Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Guest Post for Bound in Flame by Katherine Kayne



Could it be that the first cowgirls were…..Hawaiian? And princesses too? The answer is yes and yes. And it could not be more glorious. Of course I decided to write about it.

I myself grew up on a cattle ranch. Like many girls I had my own aspirations of cowgirl-hood; that is until life intervened and I had to put the dreams aside. Little did I know that later in life those dreams might gallop right back into my life! In Hawaii of all places!

As a girl, I never heard about Hawaii’s long ranching history, or the special love of Hawaiian women for their horses. But nearly 50 years later, watching a parade in downtown Kona, I saw my first pa‘u princess and I knew I’d found my dream. Flowing skirts? Dancing horses? Gorgeous flowers? Handsome men riding in attendance? Now that is romantic!

A little history is helpful here. In the early 1800s both horses and cattle arrived on the Hawaiian Islands. As gifts from British mariners to the Hawaiian king, the cattle were allowed to roam free, multiplying rapidly. By the 1820s wild cattle terrorized farms and villages. The King had a cattle problem on his hands.

To handle these troublesome beasts King Kamehameha III brought Mexican vaqueros to the islands. At the king’s behest these hardy souls arrived in the 1830s to teach the Hawaiian people and the Hawaiian paniolo was born. Both men and women took up herding duties. In fact, the first major cattle ranching operation, Parker Ranch was already in full swing in the 1850s, while the big ranches in Texas came later, after the Civil War.

Hawaiian women became and remain famously good equestriennes and even developed a special way of wrapping their long skirts to ride astride through the dense brush. This technique, called pa‘u (overskirt in the Hawaiian language) could protect clothing on long rides to social events too. A skilled wrapping could have a woman arrive at a distant dance with her fancy gown relatively unscathed. 

In the 1900s, with the advent of the horseless carriage the need for these wrapping waned. Still Hawaiian women formed societies to keep the tradition of the pa‘u alive. Parades and festivals offered an opportunity for the ladies to flaunt their skill. The women rode as princesses representing each island with traditional color and flowers. This tradition is still followed today. An amazing early video from Edison films, probably dating from 1906, shows it all:  

It’s not just about pretty colors and flowers. The modern Hawaiian woman who rides pa‘u embraces her cultural heritage and island values. The cowgirl traditions run deep. Most of these women have ridden their whole lives, many have competed in rodeo. Their riding was not recreational, it was work. While all-terrain vehicles have taken up much of the rancher’s burden, there are still areas in Hawaii’s mountainous ranches that can best be worked on horseback.

No wonder these women takes their parade role so seriously. Each pa‘u princess forms what is called a unit, of which she is the leader. With attendants and outriders and the ever-essential pooper-scooper. And as is the tradition of leadership in Hawaii it is the princess’ role to guide, protect and serve her unit. 

Even the so called “Princess Wave” is better in Hawaii. Rather than an elbow lifted in a stiff wave, it is a flat hand reaching out from the rider’s heart to the crowd with the offer of aloha. The very essence of the generous spirit of Hawaii. 

Thankfully a core of women remain committed to keeping the tradition alive. Since fewer families actually work the ranches less women have the opportunity to ride with the level of skill that parade pa‘u requires. Think about it. A woman draped in 12 yards of billowing fabric atop a thousand-pound animal. Enthusiastic crowds - mostly kids - on all sides. What could go wrong?

Once Hawaii opens again I hope you will go. If you do, turn away from the beach for the moment and look up hill or mauka as they say. You just might see a cowgirl riding over the hill.

Katherine Kayne is the author of Bound in Flame, the first in a series about hard-riding Hawaiian suffragettes at the turn of the twentieth century. Her next installment, a prequel novella, Pistols in Paradise will be out this fall! You can check her out and join her newsletter at Yes, there are cocktail recipes!

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