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Safeguarding Kalaupapa’s Past


Ancient rock formations left by Native Hawaiians on Kalaipapa’s Kaukaho Crater, seen in the foreground, serve as a reminder of the past and efforts are being made to preserve them for future generations. Photo by Catherine Cluett

The Kalaupapa peninsula’s long history of isolation makes it one of the most pristine cultural resources left in Hawaii, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Its 10,700-acre authorized park boundary keeps the landscape raw and untouchable from modern land developers but its overgrowth of invasive vegetation threatens to eat away the traces of ancient Hawaiian residents 1,000 years ago.

Though Kalaupapa is most commonly known for its Hansen’s disease residents that were exiled there in 1866 and the geographic and societal segregation that took place over 100 years, the peninsula hosted a dense Hawaiian population nearly 900 years prior. Their residency left a diverse wealth of sites, features and artifacts that researchers can use to reconstruct the past.

“Artifacts are any objects used by humans, generally more than 50 years old, so we see artifacts all the time,” said National Park Service (NPS) archaeologist Mary Jane Naone at a Kalaupapa community meeting last Tuesday. “We’re really privileged to live and work here and so the purpose of this presentation is to give an educational overview how we can best preserve it.”

Naone said her work primarily involves conducting archaeological surveys, site and feature reporting, and planning preservation measures. She repairs rock walls, carries out condition assessments, and removes invasive vegetation from areas that depreciate archaeological sites.

However, weeding the area from threatening species may be easier said than done.

“[Removing invasive vegetation] is difficult and there are a lot of questions involved,” Naone said. “When we start to remove vegetation, it opens up the canopy so some of it can grow back. We want to be careful of how we remove vegetation so that it’s a long-term goal.”

Paul Hosten, a terrestrial ecologist for the NPS, said his team is focused on clearing alien vegetation from three main areas that have native flora as well as archaeological sites: the east coast, along the crater, and the northeast coastal spray zone, which is an area where vegetation is adapted to the onshore salt spray emitted from the ocean.

Three predominant invasive species, according to the NPS, include Christmas berry, haole koa, and lantana.

“Where we have native species, we fence it off, we try to remove the deer from those areas and then try to remove and prohibit future growth [of invasive vegetation],” said Hosten.

In areas with dense overgrowth, research can still be done. A laser survey system called LiDAR is one of the tools researchers use to penetrate dense vegetation, according to Naone.

“It’s being used throughout our archaeology because you can actually scan aerially and pick up rock features without having to crawl through vegetation,” she said.

Both Naone and Hosten said they hope to work with volunteer groups to assist with their efforts to better preserve Kalaupapa’s past.

“Our biggest threat to archaeological sites here in Kalaupapa is the vegetation,” said Naone. “So if we can get volunteer groups to help reduce some of that, it’d be a great help.”

Other ways visitors can help keep archaeological sites intact is to follow all federal and state antiquity laws. Naone reminded meeting attendees that it’s illegal to vandalize, excavate or take anything away from our archaeological sites.

Artifacts contribute to the site’s story, Naone said. Once they’re relocated or completely removed from the site, we lose the information that item would have given and we lose part of the story.

The NPS also discourages visitors from building rock monuments in the area because they can mimic real archaeological features and skew future research.

According to Naone, a good rule of thumb the public should follow when visiting Kalaupapa archaeological sites is to leave no trace and to keep your hands to yourself.

“Archaeological sites are non-renewable,” said Naone. “Once they are destroyed, they’re gone forever. So when you’re in a place and you recognize that it’s a place that belonged to the past, just take good care of it…so we can enjoy them for future generations.”



3 Responses to “Safeguarding Kalaupapa’s Past”

  1. Michael Ahles says:

    Nicely written!
    Just a thought: NPS is removing the invasive plants and fencing out the invasive deer to protect the invasive artifacts left behind by the invasive inhabitants of years gone by and, that sounds overly invasive to me. Isn’t it? =

  2. fh says:

    The ethical dilemma that is always the elephant in the room for conservationists…what are you conserving and for whom? Most seem to ignore it and righteously press on with whatever agenda feels best to them. In Hawaii, primacy is always given to “Native Hawaiian”, whatever that is chosen to mean at the moment.

    Regarding Kalaupapa, the recent history of the peninsula has rightfully rendered it special and unique…in fact, quite sacred, for the sake of the human tragedy and triumph that has played out there for the patients and their families. It needs to be preserved as much as possible for present and future generations and protected from exploit by man, beast or plant.

    Fencing out the deer is a no-brainer. They are destructive in their huge numbers and the absence of predation allows them to multiply like flies. They attack whatever vegetation they encounter and encourage erosion and loss of topsoil much as an intemperate parasite kills off its host. They were introduced by man into an environment incapable of controlling their numbers.

    Plant life is a more difficult judgement call and that requires a high level of botanical expertise to decide what you protect and what you eradicate. Are you creating a new set of monsters to replace the existing?

    As for the “artifacts” , my question is this: In 50 years or so, do we start worrying about the contents of the Naiwa Landfill? What is an artifact and what is just garbage? Is everything our ancestors leave behind worthy of preservation or do we use some judgement here too?

    Modern man has a really lousy track record in his efforts at managing nature. Can our judgement be trusted or is it really just old fashioned human conceit?

  3. janelee says:

    People who thirst for the truth will drink the sand in a desert; people who drink the sand when they are thirsty for truth just don’t know the difference!

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