To understand Kalaupapa, a settlement on the island of Moloka’i, you have to understand Moloka’i. To do that, you have to understand Hawai’i. To do that, you have to know a little about Polynesia. Here’s what I find important:
Polynesia fascinates me. When I was 19, my dad sent me to Hawaii to visit my girlfriend who married a sailor. From that point forward, I was hooked; it’s in my blood. I started reading everything I could find about this vast section of the earth, from Michener to obscure dissertations from UofH’s anthropology archives.
Nobody really knows from where the Polynesians originally set sail, but it was Tahiti that became their “home base.” All of today’s Polynesian cultures can be traced to Tahiti. The languages are even the same. Polynesians didn’t have alphabets until white missionaries created them. Where the missionaries in Tahiti heard a “t,” those in Hawaii heard a “k.” The actual sound was probably somewhere between the two, but the name “Tahiti” in Hawaiian is “Kahiki.” Likewise, the Tahitian “r” is a Hawaiian “l.” So it went across the various island kingdoms, with emerging alphabets that contain the 5 vowels plus 7 consonants that varied from culture to culture. Consequently, if you spoke Tahitian, you also spoke Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, etc.
Island kingdoms across the pacific were ruled by royals and became highly-developed cultures. At first glance, the Polynesian cultures can appear under-developed. Their course of development was certainly influenced by facts such as oral historical traditions instead of writing, a lack of iron for utensils or weaponry resulting in a lack of gunpowder and their distance from developing continental cultures. Yet, in some ways, they were far more advanced than their European counterparts.
The Polynesians sailed huge tracts of the Pacific in double-hulled outrigger canoes. Think, for just a minute, about sailing the Pacific Ocean in a canoe . . . It’s astounding, really. The navigational skills of ancient Polynesians are unparalleled. They covered nearly a quarter of the planet by stars alone. At this time, explorers from Europe were still navigating by sight!
In Hawai’i, as across the islands, there was a hierarchical caste system; the ali’i (royalty) and kahuna (religious clerics) held the power. Ali’i created a kapu (forbidden) system, allowing the rarest foods and resources only to be used by royalty, less rare ones for the kahuna, common ones for the masses and whatever was left for slaves. In hindsight, this equates to early ecological resource management – they were practicing conservation!
Although they didn’t have an alphabet, this culture memorized their history. Their story “keepers” could recite 900-verse orations, detailing their lineage!
The Polynesians were doing great in their own little insulated kingdoms. Then, along came Whitey. Although there’s a lot of anger about what westerners have done in Polynesia (and elsewhere), this was inevitable. You have to be ready for the direction in which the world is heading and the Polynesians weren’t.
But, they weren’t what they have been made out to be, either. These are the faces of Polynesia – the standard of beauty is different than the western one. Polynesians were big people. They WANTED to be obese; a large presence was viewed as a commanding presence. Ali’i had slaves massage their abdomens to make room for more food. The hula is not a dance meant to entertain but a story-telling tradition.
Western culture portrayed them as gentle dancers, beautiful in our small-featured, thin way. They created visions of friendly, backward islanders who needed Western salvation to free them from their pagan religion. Their orderly kingdoms ruled by forward-thinking leaders were depicted as savagery that was saved by the introduction of democracy.
There’s always another way to look at things . . .
Description: Uncle Sam and Cleveland are playing chess with pieces representing the U.S. senators and Queen Lili'uokalani .
King Kamehameha I was the leader who united all of the islands of Hawai’i into one kingdom, so he is revered there today. He and the Kamehameha lineage of royalty that followed him embraced western culture when it came to their shores. They became Christian and abolished the old religion. They bought western goods and earned western money. They introduced democratic ideals. Perhaps of most consequence, they allowed the concept of land ownership into the islands; there was no return from that decision.
Like everywhere else, development progressed and Hawai’i became a self-ruling, internationally recognized nation. This is important; it’s what sets Hawai’i apart. It was a recognized nation.
Lots of American businessmen had become wealthy by farming sugar and pineapple in the islands. Many of them wanted to avoid US tariffs on foreign goods by annexing Hawai’i as part of the US (this resource rape was happening all over the globe at that time). The ruling Hawai’ian queen, of course, didn’t agree. Hawai’i was her own nation, sovereign and proud.
In 1893, a handful of wealthy land-owners (led by Sanford Dole, of Pineapple fame) claimed that American lives were at stake and requested that an American official (who was also pro-annexation) call for military assistance from a war ship docked offshore. A few men with guns were sent ashore. This group took the queen by force, imprisoned her in a palace, claimed Hawai’i for the US and set up a provisional government.
This constituted the illegal overthrow of an internationally recognized nation. President-elect Grover Cleveland spent the remainder of his time in office attempting to undo this injustice. Liliuokalani believed that the US would enforce justice; she waited patiently and instructed her subjects to do the same. There were countless hearings and arguments.
One hundred seventeen years later, the injustice remains.
It’s not all palm trees and ukulele music.
Hawai’ian Sovereignty Movement
Some people in Hawai’i are, understandably, really angry about how it was overthrown. They don’t want to be a state. They don’t want to be American. They are Hawai’ian, they want their land back and they want their own government to rule over it. This is the Hawai’ian Sovereignty Movement.
