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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017

 

The Cowboy Poet of Kona 
Story By: Stu Dawrs
Photos By: Megan Spelman

Allen Wall stands among the camellia bushes at Waihou, his ancestral homestead, talking about the changing nature of ranching life on Hawai‘i Island. “I have a song, ‘Na Kiwi Aka Mahina,’” he says. “‘Kiwi’ means the horns, the sharp, pointy horns. There are very few horned cattle today, so paniolo don’t know that word. When there’s a new moon out in the wintertime, its horns will be pointing straight up,” he continues, cupping his hand to represent the crescent phase of mahina, the moon. “It’s true everywhere, but it’s especially meaningful in Kona because it’s the dry season. The old-timers say that when the moon is like that, it’s holding its water. In the summertime, when Kona is wet, the moon is this way,” he turns his hand side-ways, “and it spills the water. And so I was inspired to make the song.”

Wall is an old-school paniolo, or cowboy, who’s worked the ranches of Kona most of his life. He’s also a gifted storyteller and composer. His songs, which until recently had been shared primarily within his family, commemorate specific places and people. They’re poetic and have kaona, or multiple meanings. Often he will sing a verse, then stop to explain what’s coming next—first in Hawaiian, then in English—and sing again.

The soft-spoken octogenarian, who looks and moves like someone much younger, is steeped in the old ways. His family has lived at Waihou for generations. Many of the flowers here were gifts from travelers who visited in the late nineteenth century and were planted by Wall’s great-grandmother, Eliza Laika Makua Davis Roy. Some are so rare they’ve stumped horticulturalists as to their origin. A modern ranch house sits nearby, and just beyond the corral is the southeast corner of the Pa Nui, or the Great Pen: the 486-acre rock-wall enclosure that King Kamehameha I ordered built to house the small herd of livestock given him by Captain George Vancouver when the British explorer visited Kealakekua in 1793.

In 1850 Eliza Davis’ first husband, William Johnson, purchased the Pa Nui from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. By the time he died in 1863, he had more than doubled his lands in the area. Eliza and her second husband, William Roy, built the first home at Waihou circa 1866. Wall traces his Hawaiian genealogy through Eliza, whose mother and grandmother came from Ka‘u on Hawai‘i Island and whose father’s family came from Maui. His European ancestry is hinted at by Eliza’s maiden name, one that is well-known in Hawai‘i: Davis. Eliza’s father was John Davis, nephew of the British mariner Isaac Davis, who became the advisor and confidant of King Kamehameha I. Wall doesn’t favor either lineage, though; the identity that defines him is paniolo.

Ask people in Hawai‘i to tell you what they know about paniolo culture, and you’ll get some version of a story that begins in 1793, when Vancouver brought cattle to Kawaihae in South Kohala as gifts. King Kamehameha placed a kapu on the animals, meaning that no one was permitted to harm them. They flourished and began overrunning the island. Parker Ranch was eventually established in Waimea to manage the herds, and Spanish vaqueros, or cowboys, began arriving in 1832 to teach Hawaiians their skills.

This is all largely true, but it leaves out Kona’s seminal contribution to the story. James Jackson Jarves wrote in 1842 that only one cow and one bull had landed in Kawaihae, “which were all that remained of several cattle, which [Vancouver] had brought from California, with the benevolent design of introducing the breed of these valuable animals. The cow died soon after landing.” Some have said the cow was so sick that it didn’t survive even the canoe ride to shore.

That cow and bull were a gift to a local chief. The king’s cattle, however, were all landed farther south, at Kealakekua—once on the same 1793 voyage (these being the other livestock of which Jarves wrote) and again in 1794. It was there that cattle were successfully introduced to Hawai‘i Island. The new arrivals needed plenty of water and forage, so Kamehameha selected the area near Waihou for the Pa Nui; one translation of Waihou is “new water.” The Pa Nui was no ordinary pen. To contain cattle you need a roughly five-foot high wall that’s a couple of feet wide. The Pa Nui’s walls are in places nine feet high and more than six feet wide.

