UH Hilo history students conduct grave marker preservation at historic Kalaupapa peninsula, Molokai

The students, enrolled in a public history course, were invited to participate in the preservation workshop with the goal of cleaning, i.e. washing and scrubbing, every known grave marker on the Kalaupapa peninsula over a two week period in March.

By Susan Enright

Students sit for group photo.
UH Hilo history students on steps of doctor’s house, March 2020, Kalaupapa, Molokai. Photo credit: Kerri A. Inglis.

From March 9 to 21, 2020, 14 students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and several instructors gathered at Kalaupapa, Molokai, for a preservation workshop, in partnership with HOPE (Hands-On Preservation Experience), the National Parks Service, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“The students, enrolled in a public history course, were invited to participate in this preservation workshop with the goal of cleaning, i.e. washing and scrubbing, every known grave marker on the peninsula over this two week period,” says UH Hilo Professor of History Kerri Inglis. “They lived in staff housing built in the early 20th century, sharing meals, days and evenings together.”

Jason Church, Materials Conservator at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and Rusty Brenner of Texas Cemetery Conservation led the cemetery preservation work, teaching the participants gravestone cleaning techniques.

Photos of UH Hilo students at Kalaupapa courtesy of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, click to enlarge:

Inglis says that despite on-going notifications of the developing CoVid-19 pandemic and public health crisis, and concerns for their families as well as changes at the university, the students persevered and completed their task.

Kerri Inglis
Kerri Inglis

“Gaining inspiration from their kūpuna (ancestors, elders), our students learned from the history of the leprosy settlement; the community of Kalaupapa; their instructors from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, the National Park Service, HOPE, and others; and from one another,” explains Inglis. “With an emphasis on learning about the ancestors they were caring for and the cultural significance of place, students were immersed in the history not only of Kalaupapa, but of Hawaiʻi itself.”

One student stated, “The hands-on work, the sharing of moʻolelo [stories], and the people who I traveled with provided me with the most rewarding learning experiences.”

Inglis says it was in the doing of the work that the students and instructors learned the most, not only about the techniques and importance of preservation, but about working together and belonging to a community.

In the words of another student, “This trip was very life changing for me. It gave me a whole new outlook on life and all the possibilities that life holds. Poina ‘ole ia. I will never forget this huaka’i [journey] and the pilina [connection] I and the rest of the hui [group] built and experienced. I have gained a new sense of belonging, sense of place, and sense of aloha.”

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

Inglis explains that established in 1980 in an effort to preserve the archaeological, environmental, and social history of the peninsula on Molokai’s northern shore, Kalaupapa National Historical Park remains a pristine landscape, rich in its history of perseverance, hardship, isolation, and community. Separated from the “topside” of the island of Molokai by some of the highest sea cliffs in the world (up to 2000 feet at its highest point), and surrounded by deep ocean on its coastlines, access to the peninsula today remains limited.

The Kalaupapa peninsula was used as a place of separation from 1866 to 1969 for those who had contracted Hansen’s disease (also kown as leprosy) during the Kingdom, Territorial, and early Statehood eras of Hawaiʻi history; approximately 8,000 individuals (90 percent of whom were Native Hawaiian) were sent to live out their lives in this place of exile. Today, approximately 1200 grave markers remain, a reminder of their resilience and sacrifice.

 

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.