Hawaii Global Links Newsletter
Back in the Saddle (Making) Again
Tuesday, 08 December 2009
DBEDT program helps preserve a lost Hawaiian art.

The arrival of a miniature saddle at DBEDT’s headquarters was a reminder that not all the business projects that the department helps are of the multi-million-dollar variety…nor located on Oahu.

The saddle was provided to DBEDT from the rural community of Kohala on the island of Hawaii, crafted by youngsters who wish to maintain their paniolo (cowboy) traditions and culture—and make some money, too. And it was made possible by a DBEDT program that has specialized in “grass roots”, “bottom up” business assistance. Over the years, in serving his clientele, Manager Wayne Thom has spent more time in Neighbor Island plantation-style homes than in downtown Honolulu skyscrapers.

Thom heads the Community-based Economic Development Program (or CBED) which has extended hundreds of loans, grants and technical assistance to fisherman and farmers, craftsman and hula halaus.

CBED Manager Wayne Thom with DBEDT's new saddle. 

“We want to help the small non-profit groups that can do great work with a relatively small amount of funding,” said Thom. “Community organizations can develop businesses that produce jobs, while—very importantly—maintaining a rural lifestyle.”

To prove his point, Thom listed some of the organizations that have received support: farming cooperatives, community kitchens, music festivals, health food stores, farmers markets, community land trusts, small business incubators and Hawaiian fish ponds.

The World Invitational Hula Festival (WIHF) was a recent recipient of CBED help—for saddle-making? Yes, because the group does much more than stage hula performances.

It’s a small, non-profit, governed by an eight-member Board of Directors, whose mission is to “discover, preserve and restore the cultures of the people of the Hawaiian Islands.” To do so, it offers special educational workshops year-round, as well as during the Festival, for both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians to learn more about Hawaiian culture, history and language, and encourage the business development of Made-in-Hawaii products.

The miniature saddle:  close up. 

Kohala is a “very country”community of 6,000, with a Native Hawaiian population of 1,380 (23%) and a school system with a Hawaiian population of 37%. The sugar industry was the mainstay of the region, but since its demise, residents have struggled to replace plantation jobs. Teaching young people to make saddles—a nearly-lost cultural art that once played a significant role in the paniolo community and Hawaiian culture—could be a small, but important step forward.

The Hawaiian cowboy saddle was adapted from the Mexican vaqueros, who were brought to the islands in the 1830’s to raise cattle on vast expanses of land which were deemed unsuitable for traditional plantation agriculture. Hawaiian craftsmen, noting the unique climate and differences in horses, used substantially more rawhide in the noho lio, since the uncured leather held up better under the wet island conditions. They also braided the rawhide into straps, called ‘awe’awe, which were attached to brass rings. This made the saddle more adjustable, stronger and ten pounds lighter. They also raised the seat to give the paniolo more stability in the rough terrain.

Master saddle-maker David Fuertes (photo courtesy
of KHNL 8-TV). 

David Fuertes, a master saddle-maker, rancher and former agriculture teacher at Kohala High School, is the teacher/mentor. An organization called Ka Hana No’eau--an innovative, Kohala-based, entrepreneurial mentorship program--has teamed up with WIHF. The two would now provide training workshops to teach students Hawaiian saddle-making, business planning and marketing. CBED awarded a grant of $9,000 to WIHF to make this happen.

Back in 2007, when the idea of saddle-making was taking root in the community, Fuertes was quoted in West Hawaii Today: “Our society is so busy trying to make a living and survive that people don’t always have time for the children. But I truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child,” he said. “People must have the will and the heart to be mentors. This is something we must do to prevent this art from being lost. But this isn’t just about making saddles or a new skill. It’s about making a connection to people, this place and more importantly, themselves.”

The saddle-making workshop (photo courtesy of KHNL 8-TV).

Fast forward to January, 2009:  six students were selected for the project.  Instruction included:

• How to slaughter a cow, then treat and process the hide to use as saddle leather. • How to make the saddle form and leather covering.

• How to design and use tools to care the Hawaiian saddle.

• Lessons on safety, and the history and evolution of the art of Hawaiian saddle-making.

• Lessons on business planning and marketing.

Community resources included “lots of cows”; koa and ohia trees for the saddle tree and stand; the Ka Hana No’eau training site; and Fuertes and other experienced instructors. In six months, the students successfully completed the training workshops, and produced two saddles and two saddle stands. Indeed, the students were so successful, that KHNL 8-TV in Honolulu shared their achievement with the rest of the state on a September broadcast.

Ikaika Akima (photo courtesy of KHNL 8-TV).

The broadcast showed Ikaika Akima tapping on rawhide to make his mark.

“I’m trying to make the leaf look more real,” he said. “Like this outside stamping here to kind of bring it out and give it a three-D effect.”

And fellow saddle-maker Jeremiah Manantan explained: “We’re making an ‘awe’awe for the saddle. 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 went on to note: “Ever since I was small, I used to like riding the horse and going out chasing cows and branding. That’s why I want to keep this going.”

Jeremiah Manantan (photo courtesy of KHNL 8-TV). 

Close up of saddle (photo courtesy of KHNL 8-TV).

He is now considering opening his own part-time business after school.

Back in Honolulu, Wayne Thom admired DBEDT’s new saddle. “For a small investment, we’ve helped preserve a lost art, built community pride, and trained some youngsters in what could become a job-producing, profit-making enterprise.”

Then, he added: “It doesn’t get much better than that.”




Last Updated ( Friday, 11 December 2009 )
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