A Place of Contradiction and Contemplation
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Kalaupapa. A place of contradiction: stunning beauty and serenity, haunted by stories of deep sorrow. The worst and the best of humanity are portrayed in its story. I felt suspended at the confluence of those contradictions, drifting from one to the other the entire time I was on Kalaupapa.
Many years ago, I took a fishing trip with friends to Kalaupapa. Four decades later, the memories of the place and the people I encountered still remain vivid.
I reflect on time spent with Paul Harada, a patient I had the privilege to meet. Paul was born to a family who farmed taro in Lumaha‘i Valley, Kaua‘i. In 1945, told he had Hansen’s disease, he was forced to leave his family for Kalaupapa. He was 16-years old.
Although my time spent with Paul was very brief, he gave me a glimpse into to what life was like on Kalaupapa. At first glance, he was like a kupuna, an elder you would meet anywhere in Hawai‘i until you saw his disfigured hands. We did not have deep conversations about his life with the disease. But through Paul I saw a community that came to grips with the unimaginable and found peace in their beautiful sanctuary.
Adversity Brings People Together
When Hansen’s disease (leprosy) was introduced to the Hawaiian islands, King Kamehameha V banished all afflicted to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula on the north shore of Moloka‘i.
Since 1866, more than 8,000 people, mostly Hawaiians, have died in Kalaupapa. Once a prison, Kalaupapa is now a refuge for the few remaining residents who are now cured but were forced to live their lives in isolation. (Excepted from nps.gov/kala/index.htm)
Hansen’s disease knew no racial or ethnic boundaries. Besides Hawaiians, the people from other major ethnic groups who became infected were Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino and Caucasians.
Japanese patients were a smaller group, but they kept their cultural traditions such as mochi pounding and bon dance alive in the settlement. They also practiced their Buddhist faith and constructed an AJA (Americans of Japanese Ancestry) Buddhist Hall, which still stands today.
With the trauma brought on by this dreadful disease, they found comfort in their culture and community.
Adversity brings people together and this was profoundly true for Kalaupapa’s multicultural community. They became each other’s extended ‘ohana and that bond was their social support network.
Studies show that having a social support network is critical to coping with emotional stress.
Ma‘i Ho‘oka‘awale ‘ohana’ — The Disease That Tears Families Apart
After landing at the quaint Kalaupapa Airport, we were greeted by our hosts Paul Harada, Frank Duarte and Shoji Hamai. Arriving at the visitors’ quarters where we would spend a few nights, Paul pointed out the old visitation pavilion, called the “Long House.” Suddenly the anticipation of adventure turned grim. It is a narrow rectangular structure that once had a chain-linked fence the length of the room to keep visitors and patients separated.
At the time, Hansen’s disease was considered incurable and although it was not highly contagious, there was absolutely no contact permitted between family members. The house remains a symbol of how the disease had forced family members apart.
Paul mentioned that some patients rarely or never had family members come to visit. Some of those afflicted with the disease were considered outcasts by family members. This was evident in some Asian cultures where families did not want any association with the disease. Fear drove communities to shun families known to have members with Hansen’s disease. And families that owned businesses believed that fear could cause irreparable harm to their livelihoods.
That was the harsh reality that some patients had to endure.
Kökua from “Kage”
Because of the rough seas surrounding Kalaupapa, a barge from Honolulu bringing supplies such as rice, canned goods, beer and gasoline would come just once a year during summer when seas were calm. Fresh fruits and vegetable came in more frequently by plane. But my fishing friends and I all chipped in to purchase fresh fruits and meats for our hosts.
We also chipped in to purchase auto parts for tune-ups, replacing water pumps and other minor repairs.
Thanks to my classmate, Gary, and his dad, the late Toshi “Kage” Kagehiro, we had the privilege to spend time on Kalaupapa. Kage worked at Hale Möhalu on O‘ahu where he befriended patients who came to the hospital for medical care.
Prior to working at Hale Möhalu, he owned a service station in Ewa called “Kage’s 66.” He and Gary were excellent mechanics and when we woke up, the first morning patients were lined up outside waiting to get their cars repaired. There were no mechanics in Kalaupapa, and this was a kökua Kage provided whenever he visited his friends.
The Ocean’s Bounty
Being from O‘ahu, you need good luck on your side to catch fish. Because the island is more populated and a bit overfished, it is rare to see an abundant shoreline full of fish.
Seeing the abundance of the shoreline fish population at Kalaupapa was just mind-blowing. I felt as if I had been transported back to pre-western contact.
