What better place than Waimea to talk about paniolo, where stop signs appropriately read “WHOA” and the Hawaiian cowboy culture is embedded into the fabric of the historic North Hawaiʻi town.
David Wolman, who co-authored Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West, is HPA’s writer in residence this semester and recently took some questions from Ka Makani Upper School students at Gates Performing Arts Center. Wolman’s book, which he wrote with Julian Smith, is a triumphant true story of the native Hawaiian cowboys who crossed the Pacific to shock America with their resounding win at the 1908 World Rodeo Championships. The non-fiction novel follows Ikua Purdy and his cousins Jack Low and Archie Ka‘au‘a on their journey nearly 4,000 miles from Hawaiʻi to test themselves against the toughest riders in the West.
Aloha Rodeo was assigned this summer for all high school english classes and the students developed many compelling questions for Wolman about the book, his career path as a writer, and much more. Here are some of the highlights of the panel discussion’s Q&A:
What inspired you to look into Hawaiian history and learn about the cattle industry came to be? And what was the motivation in spreading the story of the Hawaiian cowboys.
This project began for me after reading maybe four or five sentences about Ikua Purdy on a plaque at the Pukalani Stables. I was visiting there with my family many years ago. One of the things about being a non-fiction writer, is that you can’t really turn off this curiosity or hunger for the next project. Some of that is because it’s your job, but it’s also who you are. Even though I was supposed to be vacationing with my family and looking after my young kids, I saw these four sentences and it mentioned this guy and what happened in 1908, and that they travelled to Wyoming. Right away, I was hit with this flood of questions.
At first, I thought there must be a book out there about this kind of thing. And not a book for people who know about paniolo. I write for a much broader audience, so I assumed that there must be a book on the shelves somewhere for readers in Miami, or Chicago, or rural Nebraska. I started looking around and there was nothing. I started to look at how to make this a wider story than a quick magazine article and then I started to see some of the ingredients that made it promising. There’s Wild Bill Cody, the idea that it’s right after annexation, and, of course, the role of cattle in colonialism. I was bumping into all these meaty ideas. One thing I saw early on is if you are going to write about some cowboys in a steer-roping competition, that’s a really quick event — like 50 seconds. You can’t really get a book out of that. I had to figure out what kind of other ingredients I could find to make it a full meal. Working in tandem with my co-author, Julian, the real moment was when we found Angus MacPhee, who is Ikua’s rival in the story. He was the five-time steer roping champion from Wyoming. That’s an excellent element for a sports story. Then we knew we had it.
What inspired you to write this story?
I really like the idea of sticking it in the eye of really simplistic thinking. Most people in the United States think they know what a cowboy is, where cowboys are or were, what color a cowboys is, and what Hawaii is — palm trees, mai tais, surf boards and that’s it. What I loved about this project is that it was able to show people that the world is much more complicated than they think, and in really delightful ways. There’s this amazing story that’s hiding in plain sight about cowboys from Hawaii. Of course, in Waimea that’s not really a big newsflash. People know that there are cowboys here. The rest of the world is really ignorant of that fact. It was really fun to try to teach people that in a conversational way that hopefully they found entertaining.
What sources did you use to find your information and how long did it take you to do the research for the book.
One of our most valuable sources are people. We were talking with people who lived or study paniolo history. We also connected with some descendants of the main characters in the story. And there were a lot of contemporary newspapers from that era both in Wyoming and in the islands which were super, super helpful. There were even a few Hawaiian language ones — of course, we had some translation help. But those were terrific resources for a number of reasons. You can get the facts and you can also get the feeling of that time period if you’re looking something up in a contemporary newspaper versus a history book or — god forbid — Wikipedia.
This book is done, but these places are apart of me now. Not in some spiritual way, but in a delightful way.”
What part of Aloha Rodeo, or more specifically Hawaiian culture, did you appreciate most?
The work of herding the cattle into the surf is so incredible. Every time I see some of the black and white footage of that work, I’m completely blow away. I’m dazzled by it every time I think about it. Another thing that comes to mind is how most people in that era — under really difficult circumstances in terms of annexation, and the fate of Hawaii and colonialism — knew how to have dialogue and disagree then in a way that we could learn from now. I don’t know if that’s something that should be specifically labeled “Aloha Spirit,” but I get the sense that it’s circling that airport. I think that’s something everyone should admire about Hawaiian culture.
What inspired you to move to Waimea
We had fallen in love with this place a couple of years ago. It was on our minds and we have some family here. I have two children who are 11 and 7 and we always liked the idea of pulling them out of their world in Oregon and dropping down somewhere else in the spirit of adventure.
This book is done, but these places are apart of me now. Not in some spiritual way, but in a delightful way. I went for a run up Mana Road the other day, parked my car by the old Purdy homestead. I could travel back in time just a little bit and think about some of the conversations I had while working on the book or people I met on the book tour. And to be in these incredibly beautiful landscapes, how could I not move to Waimea?
Why did you become a writer?
I think my first introduction to the idea or possibility of being a writer was in high school, with an amazing teacher or two in an english literature class who lit that fire. But there is a huge gap between imagining the romantic life of a writer and pursuing it professionally. I went to journalism school, which was really essential as far as thinking about reporting, storytelling and facts — not making things up. Journalism is a fairly common window into the world of writing books. All it really took were some teachers and professors who told me, ‘you’re really good at this.’
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration is interesting because on the one hand it’s my job to be curious about everything. On the other hand, it’s very inconvenient to be curious about absolutely everything. Chances are there isn’t a book on the history of auditorium chair layout, although there might be some scholar out there who could totally bend my ear for a few hours on it. I’ll come home and tell my wife and she’d wonder what the heck I’m thinking. There is a huge pile of bad article or book ideas in my history and it’s growing every day. The initial inspiration is really just being interested in something. That’s just a spark, you have to start some initial digging. This is a less literary answer, but there is a commercial answer to it too. You need to convince someone else to let you go write the book. You have to figuratively, not literally, explain where the book fits on the shelf. You have to make the case for it, almost like a prosecutor, saying ‘this should exist.’
Advice for young aspiring writers
Get off the screen and go for a walk or run. Buy a little notebook for your pocket that you can sit on. Do some more letter writing and reading. When you are reading and love a book, before you move on, try to figure out what made you like it so much. Nothing is really that original, so maybe when you go do some writing of your own, there will be some echoes of that writer you really liked before.