“When the king tells you to build a wall, you build a wall,” says Ku‘ulani Auld. “The animals were placed under kapu. They were property of the king, and so they were protected in this enclosure that was essentially built in the style of a heiau [temple] wall.” Auld is Wall’s second cousin and a historian in her own right. Her mother is Barbara Nobriga, Wall’s first cousin and a respected horsewoman, rancher and grandmother to champion rodeo riders. In fact Nobriga, Wall and Kapua Wall Heuer—Wall’s aunt and Nobriga’s mother—are all members of the Paniolo Hall of Fame, which was established in 1999 to honor paniolo who helped to create or to perpetuate the culture.

It’s not clear whether the cattle escaped the Pa Nui or were set free, but once out they wreaked havoc on the small Hawaiian farm plots that blanketed Kona. By the early 1800s there were thousands of feral cattle roaming the island, so the kingdom designated official “bullock hunters” to cull the population and to raise funds for the government by selling hides and tallow. Eventually hunting was opened up to privateers. These were not, however, paniolo. “The bullock hunters, a lot of them were not very good people,” says Wall. “They were derelicts, they were deserters from the ships, just every kind of person you could think of. They went into the forest with guns and pack animals and salt to preserve the hides, and they hunted the animals and then they took the hides to the ships.” This was around the same time that the first Spanish vaqueros arrived in Waimea. “There’s no record that any of those vaqueros came to Kona,” says Wall, “but their students went all through the kingdom, so by the second generation you had the paniolo everywhere.”

This is the point in history, the 1860s, that Wall’s family began to harvest wild cattle from the land above Waihou. Given the immensity of the landscape and the danger involved, several families—the Greenwells, Halls, Johnsons and Roys—pooled their paniolo, choosing specific areas for a drive. The cattle would be driven into the Pa Kuni, a corral just above the Pa Nui. There they would be divided among the families, branded, driven down to the ocean and shipped live to O‘ahu.

While the Pa Kuni was much smaller than the Pa Nui (which was far too large for the work at hand), Wall estimates it would have still have been at least two acres—much larger than a modern corral. “The reason for the large size was that wild cattle will not go into a confined area,” he explains. “They need to go into an area where they feel they can escape. Beyond that, among the cattle being driven were large bulls, and all of the cattle at that time had horns. Some of them very big, sharp horns. You can’t get into a small corral, like the size of today, with a sizeable bull. He’ll kill you. They would chase any horsemen or any human that got near them. And it’s the nature of bulls when they’re crowded together to start fighting each other. This creates great turmoil, because these fights are going on all around, and you’d better not be near them when they’re doing that.”

Today there are four working ranches on Hawai‘i Island that trace their lineage to Eliza Davis and either William Roy or William Johnson: Mahealani Ranch, Wall Ranch, Palika Ranch and W.H. Shipman LTD. The land, divided among various descendants, remains in the family. Wall is the patriarch of Wall Ranch, its operations now largely handled by his son Roy and granddaughter Kaua. Fluent in Hawaiian and steeped in paniolo history, Wall is often called upon by researchers seeking firsthand knowledge. He also serves as president of the board of the Kona Historical Society.

Although the day-to-day language of ranching in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Hawaiian—Wall says that both his grandmother and father were fluent—at home it was English. The exception in the family was Wall’s aunt, Elizabeth White, who in her later years spoke Hawaiian almost exclusively. Growing up during the Depression, Wall was often with his aunt Lizzie while his father was working, and she was his primary source of learning.

