Paniolo pride on display at the UH Hilo Heritage Center

The year-long exhibit in Honoka‘a will showcase the rich paniolo history of Hāmākua.

By Kara Nelson.

Old photo of cowboys with their saddled horses and dog.
Kuka’iau Ranch Paniolo circa 1940s. Andrade Collection, UH Hilo Heritage Center. Courtesy photo.
Momi Naughton standing in the Heritage Center with a display in the background. She has on a red shirt.
Momi Naughton

A new exhibit, Na Paniolo o Hāmākua, The Cowboys of Hāmākua, opens Mar. 31, 5:00 p.m., at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Heritage Center in Honoka’a. The year-long exhibit will showcase photographs and artifacts from Hāmākua-area ranches and paniolo (cowboys). The opening and exhibit are free to the public.

“When most people think of the post-Western contact history of the Hāmākua coast they think of sugar plantations, but there is a rich legacy of ranching in the area,” says Eileen “Momi” Naughton, coordinator of the Heritage Center. “Most of the plantations had their own ranches to provide horses and mules to the plantations as well as dairy products and meat for employees.”

Naughton explains the start of ranching in Hāmākua is largely a Portuguese story.

“When the first Portuguese laborers came to Hawaiʻi in 1878, they brought their families and were given an acre of land and a house as part of their contract,” she says. “When their contracts were over, many Portuguese bought land and started dairies and small ranches. Most Portuguese had come from Madeira and the Azores where dairies were prevalent, so they brought this knowledge with them.”

Naughton has extensive experience in museum and heritage interpretation that includes being a curator at Bishop Museum in Honolulu, teaching interpretive skills in the Hawai‘i No Ka ‘Oi program at Kapi‘olani Community College, and teaching Museum Theory and Practice and Museology at Western Washington University and UH Hilo.

She served as director of the Anna Ranch Heritage Center in Waimea, where she did much research on early ranching when she was writing a social history of the ranch for the nomination of buildings to the Hawai‘i and National Register of Historic Places. She also did the interpretive plan for the Anna Ranch Heritage Center and wrote the nomination for Anna Lindsey Perry-Fiske to be inducted into the Paniolo Hall of Fame.

In addition, Naughton served for ten years on the board of directors for the Paniolo Preservation Society and currently is on the education committee.

“I think what has amazed me the most as I’ve done research on the families who ranch in Hāmākua is how these ranches have been passed down from generation to generation,” says Naughton. “When the plantations closed, the economy of Hawaiʻi shifted from an agricultural to a service industry subsistence. Yet these ranches have endured. One section of the exhibit is focusing on the new generation of paniolo and these would be the great-great-grandchildren of those who founded early ranches.”

The key contributors to this exhibit were all past or current paniolo: Donnie DeSilva, Charlie Kimura, William Andrade, Gary Rapozo, Wendell Branco, and Stanley Cypriano. Also, Corrine Kealoha and Terri Mahuna DeVerra provided family photographs from Kūkaʻiau Ranch.

Cowboys in parade on horseback holding flags, walking down main street in Honokaa. The People's Theater can be seen in the background.
Donnie DeSilva, Anthony Gomes and Frank Ferreira in 1960 Honoka‘a parade. From the DeSilva Collection, UH Hilo Heritage Center. Courtesy photo.

Preparation of the exhibit offered the opportunity for UH Hilo student and anthropology major Arwen Potochney to work on the project through a directed studies class with Naughton last semester. Potochney was interested in paniolo leather craft, so she interviewed DeSilva and Kimura, both of whom have done leather work. In addition, Patochney designed the section of the exhibit and wrote the label copy or captions for the paniolo leather work.

“All the exhibits we do in the changing gallery are community-based so that people can relate to the topics at hand,” says Naughton. “Exhibits such as this bring community pride and focus on elements of our community that many may not be aware of.”


About the author of this story: Kara Nelson is a senior at UH Hilo double majoring in English and Communication. She is an intern in the Office of the Chancellor and a writer for UH Hilo Stories.

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