Planning for Kalaupapa's future means remembering its past

Kalaupapa: The place, the people & the plan for the future (Pt. 1)
Published: May. 7, 2015 at 11:19 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 8, 2016 at 9:24 PM HST
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KALAUPAPA, MOLOKAI (HAWAIINEWSNOW) - Nearly 150 years ago, the first group of Hansen's Disease patients were exiled to Kalaupapa. Forced isolation continued until 1969, and altogether some 8,000 patients were sent to the colony.

Today, 16 remain. They range in age from their 70s to their 90s, and only six live full-time in the settlement established on the remote Molokai peninsula.

For Kalaupapa,long-term planning means working out what will happen when the last patient is gone.

The National Park Service, which took over Kalaupapa in 1980, when it was designated a historical area, has been developing a long-range plan for the site, holding public meetings and drafting four possible alternatives.

All of the alternatives are aimed at preserving Kalaupapa, while ensuring the public has some access to the colony.

"A lot of what we're looking at in the future is trying to retain the sense of place and the feeling that we have now," said Kalaupapa National Historic Park Superintendent Erika Espaniola. "We're not really looking to change things very much at all."

Those who have been lucky enough to visit Kalaupapa know the lasting impression it leaves. Espaniola wants to make sure that doesn't change.

"People have had such transformative and profound experiences here, and I want to be able to do everything that we can to ensure that people still have that in the future," she said.

Planning for the future

Under the four proposals, the National Park Service could:

  • Make no changes and leave their 40 federal employees on-site.
  • Maintain the status quo, but develop a strategy to manage the area when the Department of Health operations end after the last patient dies.
  • Open the park to more visitors and allow unrestricted access.
  • Establish an entry-pass system and require orientation for anyone who travels to Kalaupapa. Under this proposal, which the NPS prefers, supervised visitation would also be expanded

The state currently limits the number of park visitors to 100 per day, many of whom travel by mule or walk down a trail into the settlement.

There are also a limited number of flights into Kalaupapa Airport; most planes have a seating capacity of just nine passengers.

Under the NPS preferred plan, no new modes of transportation would be added, but more visitors would be allowed.

The idea of lifting the cap on the number of people allowed into the park has generated significant discussion. Some say visiting Kalaupapa is an experience everyone should get to enjoy, but add current requirements are what make Kalaupapa special

"You can read all the books and watch all the videos, but it's nothing like doing it," said William "Billy" Choy Hee, a Laupahoehoe resident, who was visiting Kalaupapa. "When you have the restrictions that are here, it pretty much stays the way it is and that's what makes it unique. When you have a great influx of people, it just changes."

Another visitor, Lt. Col. Cindi Feldwisch, of the New Mexico Air National Guard, said Kalaupapa offers a window into the past.

"It's just so nice to see something so truly authentic and it's not over-commercialized. That's the beauty of this place," she said.

She added that she supports raising or lifting the cap, as long as the community agrees.

"It depends on the people who live here so that we show respect to them," she said.

Balancing preservation and tourism

Federal officials haven't determined what the new cap might be -- though as many as 800 have been on site for a short time during special events.

Daily facility capacity is up to 350 people, but park officials say that might not be an appropriate number if it negatively impacts the quality of people's experiences or the natural resources they're committed to preserving.

National Park Service Solid Waste Management Supervisor Arthur Ainoa said he's all for letting more people in.

"I know it's going to be a burden on the park, but I know we can work through it and still get our jobs done," he said.

The NPS preferred proposal would also allow children under 16 years old to visit for the first time.

"We just heard from so many people that children need to hear this story," Espaniola said. "Children need to connect with their family that was sent here, learn about what the experience was down here."

The story of children in Kalaupapa's history is an especially tragic one.

Hansen's Disease patients were forced to either leave their keiki behind when they were exiled or send them away if they were born in the settlement.

Kalaupapa Care Home Nurse Debbie Collard said while the story of Kalaupapa is emotional, it's also one that needs to be told.

"I think it's really important for the world to know that too, for that to never happen again," she said. "I think that's one big part of this."

Collard's grandparents are both buried at Kalaupapa and her mother was born there.

She said the restrictions on visiting Kalaupapa has helped to preserve it, and any long-term proposal needs to recognize that.

"I would hate to see what we have here -- the ability for people to come here and reflect and be able to have the memorial of their families here -- for that to be taken away. I have such mixed feelings about all of it, I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens," Collard said.

While there's a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of Kalaupapa, a plan to create a memorial that would honor all 8,000 Hansen's Disease patients seems to be a guarantee. The monument would likely be built in Kalawao at the site of the original settlement, where the Baldwin Home for Boys once stood.

