Restoring family ties to Molokai’s Kalaupapa, once a prison to 8,000 people

With the number of Hansen's Disease patients decreasing at Kalaupapa National Historical Park, the Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa nonprofit organization is giving a voice to a community and helping family members reconnect to their deceased ancestors.

Up until a year ago, I didn’t know I had relatives buried at Kalaupapa, nor would I have guessed I’d be walking the Papaloa Cemetery on the Molokai peninsula looking for them. As my turboprop plane began its descent into Kalaupapa just a few hours ago, I couldn’t help but be stunned by the beauty of the land—Molokai’s 2,000-foot cliffs and the clear blue ocean purer than any I’ve seen—but that feeling soon dissipates when I remember the pain and heartbreak of people with Hansen’s disease who were torn apart from their families, regardless of age, and forcibly relocated here for the rest of their lives.

This was a place of suffering—a prison—for the nearly 8,000 people who lived and died on the remote peninsula. With fewer than 1,200 marked graves, there are thousands of burials that are unmarked in large open fields. It’s not a visitor destination in the same way that other national historical parks are; the entire peninsula is considered a graveyard.

National Park Service marine ecologist, Eric Brown, describes the Kalaupapa
landscape to the author at Kalaupapa Pier.
Photo: Rolland Allan

Less than a mile from the airport, the tombstones I walk past tell a story. These men and women were from every corner of Hawaii—Pearl City, Kona, Kahului, even Kalalau Valley. They were husbands, wives, children and parents. My great-grandmother’s sister was taken away from her home and family in Peahi, Maui, at 15 years old in 1905. Many of the people who were sent here died young, in their 20s and 30s—and I see many children’s graves.

“You can’t help feeling sad for some of these lives being cut short, or just knowing that people were taken from their families and sent away,” says Valerie Monson, who first visited Kalaupapa in 1989 and is the executive director of the Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa nonprofit organization.

“You not only think of the impact on the people sent to Kalaupapa, but I think a lot about the families that were left behind.”

The Papaloa Cemetery in the Kalaupapa settlement is less than a mile from the airport and is grouped by religious affiliation.
Photo: Rolland Allan

Monson has learned much about those families that were left behind, being the first point of contact for descendants who want to know more about their ancestors who were sent to Kalaupapa. She, along with a group of volunteers, have worked steadily over the past 10 years helping approximately 800 families to reconnect with their ancestors, including my own, digging into the archives, old documents and newspapers for information, and then producing a family history report on Hansen’s disease patients for 90 to 95 percent of the requests.

“You know that the person reading this [report] is going to be remembering these people,” she says. “That’s what we want, that’s what we’re there for, to honor and perpetuate.”

At one time, 1,000 patients lived at Kalaupapa, but with that number now down to 13, the work of the Ka Ohana organization is that much more important as it continually educates the public of its history and keeps the memories of the patients alive by restoring family ties. 

The Other Side

The Kalaupapa settlement is on the western side of the peninsula and is made up of many historic buildings, similar to a small town, including a general store, gas pump, social hall, hospital, visitors dormitory and kitchen (where I’m staying), bookstore, churches and many houses. The homes lining a handful of streets used to all be patient homes, but, with the decline in patients, many of the houses have turned into residences for state or federal workers.

Siloama Church was the first church organized and built at Kalawao, the original settlement on the Kalaupapa peninsula.
Photo: Rolland Allan

“During the week, it swells up to 90 people total and that’s both state and federal. The state’s got about 30 to 35 workers and the Feds have about that many,” says Eric Brown, a marine ecologist for the National Park Service whose responsibilities include surveying marine resources such as coral and limu (seaweed), and keeping track of the monk seal population for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He’s giving me a tour of the town in his truck before driving me over to the other side of the peninsula where the Kalawao settlement and Father Damien’s church is located. 

“The other side (Kalawao) was actually established in 1866. This side (Kalaupapa) was established over the course of 20 to 30 years,” says Brown. By the 1900s, the community had completely moved to Kalaupapa, where the weather is warmer and drier. It’s a distance of about 3 miles on a dirt road, and we pass wild deer and pigs, another old cemetery and remnants of old buildings—a crumbling chimney here, and parts of an old bakery there. 

When we arrive, I recognize the Siloama and St. Philomena churches from historic photos I’ve seen, though the trees and vegetation around them are much thicker now. Brown shows me Father Damien’s original gravesite next to St. Philomena Church. Canonized in 2009, Damien taught the Catholic faith to the people of Kalaupapa and cared for the patients before succumbing to the disease himself in 1889. 

