Memorializing The Past

Bill would provide federal authorization for Kalaupapa Memorial.
By Sean Aronson

It’s been a long time coming, but Kalaupapa could soon have an official memorial to commemorate the more than 8000 people who lived on the peninsula over the more than one hundred years that Hansen’s disease patients were exiled there.

The U.S. House of Representatives was expected to approve the bill as part of an omnibus public lands package this week.  The bill does not include any money for the planned memorial, but it does give the legal authority for construction.

The idea for the memorial is to display the names of all patients sent to Kalaupapa, and originally Kalawao, from 1866-1969.  There were an estimated 8000 Hansen’s disease patients through the years.  Today, there are 24 living in Hawaii, with only 14 still residing in Kalaupapa.

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii’s second congressional district was instrumental in keeping the legislation for the memorial alive in the House.  It has come before committee in the past but always attached to other bills.  It was set to be voted on last week, but the stimulus package postponed the vote.  In the Senate, Daniel Akaka has worked to push a similar bill through passage.

Rep. Ed Case introduced the bill initially back in 2005.  Rep. Case’s chief of staff, Esther Kiaaina, was instrumental in crafting the bill.  Her mother had been a patient at Kalaupapa.  And she was reportedly surprised upon visiting that she couldn’t find her mother’s grave.

Valerie Monson is secretary of Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa, an advocacy group for Hansen’s disease patients which will build the monument.  She says plans for the location of the memorial are still being worked out but patients will provide the majority of input on this and other issues to be determined.

“It’s for the people of Kalaupapa,” says Monson, “But it will also be for visitors as well.  We want people to see the names to get a true understanding of the enormity of this disease.”

Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa is a nonprofit organization consisting of patient residents at Kalaupapa National Historical Park and their family members and friends. The group was established in 2003 to promote the value and dignity of the exiles of Kalaupapa and has worked to honor and remember them by establishing a memorial.

The names of the first 5000 people to live in Kalaupapa are known, thanks to the Hawaii state archive. Monson says the group is modeling the monument after Ellis Island in New York, which lists the name of every immigrant arriving to the United States via the famous entry point.

Right now, there are about 6700 patients in unmarked graves – and when families of the patients come to visit, they can’t find their loved ones.

As it is now, says Monson, relatives who visit Kalaupapa can’t have the closure that a named grave would provide.  Additionally, the purpose of the memorial would be to provide patients and relatives alike with a ‘sense of pride’ about what occurred at Kalaupapa.

Monson says the patients have been portrayed as victims for so long now, but in reality they were very brave to endure the hardships of Kalaupapa.

The memorial is also a way to ensure the people are never forgotten.

Members of the Kalaupapa advocacy group are compiling as many letters and diaries from former patients as they can.  The goal is to use these personal stories for elements of the memorial.

Although Father Damien’s canonization will highlight 2009 for Kalaupapa, the monument will also be in the national spotlight and will be able take some of the attention off of Damien and put it on the patients, as Damien would have liked it, says Monson.

The National Park Service (NPS) is also on board to help with the monument, after initially being opposed to it, says Monson.

Representatives from the NPS were contacted for this story, but did not respond.

For more information about the memorial visit Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa’s website at


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