Wall started playing music in 1945 as an eighth-grader in the dorms of Punahou School in Honolulu. When he returned home to Kona on breaks, the eminent composer Helen Desha Beamer would often be visiting his paternal grandmother, Christina Lilinoe “Noenoe” Roy Wall, at her homestead downslope from Waihou. Beamer played piano and encouraged anyone present to sing and dance. After graduating, Wall went to college in California and didn’t permanently return to the Islands until 1957, following a two-year tour of duty in Korea. He started working at Kahua Ranch in North Kohala, where he again heard Hawaiian spoken regularly among the generation of paniolo who were close to retiring. Wall recalls that few paniolo his age spoke Hawaiian conversationally, though they knew enough to do their jobs. But despite not having heard or spoken the language for years, he could still understand the older paniolo.

“When I was a boy the cowboys told me, ‘Ina hana pipi ‘olelo Hawai‘i,’” Wall says. “That means, ‘If you walk our walk, you talk our talk.’” A more literal translation would be, “When you work the cattle, you speak the language.”

Beyond the forest belt and near the border of Wall Ranch, on Hualalai’s more arid and much cooler upslope, is Kaukahoku. In the 1880s this outpost was used to produce butter for shipment to Honolulu. In the days before refrigeration, butter would be made at cooler high altitudes and then brought to the coast for shipping. Portions of the original structure still stand, though they’ve been built into a modern barn that also serves as a drying shed for koa wood harvested from fallen trees. Last April the Kona Historical Society embarked on a documentary video project to record the paniolo songs associated with Kona ranches. The first segment focuses on Wall’s songs and ranch. A group of photographers and videographers trailed him as he went first to Waihou and then to Kaukahoku, telling stories and playing music, accompanied by former Royal Hawaiian Band master Aaron Mahi and Kimo Ho‘opai, himself a working paniolo.

At Kaukahoku, Wall spoke of how this region was once the realm of the bird catchers, who would come here to capture nesting ‘u‘au, a bird reserved for the ali‘i. While telling this story, Wall weaves together multiple strands, discussing how the introduction of mongoose to Hawai‘i destroyed the ‘u‘au nesting grounds, how the bird catchers were the only ones hardy enough to spend extended periods at these altitudes, and how, in later years, they would be essential to the process of surveying land for private ownership, given their intimate knowledge of traditional boundaries. In the barn there is only one photo on the wall: Naluahine, a well-known paniolo of the past generation who was, as Wall notes before launching into a song, descended from the bird catchers.

“That photograph really says something about Allen,” says Joy Holland, the Kona Historical Society’s executive director. “Naluahine was a tough Hawaiian cowboy. Respected, someone who mentored many other Kona cowboys. As Allen has documented, he was also a cultural resource whom people like Henry Kekahuna and Mary Kawena Pukui”—two noted Native Hawaiian scholars who worked at Bishop Museum—“sought out and quoted in their writings. He knew the land in a way few did or do. That this is the one picture that is visible in Allen’s barn, where his family can see it as they go about their work, seems perfect to me. He reminds me of Allen in all these important ways.”

“Allen Wall is from a time when the paniolo were not only great horsemen, they were minstrels and they still spoke the language,” says Hawaiian cultural practitioner Daniel “Kaniela” Akaka Jr., who has known many paniolo over the years and often gets together with Wall to play music. “Every paniolo has their own stories and knowledge, but not all whom I’ve known were songwriters. Allen is a very, very rare person and a great treasure. When we get to sit down and talk, he might say, ‘Oh, this is a song I wrote about this place,’ and the song will not only talk about the place-name and its meaning, but also the names of the rains and the winds of the area. So like the old songwriters, his songs keep the names of these places and the names of the winds and the rains alive.”

Once the king’s cattle were free of the Pa Nui, they wrought another change: They essentially destroyed the native system of small farms throughout the area. When Hawaiian Kingdom land became available for private ownership in 1848, some large-scale farming was attempted. “Of all the Europeans that came here, there were two kinds as far as agriculture went,” says Wall, sitting with Auld on the stoop at Waihou. Together they represent the fourth and fifth generation of ranchers in their family; Auld’s children and Wall’s grandchildren are the sixth. “There were the ones who got land grants and tried to go into plantation-style farming. Those people all failed. And then there were the livestock owners. They survived, and they’re still here.” 

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