Back in the saddle
On a clear Sunday morning last month, 17 kupuna, keiki and their mothers gathered at a local school to practice a long-respected tradition: how to carefully wrap 12 yards of fabric as their skirts to wear in the Waimea Paniolo Parade. Suddenly a young teenage girl appeared out of nowhere on her caramel-colored horse, wearing a formal dress and hat to rehearse her role as this year’s keiki pa’u princess for Hawaii Island.
As part of the 30 Days of Aloha – a month-long celebration of Hawaiian culture and tradition – Sept. 19 marks the parade’s 40th anniversary. A true labor of love, it is planned by more than 100 local volunteers and draws thousands of people from around the island each year.
Much time and effort goes into preparing for the parade, and one of the most memorable parts is the pa’u unit. Pa’u, the Hawaiian word for skirt, is also the term used for the pa’u unit in the parade. Comprised of female horseback riders that wear long, colorful skirts, the role was originally played by the paniolo’s wives on Hawaii Island.
“Preparations start at the end of the parade the year before,” says DeeDee Keakealani Bertelmann, a fifth generation rancher and paniolo who has participated in the pa’u unit since a young child. She learned from her father and long-respected paniolo Sonny Keakealani, who learned from his father.
“Pa’u started for ladies on Sundays to keep them clean while riding the horses to church,” Keakealani says, a tradition that began in the early 19th century and declined after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii but was revitalized in the early 20th century.
The elegant pa’u riders, adorned in the colors and flora of the eight islands, sit gracefully on their horses draped in multiple lei. Having been a pa’u princess herself, DeeDee has fond memories.
“My father made my lei and played a key role in the tradition,” she says. “The more people pass this down, the easier it becomes.”
The Keiki Pa’u Unit
Eleven years ago, the pa’u unit was taken one step further with the addition of the keiki pa’u — an idea from DeeDee’s daughter, La’akea, while in the eighth grade. A unit of 16 children, one girl and one boy represent each of the islands.
At a rehearsal, DeeDee explains in more detail how the fabric is used.
“Twelve yards of fabric are needed, with three panels of four yards” she instructs the group. “Make sure the material is even and find the center. As long as everything is centered it should be fine.”
She and other volunteers then demonstrate wrapping one end of the fabric around the waist of the rider. “There is no wrong way to do it. Every way is right,” DeeDee explains.
Waimea resident Auhea Puhi has helped with wrapping for the pa’u unit for 40 years now — as long as the parade has existed.
“Make sure you have a nice ‘seat’ in the fabric so it can breathe,” she advises.
DeeDee’s sister, Kekoho Bertelmann, then demonstrates how kukui nuts are used to keep the pa’u in place in the front and back.
Children start in the keiki pa’u as young as three years old and finish when they graduate from school. To date, one girl has completed all eight years in the parade, riding as the keiki pa’u queen her final year in the unit.
All keiki who participate have relatives who have been in the parade.
“It’s all family — my cousins, my sister and brother — and those who have expressed interest and know horses,” DeeDee says, who has overseen the keiki pa’u since it began. “Once you’re in, you ride all eight islands. That’s how we’re perpetuating our paniolo heritage.”
This year, children participating are Anuhea Winters and Kale Onoka for Maui; Elizabeth and Daniel Miranda for Oahu; Pakalana Ha’o and Kaulike Kawamoto for Kauai; Kilihea and Kealoha Mockchew for Molokai; Camela and Ka’ohu Ha’alilio for Lanai; Kaylan and Trey Gomes for Niihau; and Xyliana and Kamakoe Hoopai represent Kahoolawe.
DeeDee’s other daughter, La’i, is the keiki pa’u princess for Hawaii Island — a fourth generation Bertelmann to participate in the parade. She rides alongside her cousin Isaiah Hooper from Kona.
“It’s exciting to be able to ride my island this year on my horse, Whiskey,” La’i says. “My first year when I was three, I rode for Oahu. Next year I will be keiki pa’u queen, representing all the islands.”
Several weeks before the parade, the girls, their mothers and grandmothers begin gathering the flowers and ti leaves to make lei for themselves, their horses and the boys, who also pitch in.
DeeDee says, “It comes down to dedication making your lei. I ask everyone to share that, portraying a culture of people. Simplicity is elegance. Keiki portray this so well.”
Safety is also crucial. “You never know what’s going to happen on a 1,200-pound animal, so I suggest the girls’ feet are covered by the fabric rather than wrapped in it, in case they need to jump off the horse,” she adds.
On parade day, preparations start at 6 a.m. on Church Row, beginning with decorating the horses with lei.
“It’s like a princess going to the ball,” DeeDee says.
The Waimea Paniolo Parade is made possible by generous support from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Big Island Resource Conservation Development Council, Waikoloa Beach Resort and Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation.
The morning of the parade, the main street fills up early with visitors marking their favorite spots to sit. With such a loyal following, parking spaces fill up fast too, so arriving an hour or two in advance is suggested and well worth the wait.
The 40th Annual Waimea Paniolo Parade commences at 10 a.m. at Church Row on main street, passes through Waimea and ends on Lindsey Road in front of Parker School, where The Royal Court sits. The Waimea Ho’olaule’a event follows the parade from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Waimea Park, across the street from the school, featuring Hawaiian crafters, vendors and more than a dozen food booths. There is no charge to attend either of the public events. For more information, go to http://www.hawaiiislandfestival.org/contact.html.