I brought my throw net. With this style of fishing you scour the shoreline looking for fish. At low-tide I would see fins of uhu (parrot fish) out of the water and covering the reef. You don’t see that on O‘ahu or any of the major islands.
I was mindful to be very selective and catch only what we were going to eat while on Kalaupapa. That abundant shoreline ecosystem needed to remain that way.
One morning while on a walk, I had the pleasure of meeting avid fisherman, Rev. Nobincio “Nobby” Fernandez, the pastor of Kalaupapa’s St. Francis Church. Rev. Fernandez is remembered for saying, “when the ocean is calm, the sermon is short.”
Rev. Fernandez was scraping barnacles off the hull of his fishing boat. I asked if he wanted help; he said, “Sure.” I grabbed an extra putty knife and started removing barnacles.
Rev. Fernandez was born in Wahiawä, O‘ahu, where I was born and raised. While serving as a military chaplain in Okinawa, he experienced numbness in his leg and was sent to a leprosarium in Louisiana. It was determined that he had Hansen’s disease.
That night while we were fishing on the pier, Rev. Fernandez came by with a large pot of steaming hot Kona crab and a tray of swordfish sashimi. It was an unexpected treat of fresh seafood he caught from waters off Kalaupapa.
He sat down to talk story and I asked him why there were so many boat lights dotting the horizon? He said when the water is calm, during the summer, they come for the seasonal catch of Kona crab. One would suspect those boats were harvesting crabs for the market, which was foreboding to see offshore from this near-pristine shoreline ecosystem.
Early Hawaiians had a kapu (prohibition) system to sustain ocean resources. After that trip to Kalaupapa, I was told future guests were not allowed throw net, spearfish or to harvest ‘opihi. Kalaupapa residents rely on subsistence fishing; managing those resources was integral to their way of life.
Kalaupapa’s abundant shoreline resources should remain under a kapu system. Let it serve as a model of what a healthy shoreline ecosystem can be like with proper management.
A Cultural Practice Lost to Modern Hawai‘i
Paul came to get me one morning and asked me to bring my net. A Hawaiian woman had family coming to visit and she wanted manini.
We drove to a beautiful cove where she was waiting under a tree with a five-gallon bucket. Paul took me to a point of the cove where we stood on a ledge overlooking the reef. Paul pointed to a large school of manini just off the reef swimming in a tight ball, a defense tactic to deter large predators.
The only times I have seen this was on nature television programs. A surge came in and the school was on the reef. I threw my net and when it landed it was a circle of green.
The woman came running up with her bucket as Paul and I went into the water. We started removing fish and throwing the bigger ones to the woman while releasing the smaller ones. The first fish I threw up she grabbed and put the stomach side in her mouth. She bit down and started sucking, drawing out the digested limu. With two hands free she continued to pick-up fish.
I had never seen this before and my first thought was this was a cultural practice lost to modern Hawai‘i. I asked a Hawaiian friend who is a cultural resource specialist and an avid throw-net fisherman about it, and he never heard of it. Another Hawaiian friend, an authority on Hawaiian food traditions said he heard of it but never saw it. My neighbor said he saw Tongans bite down and suck on a small reef fish. It seems this is still a common practice with some Pacific Islanders but not so in Hawai‘i today.
A 1924 Board of Health report showed the large majority of the Kalaupapa’s population consisted of Hawaiians followed by part-Hawaiians. That begs the question: Given the isolation and with subsistence fishing a key source for food, was that cultural tradition preserved and practiced but lost to the rest of Hawai‘i? My conclusion would be yes.
I vividly recall a solitary walk back to the visitors’ quarters with my net and catch for the day. The late afternoon light filtered through the ironwoods casting shadows on a quiet unpaved road. The only sound was the rhythm of the ocean drifting in. I was walking on sacred ground, soaking it all in, a rare privilege granted to an outsider.
Off in the distance a car was approaching. As it got closer, I could see an older couple with a little dog standing between them with its front paws on the dashboard. They drove by smiling and waving and I smiled and waved back. A few minutes later another car drove by and again, a couple smiling and waving with a dog in the front seat. A third car followed then a fourth.
Perplexed, I later learned from Paul that what was seemingly a casual afternoon drive held a deeper story. Hansen’s disease patients were not allowed to have children and they lived in isolation surrounded by rough seas on three sides and one of the world’s highest sea cliffs on the other. That daily afternoon drive with these pet dogs was their family outing.