The voices of patients

Surviving Hansen's Disease patients have been an integral part of the NPS proposal development.

And they've worked to ensure the memory of those who came before them is preserved.

"I think what makes Kalaupapa special is its history," said patient Gloria Marks. "Those that came here way before us, they really had rough time."

Most of the thousands of Hansen's Disease patients exiled to Kalaupapa were Native Hawaiian, and many forcibly removed from their families.

Marks, though, asked to be sent to Kalaupapa. At 21, after being diagnosed, she felt her only options were to die alone on Oahu or in a community on Molokai. And maybe, she thought, she'd even find love.

"I said, 'I would rather go to Kalaupapa and if I find somebody, get married.' So I moved here in 1960."

Gloria was married two years later. She now runs Damien Tours, the only way for visitors to access the park if they're not the invited guests of a patient or employee.

A history of tears

The first visitors to Kalaupapa didn't come to learn about the place. They came to see family members. They gathered in the Longview Room, where a long chain-link fence separated them. Physical contact was forbidden and to this day, no one under the age of 16 is allowed.

Uncle Clarence "Boogie" Kahilihiwa was 19 when he was separated from his family and sent to Kalaupapa. He said allowing kids into Kalauapapa is vital to its preservation.

"I want them to know that it's not taboo like before. Before you don't even mention the word leprosy. People used to change their name so it doesn't disgrace their family," he said. "Now today, I think even some of those who never know or they didn't want to -- now they're coming back and find out, 'Oh I have 'ohana there and it's good.' It touch my heart that. You accept them. You get one positive."

Aunty Meli T. Watanuki was 40 when she arrived in 1969.

As a Catholic, she felt she needed to come to Kalaupapa, where Saint Damien had famously ministered to the sick and then fallen ill himself.

"Nobody else in Hawaii get any saint. Only over here in Kalaupapa, that's why I feel that that over here is really is a holy place," said Watanuki, who like most of the patients, is grateful for all National Park Service officials have done since they took over in 1980.

Still, she has concerns about their plan to lift the current visitor cap and open Kalaupapa to more people.

"I wish to keep it at 100. Right now it's a limit and that's fine but if too many people, it's going to disturb the place," she said.

The six patients who still live full-time on the settlement say they know they represent the end of an era, but they hope their legacy will live on -- no matter what Kalaupapa becomes.

"I would like to see to preserve the place. Honor those people that pass on. Honor them and also the future," Marks said.

Kahilihiwa added, "My spirit is over here, my 'ohana is going to be over here."

A Catholic pilgrimage 

Among Catholics, there is worldwide interest in making the trek to the isolated Molokai peninsula -- should the National Park Service proposal to open Kalaupapa up to more visitors become a reality.

The Catholic Diocese of Honolulu has been conducting pilgrimages to Kalaupapa for years now, but the groups are small. The faithful come to see the place where saints Damien and Marianne tended to the ill.

Without a cap, some suggest thousands of believers could start flocking to the area monthly.

"This is a very difficult place to get to. A lot of Catholics want to come here and they can't," said Sister Theresa Chow, of the Sisters of St. Francis.

Chow said Damien and Marianne "spent their lives here taking care of people that really need care. Somebody that could listen to them and not be afraid of talking with them and being with them.

Father Damien and Mother Marianne, who volunteered to care for those who had been abandoned, were canonized in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

"Having two saints here is something special," Chow said. "I really think more people should have the opportunity to come and visit this place and experience it themselves."

The Sisters of Saint Francis support the National Park Service plan that would drop the current minimum age requirement of 16 and also lift the visitor cap.

"They want to come here for a reflective time -- a prayer time -- and to experience Kalaupapa," said Sister Alicia Damien Lau.

Supervising visitors

Under the park's preferred plan, visitors would continue to be supervised while in the settlement, including at the graves of saints Damien and Marianne, Saint Elizabeth Chapel and St. Francis Church. But for the first time, visitors wouldn't be required to join a guided tour to access Kalawao -- the site of Father Damien's original settlement, grave and St. Philomena Church. They would also have unescorted access to Kauhako Crater.

Sister William Marie Eleniki said that level of supervision seems appropriate.

"I think if it's regulated properly and it continues with the process that we have now, it will be OK," she said. "There is so much at Kalaupapa that is so spiritual. It's a place that you have to feel. You get off the plane and you know you're on holy ground."

Share your input with the National Park Service before the comment period ends June 8, 2015. For more information, click HERE.

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