Connecting With Our Ancestors at Kalaupapa National Historic Park
Established in 1980 in an effort to preserve the archealogical, environmental, and social history of the Hawaiian island of Molokai’s northern shore, Kalaupapa National Historical Park remains a pristine landscape, rich in its history of perseverance, hardship, isolation, and community. Separated from the “topside” of Molokai by some of the highest sea cliffs in the world (up to 2,000 feet), and surrounded by deep ocean on its coastlines, access to the peninsula remains limited.
From 1866 to 1969, the Kalaupapa peninsula was used as a place of separation for those who had contracted Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy) during the Kingdom, Territorial, and early Statehood eras of Hawaiʻi’s history. During this period, approximately 8,000 individuals (90 percent of whom were Native Hawaiian) were sent to live out their lives in this place of exile. Today, approximately 1,200 grave markers remain, reminding us of their resilience and sacrifice.
In March 2020, fourteen students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo gathered at Kalaupapa for a HOPE (Hands on Preservation Experience) Crew preservation workshop and cultural immersion program, offered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS).
The Native Hawaiian students, enrolled in a public history course, were invited to participate in this preservation workshop with the goal of cleaning every known grave marker on the peninsula over this two week period. They lived in staff housing built in the early 20th century, sharing meals, Hawaiian language courses, days, and evenings together.
The happy group often joined voices singing traditional Hawaiian songs as they worked and enjoyed evening activities. As one student stated upon reflection of this experience, “The hands-on work, the sharing of moʻolelo [stories], and the people who I traveled with, provided me with the most rewarding learning experiences.”
The workshop was led by preservation trades experts Jason Church, chief of technical services at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), and Rusty Brenner, owner and operator of Texas Cemetery Restoration. The main purpose of the cleaning was to remove biological growth and general soiling from the grave markers. Participants employed appropriate historic preservation techniques, using the gentlest means possible. The workshop allowed for the successful cleaning all 1200 known gravestones.
In addition to the preservation work, there was an emphasis on learning about the ancestors they were caring for and the cultural significance of place, immersing students in the history not only of Kalaupapa, but of Hawaiʻi, and of their own family history.
Guided by park cultural anthropologist, Ka’ohulani McGuire, acknowledgment of those buried at Kalaupapa was part of the strictly adhered to protocol. The daily oli (chant) was delivered by the entire crew before the workday began. This Hawaiian tradition is a way to ask permission to enter from the kūpuna (elders) and from the ‘āina (land).
As one student earnestly reflected upon the discovery of a relative’s grave, “This project goes beyond just a service project. With HOPE Crew I was able to reconnect with a family member that I didn’t even know I had at his grave.” Gaining inspiration from their elders, the students learned from the history of the leprosy settlement; the community of Kalaupapa; their instructors from NCPTT, NPS, the National Trust; and from one another.
Kerri A. Inglis is an author and professor at the University of Hawaiʻi, and Molly Baker is the HOPE Crew manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Special thanks to D/2 for donating two 55-gallon drums of cleaning solution to the efforts.