Student combines her interests and creates a visual representation of Hawaii's famed Pā'ū riders

Written by: 
Kevin Brown

Perhaps one of the only exhibits of its kind in Hawai'i, the Joseph F. Smith Library currently houses a rare representation of the island’s very own Pā'ū riders, with a compilation of figurines and chronological histories depicting their origin.

Organized from the expertise of Alpha Harper, a senior from Canada studying IDS in Hawaiian culture with a minor in theatre, she said this collection reaches out to the youth in all of us.  

Harper said the collection on display near the entrance of the Pacific Island Studies Room relates to the societal changes and new traditions brought by the introduction of horses and cattle to the islands.

“I have chosen to depict a history for the Pā’ū riders of Hawai'i as the introduction to my capstone project,” Harper explained. “Working at the theatre, I worked a lot on costuming. I had to find a way to depict costuming in Hawaiian culture bringing the two areas of focus together.”

Harper said as she browsed images of Hawai'i, she was captivated by the colorful presentations of the equestrian units in parades and she had to know more.

After reflecting on her own experiences throughout the years of riding in parades on her horses, she said she needed to know the meaning behind the outfits they were wearing. She said the pictures of flowing fabrics draped over the riders and reaching on both sides of their calm horses launched her into a “search to discover the reason and history of these beautifully garbed women riding astride.”

Harper said in 1793, just five years after Captain Cook’s first and last visit, Captain George Vancouver returned to the islands. He gave five black longhorn cattle to King Kamehameha as a gift, an act which Harper said left the king astonished upon seeing the beasts. “He was certain that they were useless until convinced of their survivability with minimal human supervision,” said Harper.

Harper said King Kamehameha temporarily protected the cattle from hunters until they began to disrupt farms and gardens, at which time the King had to lift the protection for cattle.

More than 10 years later, Harper said King Kamehameha would marvel at a new addition to his islands —the horse.

According to the exhibit, “Captain Richard J. Clevel introduced horses to Hawai'i in 1803. It is said Kamehameha was impassive and emotionless on his first sighting of a horse.

“Western sailors began riding the horses along the beaches to demonstrate their capabilities. Hawaiian men and women quickly took to riding the magnificent animals.” Thus, began the tradition of the Pā’ū riders created by Royal Family nobility. 

Harper stated, “The Hawaiian women especially enjoyed riding [horses]. It was custom for ladies to ride in carriages, not on horses, so it was implied that they would sit sideways, just for travel purposes.”

Harper said there were no roads for carriages at that time. 

“The women didn’t have riding pants,” said Harper, “so they had to come up with their own ideas.” She said in order for Hawaiian women to arrive at events without getting dirt on their clothes, they would have to use large amounts of fabric, elaborately covering their dresses and wrapping their feet before placing them in the stirrups. 

The Pā’ū riders, all of whom are women, can be easily recognized today as some of the most lavish participants in the annual Kamehameha Day Parade in Honolulu.

“They get them ready to ride. It takes a large team of people, and then they do their hair. The last thing to get done is the wrap. They bring it through the legs and then they keep folding it back.”

Harper said each Pā’ū rider wears up to 12 yards of fabric in the parade, of which a big portion hangs down the side of the horse. 

A standard procession of riders has a presiding queen with her unit, followed by unit princesses and their respected attendants representing the eight Hawaiian Islands.

According to www.holualoainn.com, the process to become a queen of the riders requires time and experience, where prospective queens should ideally represent every island throughout the years in the parade. 

In an interview with the 2013 queen, Roxanne Kalilimoku, by Midweek Magazine, Kalilimoku reflected, “This experience is not just for me. It’s for the community at large to embrace as a way to perpetuate our culture.

“We have to keep this custom alive because the parade is the biggest showcase of tradition we have in Hawai'i.”

With Harper’s love and knowledge of horses and Polynesian history, her exhibit is also a way for the community to appreciate Hawaiian culture.

Harper said this display will continue to be showcased in the Joseph F. Smith Library, but she has plans to expand the project and move it to another location in the future.

Date Published: 
Monday, October 16, 2017
Last Edited: 
Monday, October 16, 2017

NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Oct. 2017 print issue.