'Aloha Rodeo' Offers Alternative To The Cowboy Cliché

'Aloha Rodeo' Offers Alternative To The Cowboy Cliché

Few vocations have been more revered in American popular culture — more romanticized — than that of the cowboy.

They ride purebred stallions through arid sagebrush flats and carry a six-shooter on both hips. They spit tobacco juice with scandalous accuracy. They wear long spurs and leather chaps and possess a moral compass rigid as their cast-iron skillets. They're also, apparently, white — or so the dime novels and spaghetti westerns would have us believe.

White and male and unquestionably American.

Those who earn their living raising cattle today are often the first to mock the showmanship of the Hollywood cowboy — the job is far too demanding for whimsy — but fewer may be ready or willing to dismiss the notion of their calling as a quintessentially American (specifically euro-American) pursuit. Fortunately, the origin of the cowboy has come under greater scrutiny over the last few years, and popular culture is slowly catching up.

Dom Flemons' Grammy-nominated album "Black Cowboys," for example, released last year and now number four on the Billboard bluegrass charts, calls attention to the many former slaves who participated in the great cattle drives after the Civil War. And the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, one of the largest celebrations of the cowboy west, regularly highlights minority influences on today's ranching culture. After all, the term "cowboy" is a direct translation of the Spanish term "vaquero," and "buckaroo" likely a corruption of the same.

Now comes Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World's Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West, to further buck — at least to pluralize — our clichéd notions of the American cowboy. Co-authored by journalists David Wolman and Julian Smith, both contributors to a slew of national magazines, Aloha Rodeo chronicles the history of a surprisingly large cattle trade on the Hawaiian Islands and profiles a number of "paniolos" every bit as tenacious and resourceful as their mainland cohorts. In a wholly effective maneuver, the authors follow these Hawaiian cowboys from the volcanic slopes of their home turf to Cheyenne, Wyoming — once nicknamed the "Holy City of the Cow" — where they competed in the Frontier Days rodeo, the world's largest, in 1908. The old axiom — often attributed to novelist John Gardner — claims there are only two plots: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. But in Aloha Rodeo, a slim and swift read, Wolman and Smith juggle both to often thrilling effect.

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