By Michelle Moranha Winner
Two days after the tsunami scare, we are happily winding down the road from Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii without a care in the world. Through grasslands punctuated by the occasional dome-shaped cinder cone hill or pu’u, we head towards the tiny village of Pu’uanahulu. Here in God’s country under a blazing blue sky, the Kohala mountain range recedes in the rearview mirror and gradually so does the lush grazing. Scarcer and farther apart, the patches of good grass become separated by the vast black lava flows of centuries past that erupted out of volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and rolled down toward the sea. We are on our way to the Keakealani family ranch Na Pu’u, to meet DeeDee Keakealani-Bertelmann, a 5th generation Paniolo Wahine cowgirl who along with her family cares for her ancestors’ land and lives the real paniolo tradition.
Our little rental car will be no match for the rocky lava road on the ranch so we abandon it just inside the ranch gate. Waimea saddle makers Albert Moniz Jr. and son Joseph, a horse trainer friend from Oregon D. Glynn and me hop out and are met at Na Pu’u by a tall and strikingly beautiful DeeDee with creamy brown skin, sparkling eyes and a radiant smile. Of Hawaiian, German, Scottish, Irish, and Native American descent, DeeDee and husband Kamuela greet each of us Hawaiian style with a hug and kiss on the cheek. We offer our aloha to the rest of DeeDee’s family including her dad Sonny and sister Ku’ulei and join them in two trucks, slowly bouncing along the lava road past Kiawe trees, the remains of an ancient sacred heiau ( temple), and old stone walls hand-placed by their kupuna ( ancestors) over 200 years ago. Three Blue Heelers, Punk, Tuf and Taz and a bright white mixed Staffordshire Terrier named Lexis amble alongside as Kamuela whistles for them to follow.
To understand the passion DeeDee has for the paniolo life, you have to understand her motivation. DeeDee is part of this land and comes from an impressive paniolo lineage. Her sister Ku’ulei tells us that “as far back as there is written history, we are genealogically tied to this land.” Indeed as DeeDee says, “ My love for this land and my kupuna is one of the reasons I choose to live the life I do. Na Pu’u has been our home for generations past and (will be) for generations to come.”
DeeDee’s great-great grandfather Ka’ilihiwa owned a team of plow horses and worked corn on the nearby Pu‘uwa’awa’a Ranch. Her great grandfather Keakealani became a cowboy for the same ranch. Her grandfather Robert Keakealani Sr. at 14 started work there as well and by the age of 16 was breaking and training horses to become a renowned horseman actively cowboying for that ranch for 51 years. Her father “Sonny” Robert Keakealani Jr., now retired as much as an active cowboy can be also worked many years at Pu‘uwa’awa’a and Parker Ranch and is a legendary cowboy in his own right. With such rich blood running through her veins how could she choose any other life?
As the road wanders through the pastures, I begin to appreciate the sacred beauty of this family land and I believe I can feel the mana kia‘i ( guardian power) and respect for this land the family maintains being generated back to DeeDee’s family by the land that supports them. DeeDee tells me about her RK brand ( named for her beloved grandfather Robert Keakealani) and its operation, “ Here Na Pu’u we have 1000 acres of land we lease from the State of Hawaii. We raise 120 head of Angus crossed mama cows, with about 13 Red Angus, Black Angus, and Charolais bulls. We also have 160 acres in Waimea, also leased where we keep the bulls when they are not servicing the herd. We also keep 30 replacement heifers. On a Hawaiian Homestead lease of 300 acres we keep our horses and culled cows before sending them to market. We operate a winter breeding program because it is a little easier to sell our weaned calves before summer comes.”
