With less than 13 patients left in Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka‘i, island residents are left to contend with the remote area’s uncertain future.
Along the 35-mile northern shore of Moloka‘i, towering sea cliffs reach 2,000 feet into the sky. In their shadow is the Kalaupapa Peninsula, barely five square miles in total, which on most days feels tranquil. In contrast, its rocky coastline is largely inaccessible even by boat, since the Pacific surf pounds it relentlessly. The steep valleys extending inland from the cracks of these fortress-like walls are sparsely inhabited. The beaches that front the peninsula, comprised of sand both black and white, imply paradise. However, most who know the history of the area, and how it served as a place of banishment for many island residents, know life here wasn’t always so serene.
For 900 years, Native Hawaiians resided on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, and in the connecting Waikolu Valley. The land was divided according to the traditional ahupua‘a, consisting of three sections: Kalaupapa to the west, Makanalua in the center, and Kalawao on the eastern side of the peninsula. Estimates place the population between 1,000 and 2,700 at its peak. Archaeological evidence indicates that these small communities thrived, cultivating the land, gathering natural resources, and trading. However, in the 1800s, Western contact and disease decimated the inhabitants here, as well as in other areas of Hawai‘i. By 1853, only about 140 Hawaiians were left in Kalaupapa.
In 1865, King Kamehameha V passed “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy,” banishing anyone diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy, to the remote peninsula. The disease was spreading across the islands, taking an especially brutal toll on the Hawaiian population, who possessed few immunities to disease. With no known cure and very little understanding regarding it, isolating those afflicted seemed the safest resolution. The Board of Health, which Kamehameha V organized, acquired lands on the eastern portion of the peninsula in Kalawao, transferring the sick to this area and moving the remaining healthy inhabitants to the western side.
In 1866, the first patients were dropped off in Kalaupapa—nine men and three women. “After our names, ages and places we hailed from were taken down, [we were] left on the rocky shore without food and shelter,” patient Ambrose T. Hutchison wrote, according to the National Park Service, describing his arrival to Kalaupapa in 1879. “No houses provided by the then Government for the likes of us outcasts.” The idea was that this collective would occupy the houses left behind by original inhabitants and cultivate the land for food. However, most patients became too ill to work or even care for themselves. Having been torn away from their homes and left in an isolated, inescapable place to die, many simply gave up.
In 1873, Hawaiian high chief and politician Peter Kaʻeo wrote of life in Kalaupapa to his cousin Queen Emma: “Deaths occur frequently here, almost daily. Napela last week rode the beach to inspect the lepers and came on to one that had no Poi for a week but managed to live on what he could find in his hut, anything chewable. His legs were so bad that he cannot walk.” By this time, there were 700 people in Kalaupapa, and the quarantine had become a medical catastrophe. Reports of the deplorable living conditions reached Honolulu, and abroad. It was during this time that Father Damien, a Catholic priest from Belgium, began working to improve conditions for the afflicted. With aid from King Lunalilo and King Kalākaua, Damien established a rudimentary hospital and basic housing on the peninsula, but after 16 years of unwavering service, the clergyman passed away as a result of contracting Hansen’s disease.
By 1902, the population had grown to more than 1,100. To avoid a humanitarian crisis, the Board of Health began extensive projects. Acquiring the remainder of private lands in the area, they moved the last healthy inhabitants off the western side of the peninsula, and transitioned the afflicted to where the present-day settlement exists today in Kalaupapa. Drastic improvements in housing and medical facilities were made in Kalaupapa, and activities and sports were incorporated.
In 1946, the cure for Hansen’s disease was discovered, and in 1969, the quarantine law, which had exiled more than 8,000 people, was revoked. Patients were now free to leave Kalaupapa. Yet many remained. The place that had once been a prison had become a sanctuary. “We have all these great leaders here,” said Norbert Kaiama Palea, who was exiled to the area in 1947 at the age of 5, in an interview that aired on PBS Hawai‘i in 2009. “Even if they sent us here … look around. They gave us the most beautiful home in the world.”
Kalaupapa National Historical Park was established in 1980 in order to preserve the area’s history and culture. These days, the peninsula exists as a place of refuge for the last remaining patients, numbering 13 in total, the youngest of whom is 75. Talk among residents often revolves around “zero patients,” regarding what will happen to the area when all patients have passed on. Still, more than 8,000 people are buried in Kalaupapa, although only about 1,300 graves are marked.
The future plan for Kalaupapa remains undecided. The land, which is managed by the Hawai‘i State Department of Health, will eventually be turned over to the National Park Service, managed in conjunction with the state and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. But public access to the peninsula and its resources remain up in the air. The National Park Service has developed four strategies for managing and protecting the park 15 to 20 years into the future. The most conservative of these makes few changes, leaving access largely as it remains now, which is limited. The most radical strategy opens Kalaupapa, giving visitors opportunity to explore and experience it unrestricted. The National Park Service has expressed a preference for a strategy for access that falls somewhere in the middle, opening the park to visitors to participate in stewardship activities and educational experiences. This option would also allot unstructured exploration of the peninsula in limited zones, and overnight camping on an approved, permit basis.
“The main goal now … is to protect Kalaupapa and its resources, preserve its stories and built environment, and conserve the range of natural resources,” said Erika Stein Espaniola, the park’s superintendent, in an email. “A long-term goal is to provide meaningful opportunities for people to learn about and experience Kalaupapa. … We want to provide the space for people to have a reflective experience. The transition will happen slowly, with a lot of care and monitoring to ensure the specialness and sacredness of Kalaupapa is maintained.”
Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the value and dignity of all exiled individuals, has worked to preserve the story of Kalaupapa. The group helped to get federal legislation signed by then President Barack Obama in 2009 for a memorial to list the names of all the exiled. The memorial, in discussion since the mid-1980s, is now in the planning and design stage. The organization has also done extensive outreach to connect the families of deceased Kalaupapa patients to their lineage of ancestors.
Regardless of what happens, it is imperative that lessons of the past inform actions of the future. “Maybe there is no zero,” says Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, a founding member of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa. “There is only ʻohana. We need to make sure the voices of Kalaupapa are heard, even if the people are not physically with us anymore.”