breaking times, leaving the crowd clamoring with questions.
In Aloha Rodeo, David Wolman and Julian Smith answer these questions with the same engaging, thorough prose that marks their solo work. On the surface, this is a book about the cowboy history of Hawaii, which was a new United States territory in the early 1900s. But this book also explores “identity, imperialism, and race” through the wild narratives of “ranchers, warriors, showmen, cowgirls, missionaries, immigrants, [and] royalty.” The narratives are so wild, in fact, that they often read like fiction.
For example, the British first brought cattle to the Sandwich Islands (now the Hawaiian Islands) in 1793. They were a gift for the ruler, Kamehameha, who had been so displeased with the former British liaison that he had him bludgeoned to death. When it was showtime, the animals were brought out of the dark ship’s hold and into the tropical sunshine, where they were lowered into canoes with a giant pulley. The first two died of shock upon making it into the small boats. Did I mention they were longhorns?
During this time, cattle were given free rein on the Big Island. They became so fierce that natives feared being gored or trampled. The first Hawaiian cowboys risked their lives to hunt these animals like wild game, subduing the beasts to bring peace to their island again. And as the authors suggest, if you interpret the cattle as a gift from imperialists meant to placate the natives, it gives the conquests of early paniolos even more dimension.
If your perception of cowboy culture has largely been shaped by Louis L’Amour, Lonesome Dove and John Wayne, hold onto your hats. Aloha Rodeo blows open a canyon of inclusionary cowboy history as wide as the Rio Grande.