Father Damien’s grave outside of St. Philomena Church.
Photo: Rolland Allan

“He was an amazing guy because he not only brought the plight of the people to the rest of the world, but he also spoke Hawaiian fluently, and he was really one of the first people to start treating the people with dignity, like a human being,” says Brown.

Across the road is an empty field where the Baldwin Home for Men and Boys once stood, and, behind that, I see an an ahu (altar made of stones) in the center of another field. This is the spot where the Ka Ohana group plans to erect a memorial with the names of every person who lived and died at Kalaupapa. It’s something the organization and many of the patients would like to see happen in their lifetimes.

Keeping Their Voices Heard

“What we wanted to do is to have something after everybody is gone. I’m talking 10, 20, 40 years from now, so at least people will know who we were,” says Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, one of the few remaining patients at Kalaupapa and president of Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa. Originally from Kalapana on the Big Island, Kahilihiwa was diagnosed at the age of 9 and sent to Kalaupapa in 1959. It’s his dream to see all of the patients’ names from Kalawao and Kalaupapa in one place so they can be remembered, and where family members have a place to pay respects.​

Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa is seen here with Valerie Monson, who’s holding a photo of Bernard Punikaia.
Photo courtesy: Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa

Anwei Law, the author of “Kalaupapa: A Collective Memory,” which was published in 2012, has been studying Kalaupapa for 50 years and leads much of the research efforts. She’s currently working on the list of names that will go on the memorial, which now exceeds 7,400 people. 

The Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa organization started as the vision of Bernard Punikaia, who was incarcerated at Kalihi Hospital at the age of 6, and sent to Kalaupapa at the age of 11. 

“I was really good friends with Bernard Punikaia,” says Monson. “He was really one of the great leaders in the history of Kalaupapa. Bernard was concerned that as the people were getting older at Kalaupapa, and as their numbers were getting smaller, he was worried about if their voices would be heard in the future.” 

The proposed design by the Ka Ohana organization of the memorial.
Photo courtesy: Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa

In 2003, the nonprofit organized to help form a network of people, family members and the community to guide the wishes of the people. Not only is the group doing outreach and advocacy to schools and various parts of the Islands, but they’re helping families learn about their ancestors and pushing the memorial plans forward through paperwork and multiple rounds of reviews with the state and federal government.

“I think we are still finding new things. Family members come up with all kinds of new things,” says Law. “They come up with first names, or additional information, and it’s about bringing people into their own history.”

Wiliama Namahoe

It had been 20 years that Williama Namahoe had been looking for his great-grandmother when he contacted Ka Ohana. In 1907, his great-grandmother was taken from her family when her daughter, Namahoe’s grandmother, was 7 years old, leading to generations of anguish.

The organization was able to find a photo and information about her life. “We couldn’t find a tombstone of her, and then Wiliama’s daughter said, ‘I wonder if Grandma remarried again.’ And as luck would have it, we had just compiled marriage records at Kalaupapa and there she was, she had remarried,” says Monson, who then describes how Namahoe collapsed with happiness on top of his great-grandmother’s grave when he finally found her tombstone. 

“For this man to have such a relationship with his great-grandmother, who died so long ago and of course he never knew her, but she just meant so much to him–it was a powerful visit,” says Monson, remembering Namahoe, who passed away two years later. “The next morning, he had woke up and walked into the kitchen and said, ‘Coming here, I thought my journey was ending, but now I feel it’s beginning.’ ”

Phil Hatori

phil hatori
Phil Hatori first got in touch with the Ka Ohana organiztion five years ago,
and has since learned much about his Kalaupapa ancestors.
Photo: David Croxford

After meeting with Law at a book fair, Phil Hatori contacted Monson to learn more about his ancestor, Henry, who was born at Kalaupapa to two parents who had the disease. 

“When [Henry] was 11 years old, he had to leave. He didn’t have the disease, so he went off to Kauai to live with his aunt, and 11 years later or so he got it,” Hatori tells me at his house in Kailua, Oahu.

“By that time, his father had died and his mother was still living. As I understand it, she left instructions not to have her son come in and see her. So, when he got there, he hadn’t seen his mother in all those years and he wanted to see her, but they wouldn’t let him in. That sounds strange, but her disease was on her face and she didn’t want him to remember her that way because she was terminal. He tried several times to get in, but nobody would let him; they’d stop him at the door and call security. But he was undeterred.