But as I listen I am also learning of the challenges DeeDee and her family face here. The green grass we are working our way through now in late March, will turn to dry brown forage in summer, and every drop of water here has to be piped in and paid for. “ Water is and always has been the biggest obstacle at Na Pu’u” DeeDee says, “ we are at the 2,500 ft. elevation in an area with about 10-12 inches of rainfall per year.” The family has always been necessarily resourceful DeeDee tells me, “ In the 1940‘s-1950’s my grandfather would use the panini ( cactus) in times of drought. They’d torch the needles then slice the cactus so it would seep. The cattle survived the droughts because of this. Na Pu‘u can be a harsh place in times of drought but when the rains come, it is abundant in feed and we are able to produce a quality animal. My kupuna (ancestors) have taken very good care of us,” DeeDee adds.
The beauty of this land is also the reason this traditional Paniolo lifestyle is in constant jeopardy. Outsiders from the mainland or neighboring Hawaiian islands with no understanding of the sacredness of this land; the kupuna whose spirits still inhabit these lands, and the obligation to protect it, believe that building their version of paradise via a McMansion is their right. Developers develop, golf courses suck up the limited water resources and the ranching and agriculture community suffers. As DeeDee tells us, “ With the developments, more and more of these people have come who believe that the only life that I have ever known is inhumane and not right. Instead of accepting our way of life, they do everything they can to change our lifestyle. We live on an island and many thingsshould be left alone. We have been taught for generations that there is a balance to life; there are times to gather, times to leave alone, times where action needed to be taken. Look at our oceans. Nature groups and hotels decided to hatch and release turtles into the sea; now we have no reefs, no reef fish, no limu (seaweed). These were things that our families depended on to live. The turtles have eaten them all. As those who came before us, we live off our land from the mountain to the sea, and as the stewards of the land, we know and understand that there is a balance to all life.”
The lease on DeeDee’s ancestral lands allows only grazing rights and therefore disallows the control of the goat population here in order to attract hunters. “ They( goats) drink our expensive water, break our stone walls and they eat everything until there is nothing,” DeeDee says, “ my kupuna kept them under control.”
It is late afternoon and we have reached a beautiful section of pa pohaku (stone holding walls for cattle ) to gather in the shade of the old Kiawe trees. We all pile out of the trucks and while photographer Ken Lara sets up DeeDee tells us about her wish to teach the next generation to continue on. “ This is my biggest fear; how will it be for my children , my nieces and nephews who live this ? Will they be pushed off their ancestral lands by people who bring loud voices and pockets full of money?”
Facing many obstacles, the fierce warrior spirit of her native Hawaiian culture continues to push her forward. “That is why I give my family the opportunity to be able to remain on our ancestral lands. To be able to continue our lifestyle, to build and repair the stone walls that their great-great grandfathers built over 200 years ago. To give my daughters, La’akea and La’i , the opportunity to tell our mo’olelo ( stories) and spend time with their papa learning the ways of the paniolo, to be hard workers,to be strong women and to know where their foundation was formed.”
There is a Hawaiian saying DeeDee shares with me that is one of the foundations of the paniolo life “ ‘Pa’a ka waha, nana ka maka, hana ka lima‘: shut the mouth, watch with your eyes, work with your hands. In other words be quiet, observe and do.‘ “
DeeDee balances herself against a gate and just as you or I would speak to someone standing next to us, she reverently asks permission of her great-great-grandfather to use his spurs and land as she puts on his kepa amala ( spurs) and mounts her beautiful twenty year old mare Ho’omau (to continue, persevere). Sitting quietly in her Hawaiian saddle, she shares about her longtime work with the Hawai’i High School Rodeo before she mounts and takes off. “ I feel the organization produces strong men and women who become leaders. It is an organization that promotes values. Family is key,education is important and the utmost care for livestock is just as important. The values instilled when you have to care for another life is unexplainable. If I am able to touch the life of at least one child, if I am able to share my values, patience, love, hope, integrity, honesty, then I am content.”
When I ask for a final comment on her life as a paniolo wahine she says, “My lifestyle allows me the freedom to live a humble and unique lifestyle. I have my Hawaiian culture but I also have a paniolo culture that has become family tradition and a strong foundation that will continue for generations to come. It is important to be there for our keiki (children) ; they are our future and our future will depend on them. This is mea Hawai’i, it is in my blood.”