This fascinating narrative elucidates the histories of two of my favorite places on the planet; the magnificent and unique Big Island of Hawaii and the spectacular and iconic Rocky Mountain West. It tells the story of three Hawaiian cowboys "paniolo" who traveled 4000 miles across seas, deserts and mountains to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to compete in the 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo.
The Cheyenne Frontier Days event was established in 1897. It was the first competitive rodeo of its kind in the world. It featured pony races, bronco busting and steer roping, among other competitions, in the first few years and was extended to several days and myriad events and activities in the years to come. In 1908 it was attended by about 12,000 spectators from the Americas and around the world, a huge number of people at that time. Today it draws upwards of 200,000 visitors and goes on for 10 days or more.
When the paniolo first arrived in Cheyenne the local residents and visitors were shocked to see the Big Island cowboys, thinking it was some kind novelty act. They wondered where these "greenhorns" came from. The paniolo were certainly an unconventional sight, with their ornate leather chaps, braided leather lariats, flower bedecked hats and dark skin. Exactly who were these native interlopers?
The truth of the matter was that the spectators were seeing some of the best cowboys in the world. What they didn't know (neither did I) was that these paniolo came from a long and deeply ingrained cattle culture that was twice as old as that of the American West. The second ship to stop at the islands, captained by the ill-fated Captain Cook's second in command, Captain George Vancouver, brought cattle to Hawaii in the late 1700s. The Hawaiians were chasing the wild and wily longhorn cattle across the volcanic, lava-splattered slopes of the islands before Lewis and Clark even crossed the Mississippi River.
Ikua Purdy, Jack Low and Archie Ka'au'a were the result of generations of bullock hunters and cattle wranglers, punching some of the meanest, wildest and most dangerous cattle across one of the planet's hardest, most challenging and perilous cattle ranges ever seen.
David Wolman and Julian Smith have done an excellent job of capturing the excitement and wonder of the early days of Hawaiian cattle culture, documenting the history and tradition, not to mention the cultural upheaval and environmental problems, that developed after the first cattle were swum to the shores of Kealakekua Bay (the very bay where Captain Cook met his demise).
They also paint a superb portrait of the wild and woolly culture of the early 20th-century Rocky Mountain West and the new technologies and discoveries that were shaping the western tradition as they came under sway of the modern world. These were things like the railroads, which were the beginning of the end of the cattle drives, leaving towns like Cheyenne literally by the wayside, before entrepreneurs and showmen like Buffalo Bill Cody and others starting using them to bring the "Wild West" to the people and, then, to bring the people to the "Wild West".
I am adding "Aloha Rodeo" to the list of narratives that I consider to be some of the modern greats; books like "Blood and Thunder" by Hampton Sides, "Empire of The Summer Moon" by S. C. Gwynne, "Seabiscuit" by Laura Hillenbrand and, most recently, "The Promise of the Grand Canyon" by John Ross. This is a truly entertaining, educational and satisfying tale, told with verve and gusto.