“Henry was a young boy, so one night he snuck in to see his mother, and when he finally saw her, he did nothing but hug her and tell her how much he missed her. It took his disease to come back to see his parents. I thought that was sad.”

Anne Apo

anne apo
Anne Apo holds a photo of her great-grandfather, John Taylor Unea,
who was a school teacher, store manager and newspaper writer.
Photo: David Croxford

“When I was about 10 years old, I found a photo of him in the closet and I asked my mom, ‘Who’s this man,’ and she said, ‘That’s your great-grandfather,’” starts Anne Apo, whose family didn’t know much about John Taylor Unea, except that he left Papaikou in South Hilo for Kalaupapa in 1893 when he was 47 years old. She was only told that he was going to care for his 16-year-old son who had contracted the disease. “When he left, he asked his best friend to care for his wife and his baby daughter who was 10 months old—that was my grandmother.”

For 40 years, this was all that was known. Like detectives solving a mystery, Monson and Law were able to shed light on Apo’s great-grandfather after they talked in 2007. First, they discovered Unea was a storekeeper at Kalaupapa from 1877-1899, sending letters to the Board of Health, ordering food, supplies and equipment, and soon after it was learned that he was also a schoolteacher at Kalaupapa. “I’m, like, what? I’m not over the storekeeper yet!” laughs Apo, surprised by the turn of events, but the list goes on. Unea also took the first census of Kalaupapa in 1900, as well as in 1910, and wrote for the Hawaiian language Ka Nupepa Kuokoa newspaper. “I’m just in awe that he was doing all this work.”

john taylor unea
Apo’s great-grandfather, seen center at a Kalaupapa school.
Photo courtesy: Anne Apo

Further research uncovered that Unea was a principal at Hakalau School in Hilo before he was sent to Kalaupapa, was on many city boards, and did have the disease. “We don’t know why we were told he was going to take care of his son. Maybe he didn’t know he had it, or maybe the shame.” 

Though his son passed away in 1898 at the age of 21, Unea continued his work and wrote until age 68, passing away three months after his retirement announcement was published in the Ka Nupepa Kuokoa newspaper in 1919. It is in 2004 when Apo finds her great-grandfather’s grave in the Mormon cemetery of Kalaupapa, lying next to his son and second wife. “We’re proud of what he did there, and what he accomplished: storekeeper, census taker, schoolteacher, newspaper writer … what an awesome resume,” says Apo. “I just feel that it’s awesome being a leader in an environment such as that. I think it took a lot.”

Future of Kalaupapa

During my visit, the absence of people is apparent at Kalaupapa, and it’s reflected in the eyes of the residents and frequent visitors to Kalaupapa that they are missed. 

Currently the state controls access to the peninsula and the patients’ health care. The Kalaupapa National Historical Park, since 1980 when it was established, has been in charge of land conservation and maintenance, making sure that the water is fine, working on restorations and rehabilitating natural ecosystems when possible. 

An overhead view of Kalaupapa. Not seen is Kalawao, the original settlement
is located on the other side of the peninsula.
Photo: Rolland Allan

“We’ve been able to save a number of historic buildings and structures,” says Erika Stein Espaniola, the superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Through 10 years on the job, she’s heard more talk about native seabird conservation and major restoration work on the St. Philomena Church. 

Though the park released a draft management plan for the next 15 to 20 years, it’s still unclear what’s in store for Kalaupapa, but there are many opinions.

“We want to retain a sense of place that Kalaupapa has, so really aiming to retain this quality where people in the future can have the reflective and meditative experience while there and not be overwhelmed by people,” says Espaniola. “We’re stewards of the land and stewards of the story, and other people are stewards of the story as well, and it’s important for that to be retained in any way that it can be.”

Kanaana Church and congregation about 1907.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives

For Apo, she wants to continue to see regulations in place and access controlled. “It’s still present; it still lives on. The families, the descendants of the residents there, that’s home to them, too,” she says. For patients such as Kahilihiwa, he doesn’t want to see hotels built on the peninsula, and hopes that the public will remember them for who they were and not what they were.

“When we’re down there, we do feel the spirits of so many people who were there, even people we didn’t know personally,” says Monson.

“We want people to feel proud of their ancestors who were sent there, because they had to overcome so much, and many of them did. I think that for me, of all the people I’ve interviewed at Kalaupapa over the years, not one of them had expressed bitterness. And that to me is just a lesson we can all learn from.”

Categories: Culture, Molokaʻi