Hawaiian Cowboys: The Side of Hawaii You Never Knew About
A fifth-generation cattle rancher rides 200 years of tradition on Hawaii's Big Island.
Courtesy Nancy Erger, Reminisce It’s a bright, hot Saturday morning on the dry and rocky slopes of Hualalai on the Big Island of Hawaii, and DeeDee Keakealani Bertelmann is lifting jagged chunks of lava and carefully moving them back in place. The lava rocks form walls, many of them built by her great-great-great-grandfather and his brothers, and these walls have been corralling cattle for generations. Some are more than 200 years old.
As the fifth generation in a family of paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboys, DeeDee would rather spend the day riding horses. But more often than not, weekends find her and her family checking and fixing the miles of rock walls that crisscross their ancestral land. The family still traverses much of the ranch on horseback, because many areas are too rocky to be accessible by an all-terrain vehicle. “I always wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up,” she says. “When that’s all you know, it’s kind of hard to do anything else.”Courtesy Nancy Erger, Reminisce
Her family raises around 200 crossbred Angus cattle on 1,000 acres leased from the state. DeeDee’s RK Livestock ranch is on just a portion of the original Pu’uwa’awa’a Ranch, which spread from the mountains to the sea and was first leased out by the government of Hawaii in 1892. Now a calf-cow operation, the ranch sends most of its weanlings to feedlots on the U.S. mainland. DeeDee’s relatives also fish, hunt wild pigs, raise chickens, grow vegetables and gather crab and limpets.
Oral histories passed from generation to generation link DeeDee’s ancestors to this area long before Hawaii began leasing the land to them. “When we’re on the land, it’s almost an intimate relationship because of the connection between our family and the ‘āina, ” or land, she says. (Thinking about visiting Hawaii? Don’t miss these 11 things you need to know before booking a Hawaiian vacation.)
Courtesy DeeDee Keakealani Bertelmann, ReminisceIsland visitors are more likely to associate the Hawaiian landscape with sun and surf, and few probably realize the paniolo were wrangling cattle in the islands’ rugged uplands and lush forests decades before cowboys started riding the range in the American West. Mexican vaqueros were brought to Hawaii around 1830 to teach Native Hawaiians how to tame the cattle running wild after being brought to the islands in 1793.
The paniolo worked ranches across the Hawaiian Islands. The first significant one, Parker Ranch, was founded on the Big Island in 1847 and, along with other ranches like Pu’uwa’awa’a, served as the islands’ main source of beef through the 1960s.
Courtesy DeeDee Keakealani Bertelmann, ReminisceToday, while only a handful of commercial cattle operations remain, many islanders practice traditional skills through rodeo and their work on family ranches like DeeDee’s. She and her husband plan to retain their state leases and keep the ranch going.
“We will do everything in our power to give our children and our grandchildren the opportunity to be on our ancestral lands,” she says.
Like many Native Hawaiians who lost ancestral land, DeeDee describes a “heaviness” in knowing these areas once belonged to them. But she finds a sense of connection in continuing the traditions of her ancestors.
“I always wonder if what I’m doing today meets my ancestors’ approval,” she says. “It means even more when they can see my daughters and my nieces and my grandson living off the land.”
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