The True Story of Kaluaikoolau

Film of Hawaiian heroism presented to Molokai community.

By Catherine Cluett

This is a true story of Kaluaikoolau , known as Koolau, who lived in Waimea, Kauai with his wife Piilani and their son Kaleimanu in the late 1800’s. After learning he had contracted leprosy in 1892, Koolau was forced by the government to relocate to Molokai.

Families were not allowed to accompany patients, however, and Koolau refused to leave his family. After shooting a sheriff and two Provisional Government officers who tried to arrest him, Koolau and his family escaped together to the remote Kalalau Valley. There they lived peacefully until first Kaleimanu, then Koolau died of the disease. Piilani, after three and a half years of wandering in the wilderness, finally returned to civilization and lived until 1960.

Last Saturday night, members of the Molokai community gathered after a dinner hosted by Pacific American Foundation to watch a movie about Koolau entitled “The True Story of Kaluaikoolau .”

Hiwa Kanahele, now a freshman in college, sang a Hawaiian chant. Haunani Seward, director of the Ke Kula Ni`ihau O Kekaha Learning Center in Kauai, gave an introduction to the movie. It was then the audience learned that Hiwa was the narrator of the film, which was made during her freshman and sophomore years at the school.

The story of Kaluaikoolau as narrated by Piilani was first published in Hawaiian in 1906. In 2001, Frances Frazier translated the story into English, and the book is now widely available in book stores.

In 2004, Seward began making a film of the story. Three students at Ke Kula Ni`ihau O Kekaha acted in the main roles of the film: Cousins Oliwa Kanahele and Kaehu Kanahele play Kalauilooau and Piilani, respectively.

Keoki Strickland acts the part of their son, Kaleimanu. Hiwa Kanahele is the film’s narrator. The film is presented in three languages: the narration is in Standard Hawaiian with English subtitles, and the dialogue is in Ni`ihau dialect, in which all the students are fluent.

The movie was expertly crafted on a shoestring budget of $35,000 with the help of videographer Camera Paik. Funding for the project came primarily from private donors, as well as some grants. The film premiered in 2006 in Kalaupapa, honoring patients of the disease living there.

Ke Kula Ni`ihau O Kekaha Learning Center is a K-12 charter school, and its mission is to strengthen and perpetuate the Ni`ihau dialect, says Seward. Ke Kula Ni`ihau O Kekaha is a native language school, not an immersion program, explains Seward, but its goal is fluency in both languages. Making this film, she adds, was a learning project in which many high school students took part, as well as a way to fulfill the school’s mission.

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