They’ll never get what they want, of course. We’re not going to give Hawai’i to anyone. We’re going to pacify them until they die out, which won’t be long.
In 1993, then-President Clinton offered a public apology to the people of Hawai’i. For decades, attempts have been made to “make amends” to native Hawai’ians. If you can prove that you have a certain percentage of native blood, you have rights in Hawai’i. Rights to live on “state” land, gather native plants, attend certain schools, fish in certain places, etc.
We can afford to give them almost anything, because their numbers are so few. When the first whites encountered the Hawai’ian islands, there were about 300,000 natives living there. Today, there are an estimated 300 persons of “pure” Hawai’ian blood.
Some rights of Native Hawai’ian have been held up in government and/or courts because of labels. Politicians want to lump them in with other Native Americans, believing that all of this has already been argued and settled. Those arguing for rights point out that they are not like other indigenous people who were trampled by Whites. They were a recognized nation. They’re right, of course.
The Hawai’ian Sovereignty Movement isn’t well-organized or very realistic. Most of them think that America stole “Old Hawai’i,” when, in fact, the Ali’i allowed it to fade away, likely out of necessity. On top of that, if Hawai’i weren’t aligned with the US, it certainly would have been with another western nation, by force or otherwise; that’s just what was happening back then. Most importantly, the cause isn’t sustainable; there aren’t enough Hawai’ians left.
Moloka’i is unusual among the Hawai’ian islands. This island’s culture was saved by Hansen’s Disease, aka leprosy.
In the 1860’s leprosy was a horrifying disease. It disfigured and debilitated its victims and was highly contagious. Across the globe, leprosy patients were yanked from their families and shipped off to seclusion in a “leprosy colony.” The colony for Hawai’i was the Kalaupapa Peninsula, on the island of Moloka’i.
Kalaupapa is a small peninsula on the north side of the island. It’s triangular in shape, two sides fronting the Pacific and the third separated from the rest of the island by 3,000+ foot cliffs. It was the perfect place to imprison people.
Although the peninsula is only a tiny piece of the island, the fear of leprosy was so intense that the entire island was stigmatized by the leper colony, and Moloka’i was never developed. That is what saved her.
Today, the island remains undeveloped. I was there in 2004 and there is nothing there – nothing. There are about a dozen towns; most consist of about a dozen homes. Only two of the towns had stores and restaurants. There were only two chains on the island – Napa Auto Parts and a Subway. There was one bar (in a hotel) and two hotels – one for rich people and mine, with its thatched roof and geckos in the beds. Cruise ships weren’t allowed to come to Moloka’i.
Life on the island is rural, even in town. Hell, TOWN is rural! The Hawai’ian language can be heard here. Faces bear native features. Royal fishponds are still maintained and used. This is what Hawai’i used to be.
Moloka’i has become the symbol of the sovereignty movement and of “Old Hawai’i.” It, along with Ni’ihau (a privately-owned island whose wealthy owner has retained the old culture) and Kaho’olawe (an island formerly owned by the Navy and used as a bomb target, now transferred for use by the state) may prove to be the last bastions of Hawai’ian culture.
Moloka’i is a magical place. I was lucky enough to experience Kaunakakai Harbor on a Friday evening. The entire island turned out. It was a celebration of the week’s end, I guess. People were just there, enjoying the sun, the ocean, and each other. Old people waded in the water. Children ran around unattended. People were rowing outrigger canoes in the harbor. On the beach, people drank, sang and played the ukulele. They offered each other whatever they had to eat. I have never felt such a communal spirit at any other time.
Like all leper colonies, Kalaupapa was horrible. Patients were dumped there and forced to fend for themselves. There was no food, no law, no facilities. There was just extreme illness, pain, despair and the occasional boat bringing more suffering people.
Finally, a Belgian priest named Father Damien came along and helped residents create a community. He fed and ministered the sick. He lived his life in Kalaupapa, contracting and dying from the dreaded disease himself. He is revered in Hawai'i, particularly on Moloka'i and recently attained sainthood.
In the 1960’s, leprosy was contained. After 103 years, Kalaupapa residents were free to leave. Many, though, chose to stay; it was their home and many of them were disabled. The state has given them the opportunity to stay there the rest of their lives. No new residents can move there, so when the last leprosy patient dies, so does the settlement. A barge delivers heavy goods to the residents once a year; they receive regular shipments of food and convenience items.
Visitors can pay to visit Kalaupapa, which helps to sustain the residents. You can fly, hike or ride a mule down the cliffs to the settlement. I planned to ride a mule, but chickened out when I saw the cliffs.
The peninsula is now part of a National Park. When the last resident dies, the settlement won’t be repopulated; it will just be a park. The 2000 Census listed just under 150 residents, but I know it was closer to 40 in 2007.
I was thinking about Kalaupapa and it struck me what a tremendous opportunity it is to meet these people and how short-lived it will be. I could kick myself for not going through with it back then, so I’ve decided that I need to go back and make the trip down the cliffs. But, I've learned that the mule & hiking trail was closed last month when a bridge washed out. It will be closed at least until July.
I sure hope it opens again and that there are living residents left when it does.