The story of Kalaupapa is often told as a tragedy, filled with tales of separation, loss and injustice.
But that is only part of the story.
The history, as collected and retold by Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa, attempts to tell the complete and unvarnished truth of life in the isolated leprosy settlement. There are plenty of tragic stories of individuals ripped from their families to spend the rest of their days on the windswept peninsula on the north shore of Molokai. But many of those individuals showed great hopefulness and humanity when they created new lives and a community filled with a sense of dignity, purpose and honor.
Ka ‘Ohana, the organization authorized by the U.S. Congress in 2009 to create a memorial within the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, keeps those stories alive. Formed in 2003 by Kalaupapa patients and families, Ka ‘Ohana continues to represent the ‘ohana of the 8,000 people who lived and died there.
Last night, Ka ‘Ohana came to Kalaniana`ole Hall to show the progress made in the Kalaupapa Names Project. So far, over 7,000 names have been collected that will eventually be displayed on the memorial. According to Kalaupapa historian Anwei Law, an additional 700 names have been found that are not part of the public domain that was collected up until 1931.
Books showing all the names collected so far in the project were on display in the hall. A recent $100,000 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs helps with this project along with the “Restoration of Family Ties” program that reaches out to family members who might need assistance learning more about their Kalaupapa ancestors. The grant also assists with the Kalaupapa PhotoBank that scans and catalogues historical photographs in the public domain.
Law gave a slideshow presentation telling some of the stories of those banished to Kalaupapa, starting with the first group that was sent there on Jan. 16, 1866. She and her husband Henry recently published a book on Kalaupapa, “Father Damien … ‘A Bit of Taro, A Piece of Fish, and A Glass of Water.’” It tells about the impact of Damien, now Saint Damien of Molokai, as well as the many unsung heroes of Kalaupapa. There is Joseph Manu, a close personal friend of Father Damien who used to take Damien in his canoe to his home in the Pelekunu Valley as well as to topside Molokai.
Law told of Jonathan Napela who came to Kalaupapa as a kokua (helper) in 1873, a year that more than 400 individuals were sent there. He translated the Book of Mormon for the Hawaiians and spent the rest of his life there.
There was David Kupele, sent to Kalaupapa in 1915. He had five generations of family at Kalaupapa and was famous for delivering the mail daily, sometimes traveling the steep three-mile-long pali trail as often as three times a day.
There was John Unea, a schoolteacher, who took the first census of Kalaupapa. One patient, Olivia Breitha, became an author and an international human rights advocate.
Law also spoke about the generous spirit of the patients. Despite their ailments and often living in difficult conditions, they formed an athletic club and a performance group of women known as Rainbow Drill. This group would often raise money for the Red Cross to help with World War One fundraisers and a campaign to help the victims of the great San Francisco fire and earthquake.
The ‘Ohana continues to reach out to Kalaupapa descendents in this series of 10 workshops being held statewide. The group not only shares information with families but also continues to collect valuable historical data. This includes finding the correct spelling of names and filling in omissions within family genealogies.
Sol Kaho’ohalahala, of Lanai, spoke to the audience about how he didn’t discover his Kalaupapa roots until he visited there in 1996. A conservation workshop held by the National Park Service had been delayed by weather so Kaho’ohalahala had a day to explore Kalaupapa. While visiting the local art studio, he met a kupuna who was related to one of his uncles on Lanai. The next day he saw the gravesite of his tutu Lillian.
“I was changed in one day because I learned that my family was here,” said Kaho’ohalahala. “I cried the whole time.”
Now Kaho’ohalahala tries to kokua in Kalaupapa at every opportunity. “Do we (the descendents) have a kuleana there? Absolutely! I relish the time I’ve been able to spend there.”
Kaho’ohalahala went on to tell the story of how the memorial, which still needs to be designed and privately financed, came to be authorized by Congress.
Approximately eight years ago, Ka ‘Ohana, on behalf of patients in Kalaupapa, approached the NPS with the idea of creating a memorial. The suggestion was flatly turned down. The NPS told Ka ‘Ohana it does not create memorials inside of historical parks. After some research it was discovered that the Park Service had the authority and the precedent to create a memorial.
But again the NPS denied the request. Finally, Ka ‘Ohana, with the help of Hawaii’s representatives in Washington, D.C., went in front of Congress to seek authorization for a memorial. After a letter-writing campaign led by ‘Ohana Coordinator Valerie Monson, the Kalaupapa Memorial Act passed on its fourth attempt before Congress in 2008 and was signed into law by President Obama in 2009.
Kaho’ohalahala also explained the process of choosing the Old Baldwin Boys Home on the Kalawao side of the peninsula as the site for the memorial. The NPS felt eight different sites needed to be considered despite the overwhelming support for the Baldwin Home. After a review process, the field in front of the Old Baldwin Home was deemed most appropriate. Many gravesites in the field were lost to storms and disrepair. The memorial will be a way to honor those buried there.
Ka ‘Ohana and the NPS also had a difference of opinion when it came to who would control the memorial. Originally, the NPS wanted full authority over the memorial once it was completed with independent funding. The NPS also requested all funding for the memorial as well as all intellectual property accumulated by Ka ‘Ohana be turned over to them.
An agreement was recently reached, and still needs to be finalized, between Ka ‘Ohana and the NPS that grants Ka ‘Ohana control over the memorial. The NPS wrote … “Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa has unique expertise, skills and knowledge about the people sent to Kalaupapa between 1866 and 1969 and such expertise, skills and knowledge will assist Kalaupapa National Historical Park to accomplish its mission and to ensure the history and personal stories of these individuals are faithfully, completely and accurately reflected through education, interpretation and a continued involvement by future generations of their descendants.”
Currently, a two-year environmental assessment is being conducted at the site. Members of Ka ‘Ohana anticipate a finding of no significant impact. Ka ‘Ohana will then put out a call for designs of the memorial. The one requirement is that it include the names of all those who died there for permanent preservation.
But it is important to not just talk about Kalaupapa in the past tense. With a dwindling population of about 18 surviving patients all over the age of 70, Kalaupapa remains a home to those who carry forward this unique legacy.