A note from the authors: We were drawn to this story because it’s fascinating, exciting, and virtually unknown. But through the process of research and writing, we also came to see a relevance, if not urgency, to this tale. At a time when xenophobes and bigots feel emboldened and facts seem optional, we need stories that reexamine our culture and the history we think we know. Our new book, Aloha Rodeo, the tale of the Hawaiian cowboys who rocked the rodeo world, upends simplistic notions of the “Wild West” and American identity as a whole, and reminds us of a plain truth that is too often overlooked in today’s political climate: diversity only makes America better.
AUGUST 21, 1908. A drizzly late-summer morning on the high plains of eastern Wyoming. The sun was just rising over Cheyenne, but hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators were already milling about the arena on the north edge of town. They sipped home brews, chatted about the coming winter, and tried to catch a glimpse of the men the local papers had dubbed “the lithe youngsters from the far Pacific.”
When Ikua Purdy and his two cousins finally entered the rodeo grounds of the bustling frontier town, the crowd eyed them with suspicion and mild amusement. Like the other wranglers, the three men wore boots, blue jeans, and spurs. But head to toe, their gear looked different: broader hat brims, smaller spurs, leather chaps, and braided rawhide lassos. Around their hats they wore strings of local wildflowers that evoked their home on the island of Hawaii.
Few people saw them as a threat. This was Wyoming, after all, home to rodeo champions and cattlemen as rugged as the landscape they worked. Still, they were clearly outsiders, like unknown drifters stepping into a dimly lit saloon.
This morning, though, they had stepped onto the biggest stage there was: Cheyenne Frontier Days. What had started as little more than an entrepreneurial whim a decade earlier had—with help from William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Annie Oakley, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless Native Americans—ballooned into the most prestigious cultural showcase and rodeo competition on Earth. By 1908, the arrival of contestants from the South Pacific was proof that the “Daddy of ’Em All” had become the premier rodeo. Whoever triumphed here was the undisputed champion of the world. Every year so far, local boys from Wyoming had won the cattle roping competition. The Hawaiians had traveled almost four thousand miles to try to break that streak.
What the press, spectators, and other competitors didn’t know, and indeed almost no one in the country did, was that ranchers in Hawaii had been breaking horses, roping wild bulls, and herding thousands of cattle before anyone in the American West. These men, like their fathers and grandfathers, made their living doing exactly what all the other contestants did: they were cowboys. Paniolo, in Hawaiian. Damn good ones at that.
Yet side glances and snickers were not the only challenges that Ikua Purdy, Jack Low, and Archie Ka'au'a had to contend with during their stay in Wyoming. A great deal rested on their shoulders. The overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy and the forced annexation of the country by the United States a decade earlier had traumatized an independent nation whose traditions dated back centuries. The young riders brought with them the pride and anxiety of an entire people reeling from a sustained attack on their cultural identity and apprehensive about their future under the rule of overlords an ocean away.
The halls of Washington echoed with debate about how best to deploy America’s new military and economic might. Those who espoused empire-building were winning. At the turn of the 20th century, America’s frenzy of imperialism took the Stars and Stripes to Cuba and the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii.
On a map, the archipelago is a tiny arcing chain of dots amid the largest expanse of blue on the planet, like a spatter of paint on a wall. But Hawaii’s isolation is, paradoxically, what makes the islands’ story, and that of its cowboys, one of interconnectedness. That thread connects Polynesian voyagers, Spanish conquistadors, and British seafarers bearing unexpectedly far-reaching gifts. It weaves through international trade in whale oil, sandalwood, beef, and leather goods, and extends to the birth of that most American of sports, rodeo, which at the turn of the 20th century was spreading like prairie wildfire.
Aloha Rodeo tells the story of the rise of paniolo culture in Hawaii and rodeo in America, Wyoming in particular, and the remarkable year when those worlds collided. It overturns simplistic notions of cowboys and Indians, and explores questions of identity, imperialism, and race. Most of all, though, it is a tale about people: warriors, ranchers, showmen, cowgirls, missionaries, immigrants, royalty, and the countless unnamed individuals whose lives, through the micro-accidents of history, intertwine in this little-known saga of the American West.
Despite the mist and unseasonably cold wind, tens of thousands of people packed Frontier Park that August morning. One paniolo, Archie Ka’au’a, lassoed and dispatched his steer with such ease that locals did a double take. But flukes happen in rodeo. Champions are consistent. The cowboys of the front range of the Rockies, embarrassed by the Hawaiians’ performance, were suddenly eager to put them in their place.
The next competitor, mounted on a horse he had met only days before, was Archie’s cousin Ikua Purdy. While most spectators saw him as little more than a curiosity, a handful of them knew better. At rodeos in the islands, Ikua had posted times that put him in the highest echelons of the sport, and within striking distance of five-time U.S. roping champion and Wyoming native son Angus MacPhee. The small, wiry Hawaiian in the brightly colored striped shirt was the real deal: not just the best paniolo in Hawaii, but one of the best cowboys anywhere.
Ikua glanced up to see the parting clouds beyond the crowded grandstand. Then he took an extra turn of the reins around his left hand, checked that his lariat was untangled, and called out, “Steer!” The gates flew open and the animal bolted into the arena.
A moment later Ikua kicked his heels, and man and horse lunged forward as one.
From the book ALOHA RODEO: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World's Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West by David Wolman and Julian Smith. Copyright © 2019 by David Wolman and Julian Smith. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.