Issue 9.3: June/July 2006

Way of the Noho Lio

story by Rose Kahele
photos by Ann Cecil


Eight years ago, David Fuertes flew to O‘ahu to learn a traditional Hawaiian art from an elderly, self-taught master. Fuertes, a long-time resident of the Big Island’s Kohala district, had never met Kingu Gushikuma, a second-generation Okinawan American who lived in Pearl City. So he was a little unprepared for his initial introduction to the slowly vanishing art of Hawaiian saddle making.

Upon arriving at Gushikuma’s home, Fuertes, a high school teacher in Kohala, was warmly greeted by the sensei, who wanted to sit and talk story about North Kohala and Hawi, his old hometown. Fuertes politely obliged. Their Saturday morning conversation dragged on into lunch and then into dinner, meals that were generously provided by Gushikuma.

Fuertes returned the next morning and Gushikuma was ready for him with more food and stories. The pair whiled away the hours, exchanging tales about mutual acquaintances and experiences. Later that afternoon, the sensei asked his prospective student if he would like to return the next weekend. Fuertes anxiously agreed. He desperately wanted to learn saddle making.

When Fuertes returned to O‘ahu the following Saturday morning, Gushikuma shared more stories, none of which involved saddle making. On Sunday afternoon, with his return flight only a couple hours away, Fuertes approached the master. He feared that Gushikuma didn’t want to teach him; if this were the case, he would leave and not return. But the teacher spoke first: “You come back next week, and we learn. I think you’ll be a good saddle maker,” said Gushikuma. “You get plenty patience.”

The following weekend Fuertes’ training began.

A third-generation Filipino-American learning a Hawaiian art form from an Okinawan craftsman? Even though Fuertes’ induction into the art of saddle making seemed straight out of a Hollywood martial arts film—more Mr. Miyagi than Matt Dillon—it was a wholly appropriate experience: Hawaiian saddle making is a post-contact art and one that has been influenced by many different cultures and many different hands.

In David Fuertes' hands, saddle making is
both an art and an educational tool.
Here he shows student Shandon Stevens
the way.

The Hawaiian cowboy saddle, or noho lio, is descended from the saddles brought to the Islands in the 1830s by Mexican vaqueros, cowboys who worked Hawai‘i’s first cattle ranches. In turn, the vaquero saddle had itself evolved from the rigid and ornate horse gear that Spanish conquistadors used in their invasion of Mexico and much of the “New World” in the 1500s.

Hawaiian craftsmen made substantial adaptations to the already versatile vaquero saddle, which not only reflected the unique climate that paniolo worked in but also differences in the horses they rode and the multiple jobs they performed. For instance, the noho lio uses substantially more rawhide than the vaquero and western saddles, since the uncured leather held up better in the wet and humid conditions of the Island range. The rawhide was braided into a series of straps called ‘awe‘awe (tentacles), which were attached to brass rings. This front rigging system, attractive and durable, not only made the saddle more adjustable than the vaquero version, but also significantly stronger and roughly ten pounds lighter.

According to Fuertes, Hawaiian craftsmen also raised the seat to give paniolo more stability in rough, lava rock terrain and broadened the saddle horn, enabling them to secure larger bulls. Island saddle makers also widened the back flap, or lala, which could accommodate another rider or the occasional hunted and dressed wild boar.

Gushikuma, who taught himself saddle making after taking apart and then reassembling a Hawaiian saddle, made some important contributions himself. He redesigned the saddle tree—the wooden core—to accommodate a wider variety of horses. He then had the tree, which would become known as the “Kingu slick” or “Kohala slick,” fabricated in Utah and Texas, where they could be easily manufactured for future Island saddle makers. According to Fuertes, his teacher also passed on a fanatical attention to detail and a Zen-like appreciation for the sacredness of the art.

“When I made my first saddle with my sensei, I was hurrying and I slipped and made a big cut in the leather right where you could see it, right where you sit. I told him that I wanted one more piece of leather, because I wanted to make it perfect. It was my first saddle with him,” says Fuertes. “He told me that I had to use the damaged leather, because he wanted me to see my mistake every time I got on the saddle. It would remind me that when you are tired, you can’t think. You can’t push yourself. You have to relax, open your mind and then make your saddle.”


Fuertes says that Gushikuma’s purity of line is reminiscent of the Hawaiian concept of no‘eau (to work diligently, to attain valuable knowledge), a way of working that connects people, environment and spirituality. He made ten saddles under the watchful eye of his teacher and every one was constructed with a particular person and use in mind, with a total investment of time and spirit.

It takes Fuertes about thirty work hours to complete a saddle.

“You give all your mana into it. It’s an everlasting feeling,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re working on a saddle, you have a not-so-good feeling. Maybe you couldn’t agree on a price, or you gave a price that was too high, or too low. In those cases, I stop, talk to the customer again and make sure everything is pono before continuing. Sometimes I’ve finished a saddle, but it just doesn’t feel right, so I take it apart and start over.”

Shortly after completing his first saddle with his sensei, Fuertes realized the importance of Gushikuma and his art to the rest of the community. Wanting to ensure its preservation, he applied for and received a grant from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts’ Folk Arts Apprenticeship Awards program. Fuertes apprenticed for five years with Gushikuma—but perpetuating the folk art was one thing. Making it grow was another.

A couple of years after he began his apprenticeship, Fuertes received an educational grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to teach saddle making at Kohala High School, with a focus on both cultural preservation and economic sustainability. Fuertes now teaches kids not only how to stitch together strips of leather but also how to piece together a business.

According to Fuertes, material costs for a Hawaiian saddle are approximately $600. His students’ saddles, which have been purchased by working cowboys, collectors and even a Honolulu art gallery, are sold for about $1,200. Last year, Fuertes began participating in a mentorship program sponsored by the Kohala Intergenerational Center and the nonprofit Partners in Development Foundation. Again, the focus is not solely on making saddles, but also on starting a business and building self-esteem.

“When I first asked my sensei if he could partner with me and take saddle making into the classroom, he said: ‘Good. No one taught me. I had to learn myself. Before I die, I want to pass it on.’ He died last April. He was a very special man,” says Fuertes. “This isn’t just about making saddles. We have a serious substance abuse problem here on the Big Island. I think kids take drugs because they don’t feel good about themselves. We’re trying to help them.

“When you finish a saddle, you have a terrific sense of accomplishment. You feel whole,” he continues. “We want to pass on that mana, but we also teach kids how to write a business plan and how to get start-up money. They get a bank account and a checkbook and self-respect. It’s more than just learning a skill. It’s about making a connection with people, the environment, spirituality and, maybe most importantly, themselves.” HH