Travelers who ventured to Kalaupapa in 1966 were in for a wild ride. Richard and Gloria Marks, former Hansen’s Disease patients and current residents of the remote settlement on the northernmost land mass of Molokai began Damien Tours with a station wagon, a couple of cans of blue house paint, and a healthy dose of spunk.
For only $5, Richard Marks, who served as driver, tour-guide, and repairman for the fledgling company, zigzagged around the peninsula losing tail-pipes and mufflers, stopping the tour only to put the pieces back together.
“He would cuss the hell out of whatever he was working on,” said his wife, Gloria Marks. “You know those sweet words he likes to use.”
The feisty Gloria held her own as company receptionist and driver. She giggled, remembering her reputation as “the wild woman,” the “rock lady” or simply “that grouchy lady.”
Last Saturday, July 22, residents and guests of Damien Tours’ 40th Anniversary Celebration were treated to the history of Damien tours as told by the rock lady herself. Today, as the only remaining tour company in Kalaupapa, Damien Tours welcomes over 10,000 visitors to the settlement every year. They have welcomed such high-profile guests as the king and queen of Belgium and even Linda Lingle in her hippie days.
At Saturday’s celebration and Hawaiian feast, the Marks family for the most part kept the mood lighthearted. The family danced hula, and Gloria and Richard’s grandchildren, Nicole Carroll and Damien Marks-Rapal, who emceed the event, challenged the audience to a round of Damien Tours trivia. Awards and plaques were presented to members of the supporting community, included drivers, kitchen staff, and the National Park Service. Although some guests at the event traveled from as far away as Oahu and Maui, the 40th anniversary celebration evoked the camaraderie of a family gathering. The majority of attendees were residents and staff of Kalaupapa, or relatives of the Marks, who drew four generations to Kalaupapa to help make the anniversary a success.
The intimacy of the gathering suited the settlement, which has remained a private and close-knit community for many years. Travel to Kalaupapa is intensely regulated and strictly enforced—all visitors must either be a registered guest of one of the residents or a participant on a Damien tour, where visitors can still hear the history of the settlement from Richard Marks himself.
Kalaupapa is designated as a national historical site—but it is a living history that is told there, and many efforts have been made to shield the 33 former patients from intrusion and exploitation.
Although today’s residents may now leave Kalaupapa whenever they please, the peninsula’s 103 years of legally enforced segregation and neglect is lost on no one. After forcibly removing indigenous people from the land, the government in 1866 turned the largely inaccessible area into a holding area for the sufferers of Hansen’s Disease—then called leprosy. Damien tours namesake, Father Damien, was a Belgian priest who devoted his life to bringing hope to Kalaupapa, helping residents build houses, construct water systems and establish schools. He led bands and choirs, provided medical care for the sick, and buried the dead until he himself fell victim to the disease in 1889. The patients called him Kama`aina—no small praise in a place where residents are often wary of outsiders.
“It’s hard to get their trust,” said Marco Jordan, who has been working in the Kitchen at Kalaupapa for the past 10 years. “Once you get it, you better hold it sacred.” According to Jordan, the struggle didn’t end for the residents of Kalaupapa when in 1969 they were given permission to leave the settlement at their will.
Resident Olivia Robello Breitha has been fighting the stigma of the term “leper” for many years. She rails against the term in her autobiography and in a documentary she filmed in collaboration with AIDS patients. And settlement activist Clarence Naia, who died last month, was arrested in 1983 for what was ultimately a successful protest of the state’s eviction of leprosy patients from a Honolulu care facility.
The approximately 100 state and federal workers who tend to the community today are fiercely protective of their courageous kupuna, and proud of the dignity with which the residents lead their lives. “Even to wash dishes and clean floors here is a privilege, an honor,” said Jordan. “The residents here are my family. This is an honorable place.”
In her speech, Gloria Marks spoke of her company and her home with great pride, but she also hinted at the dark past of Kalaupapa and the struggles that persist today.
“I thank the lord for the forgiveness of all of those who do not understand us,” she said, fighting back tears. “Take care of yourselves,” she said, “take care of your neighbors.”
In the settlement, this bit of wisdom has become a way of life. Charging only $40 per person, Damien Tours has remained a primarily educational program, rather than a money-making venture. And staff members say Auntie Gloria and Uncle Richard operate with the same graciousness and generosity that thrives in the community —they share their profits with the former patients and hold holiday celebrations on a regular basis.
Indeed, it is hard to take anything for granted at Kalaupapa. Jordan pointed to the town cemetery as a physical reminder of what can happen when people fail to take care of each other: “We have thousands and thousands of graves here…people ripped from their homes and their families. Each has a distinct story,” he said, “I think about it every day.”
“People come out here and think about what a special life the kupuna lead in this place, how the government provides for them…but money can never replace what they took away from these people,” he said.
“We are lucky to have Auntie Gloria and Uncle Richard here to tell the story. It has to be told right.”
Last week, Gladys Baisa, former director of MEO Inc., became the first candidate of the 2006 election season to launch a major campaign effort on Molokai. Baisa, who is running for the Upcountry Maui County Council seat, followed her roadside campaign with a celebratory spaghetti dinner and live entertainment at the Mitchell Pauole Center. Molokai is Baisa’s fifth stop on a tour of eight locations. Her campaign volunteers say they have participated in roadside rallies, community dinners, and even a Tahitian drum circle in Hana.
“I thought it was important to go to every district,” said Baisa. “It is important for all of the people to get an opportunity to meet their candidates and for me to hear what matters to them.” Baisa said affordable housing, availability of water and access to medical care are some of the most critical issues for Molokai. But she also noted that Molokai residents share many concerns in common with the entire county. “While there are issues that are particular to certain communities, I keep finding that in the end we all want the same things. We want healthy homes and communities and for our children to grow up and be educated and self-sufficient.”