New Generation of Paniolo Keep Saddle Making Tradition Alive

Ikaika Akima
Ikaika Akima
David Fuertes
David Fuertes
Jeremiah Kamalani Manantan
Jeremiah Kamalani Manantan

By Stephanie Lum

(KHNL) - A rare tradition, that dates back to the days of the Paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboy, is close to becoming a lost art.

In Kohala on the Big Island, saddle makers of the next generation are busy keeping it alive.

Ikaika Akima spends two hours, tapping away on rawhide to make his mark.

"I'm trying to make the leaf look more real," Akima explained pointing to a pattern on the saddle, "like this outside stamping here, to kind of bring it out and give it a three-d effect."

Akima looks to his mentor David Fuertes to teach him the art of Hawaiian saddle making.

"Every saddle, everything I do I try to do one hundred ten percent," Akima said.

Ikaika steps away and admires the beautiful pattern he created forming a maile lei.

"It's really almost a lost art," said Fuertes.

"Several years ago, there was less than ten really traditional Hawaiian saddle makers, and it's because just like anything else, people had more important things to do, people didn't pass it on," Fuertes said.

Hawaiian saddle making began in the 1800's. Beef was in high demand in the islands.

Spanish cowboys were sent to Hawaii to teach the Paniolo, Hawaiian cowboys, how to herd cattle. The Spanish cowboys also taught them the art of saddle making.

Fuertes gestured to a Hawaiian saddle and said, "Hawaiians were akamai. They took that saddle and if you look at that saddle, they did some alteration to it using rawhide that is connected to the rings."

"I had this idea that if students would learn from their Kapuna or their elders, then we can really, really preserve our art of saddle making," he said.

Fuertes wasted no time in making his dream, a reality. He applied for a small grant and used the funds to start a program in Kohala on the Big Island. He called the program Kahana Noeau.

Today, the younger generation of Paniolo, like Jeremiah Manantan are continuing the tradition of saddle making.

"We're making an awe awe for the saddle," explained Manantan as he skillfully weaved pieces of rawhide together.

"I just admire the stories that was told to us about my father and grandfather that worked on the ranch before me and became cowboys," he said.

The young Paniolo spend up to forty hours making one saddle. It is a team effort that teaches them patience, focus and determination to accomplish a common goal.

When the saddle is finally finished, it's time for the Paniolo to ride!

"Ever since I was small I used to like riding the horse and going out chasing cows and branding," said Jeremiah as he fastened his brand new saddle onto the horse. "That's why I want to keep this going."

As he rides off into the sunset, it is a rewarding feeling for Jeremiah, knowing an important part of Hawaiian history will not be lost.