Today, visitors to Kalaupapa must be 16 years or older. This was at the request of the remaining patients. Kalaupapa National Historical Park Superintendent Erica Stein Espaniola told Huffington Post that many patients have painful memories of being forced to leave their own children behind when they were forced into quarantine. In 2015, The Atlantic published an article where a state health official said almost every woman in quarantine in Kalaupapa gave birth there at some point. Health officials would immediately take that child into custody the instant the child was delivered.
That daily afternoon drive was a testament to the resilience of the human spirit shining through Kalaupapa’s dark past. Roughly 40 years later, there are two patients still enjoying that beautiful afternoon drive with their four-legged family members.
It is well documented that having daily routines is beneficial to our mental health as noted in webmd.com/mental-health/psychological-benefits-of-routine.
New drug therapies have enabled patients to leave Kalaupapa since 1969 when the quarantine was lifted but many, including Paul, did not want to live anywhere else.
“He hated to leave Kalaupapa,” said his younger brother, Rev. Glenn Harada, in a February 2008 Star-Bulletin article (archives.starbulletin.com/2008/02/05/news/story11.html). “Even when he came to family celebrations on Kaua‘i, he couldn’t wait to get back.”
Toward the end of his life Paul spent several months in Honolulu fighting lung cancer. In a recent conversation, Rev. Harada said of his brother, “internally Paul knew his time was getting close and his wish was to return to Kalaupapa.” Paul did return to Kalaupapa and in a matter of days he passed away on Jan. 4, 2008, at the age of 81.
Paul was laid to rest in Kalaupapa.
What Will Come of Kalaupapa After the Last Patient Passes?
There are 11 surviving patients with five residing on Kalaupapa according to a March 2021 Honolulu Star-Advertiser article (staradvertiser.com/2021/03/07/hawaii-news/kalaupapa-resident-sought-to-preserve-the-settlement/). The number of five residing in Kalaupapa may be misleading; some patients are in care facilities off-island but technically call Kalaupapa their home.
The future of Kalaupapa is in the hands of the stakeholders after the last patient passes on. My hope is that the preservation of the historical and cultural resources as well as conservation of the natural resources will remain top priorities. And the Kalaupapa story is an invaluable educational resource. Educational opportunities must be afforded while limiting commercial activity and traffic. Above all, the sanctity of Kalaupapa must be preserved.
In my opinion the National Park Service should continue as the steward of Kalaupapa. NPS has the financial and human resources to manage the site in good or bad economies. It has been doing so since 1980 when Congress enacted it as the Kalaupapa National Historical Park Hawai‘i.
That was due to Congresswoman Patsy Mink’s advocacy to protect the area’s significant cultural, historical, educational and scenic resources.
My opinion is based on this pragmatic perspective as well as a cultural perspective. Native Hawaiians have inhabited the Kalaupapa peninsula for over 900 years. And the majority of the roughly 8,000 patients that died on Kalaupapa were Hawaiian. The Kalaupapa National Historical Park’s laws and policies give employment preference to qualified Native Hawaiians. Twenty-six of its 34 employees are Native Hawaiians, with 25 of these longtime Moloka‘i residents. Native Hawaiians bring a perspective and sensibility that are crucial to preserving the cultural integrity of the Kalaupapa story.
I communicated with Miki‘ala Pescaia, Chief of Interpretation, Education and Volunteers. She shared facts, insightful information and oral histories that helped to inform this story. She is Native Hawaiian and a Moloka‘i resident with deep roots in the island’s north shore. You can feel the dedication and love she has for this special place and its people. I believe the future of Kalaupapa will be in good hands with stewards like her.
It was heartbreaking to hear Harry Arce (a caregiver for the remaining patients) in a video interview say that the biggest fear the remaining patients on Kalaupapa have is being the last patient and seeing their friends pass on before them.
He choked back tears saying, “I just wish we (the caregivers) could relieve [that pain] from them, but we cannot.” One can only imagine what being the lone survivor would be like, reliving separation from family.
And to hear the sadness that Miki‘ala felt for not being able to hug the patients because of COVID-19 tells of the ongoing human story.
Their stories, those of the first Hawaiians who inhabited the peninsula, the tales of Saint Damien De Veuster and Saint Marianne Cope, and those of the first and last Hansen’s disease patients of Kalaupapa, all hold invaluable lessons we can learn from and be inspired by.
The Kalaupapa experience can be life changing.
Note: You can hear Harry Arce’s heartfelt story in the second half of this short John Harrington video interview at youtube.com/watch?v=S1RdUvMCJo0.
Dan Nakasone is a sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and was a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.