On February 23, 2003, a flatbed trailer carrying an enormous bronze statue of Ikua Purdy roping a bull was pulled into the Parker Ranch Shopping Center in Waimea on the Big Island. After a blessing ceremony it was pulled back into a warehouse because it was too big for the site. The statue by Fred Fellows of Arizona was 16 feet high and 27 feet long. An alternate site and dedication was expected in June. The Paniolo Preservation Society erected the statue.
In 1999, Ikua Purdy was first Hawaiian voted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame. That same year Purdy was the first inductee to the Paniolo Hall of Fame established by the Oahu Cattlemen’s Association.
In 1908, Purdy stunned the American West at the World Championship finals in Wyoming by winning the steer-roping contest in 56 seconds. Unlike today’s calf-roping, riders lassoed full-grown steers. Eben “Rawhide Ben” Low, owner and manager of Pu’uwa’awa’a Ranch on the Big Island, sent Purdy and two other ranch hands to compete in the Championship. Archie Ka’au’a (Eben’s half-brother) came in second, and Jack Low (Eben’s brother) placed sixth. The three paniolo made a colorful entrance in Cheyenne wearing their vaquero-inspired chaps and hats with flower lei and wowed the spectators with their performances.
Hawai’i had a cowboy culture before the American West. In 1793, British Captain George Vancouver gave Kamehameha a gift of cattle. As the result of a kapu against killing them, by 1830 the wild cattle posed a dangerous threat to humans. In 1823, Kamehameha III hired Spanish-Mexican vaqueros from California to hunt and train Hawaiians to rope and handle cattle. The cowboys spoke Spanish “Espanol” which turned into “paniolo” and the Hawaiian cowboy culture was born. The cattle trade in the American West was at its peak in 1867 until the early 1880s, many years after Hawai’i’s paniolo culture had begun.
Born in 1873 in Waimea on the Big Island, Purdy moved to Maui after the competition and was foreman at Ulupalakua Ranch for many years until his death in 1945 at age 72. He never returned to the mainland to defend his title. His victory and legend live on in rodeo history.
Aloha, Mele Fong aka Ukulele Mele