Honoring the Past: Ti leaf lei-making event honors leprosy patients of Kalaupapa

History professor Kerri Inglis shared the history of leprosy in Hawaiʻi. Students, as they made lei lāʻī, reflected on parallels about resilience that can be applied to circumstances today.

By Kirsten Aoyagi.

At an in-person event held on campus, students gathered at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo to learn about the history of Kalaupapa, Molokai, and to make ti leaf leis (lei lāʻī) in honor of the leprosy patients who lived and died there.

Sheldon Rosa pictured.
Sheldon Rosa
Kerri Inglis pictured
Kerri Inglis

The event, titled “Honoring the Past: Making Lei and Learning from the History of Kalaupapa,” included a presentation by Professor of History Kerri Inglis and student peer mentor Sheldon Rosa followed by the making of the leis, some of which will be laid on patients’ graves at Kalaupapa.

“We wanted to present to the students in attendance, not only some basic background about the history of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in Hawaiʻi, but also to be able to reflect on some of the parallels and lessons about resilience and perseverance that we can apply to our circumstances today,” says Inglis.

“The lei lāʻī will be sent to Kalaupapa to be placed at graves on the peninsula in remembrance of the patients who were once exiled there because they had contracted leprosy,” she says.

The event, held at Campus Center, was hosted on Feb. 24 by the UH Hilo Ka Lama Ku Development Leadership Program, UH Hilo Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, and Hui Mālama Makanalua, a non-profit community group started in 2014 dedicated to remembering the leprosy patients of Kalaupapa. Inglis and Rosa are hui members.

In their presentation, Inglis and Rosa shared the hui’s mission to bring awareness and to honor leprosy patients who passed away on the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

After the presentation, attendees were taught how to make ti leaf lei or lei lāʻī, twisted strands of ti leaves woven tightly into a braid-like lei. The group conversed with each other while remembering the nature of their task and making sure to keep thoughts pono.

People anchor the lei on their toes while twisting the leaves.
While making lei lāʻī , the group conversed with each other while remembering the nature of their task and making sure to keep thoughts pono. (Kirsten Aoyagi/UH Hilo Stories)
Green ti leaves twisted into lei lāʻī.
Close up of lei lāʻī. Click photos to enlarge. (Kirsten Aoyagi/UH Hilo Stories)

Some of the leis made at the event will be frozen and stored until June when they will be placed on leprosy patients’ graves at Kalaupapa by members of the hui. That event is called Lei Haliʻa O Kalaupapa—click here to see photos from past ceremonies and other hui events.


Portrait of Maile
Maile Boggeln

Maile Boggeln, coordinator of UH Hilo student organizations, helped organize the lei-making event. The UH Hilo alumna is also a member of the hui.

“I found that there’s a lot of parallels between what was happening in the 1800s in Hawai‘i around leprosy, and what we are going through now,” she says. “I thought it’d be a really cool experience to teach students about what happened and talk about the parallels.”

She adds that the event was also “an opportunity to make sure that we are honoring Hawaiian culture by teaching students how to properly harvest, maintain, and make a ti leaf lei.”

Rosa also finds parallels between the current pandemic and the wave of leprosy that swept through Hawai‘i in the 1800s resulting in patients being exiled to Kalaupapa into the 20th century. From 1866 to 1969, close to 8,000 individuals with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were sent to live on the isolated Makanalua peninsula, commonly known as Kalaupapa, which lies on the northern shore of the island of Molokai.

“Even though we are going through these hard times, it’s very similar to the issues that the kupuna had to face,” says Rosa, a senior majoring in marine science and Hawaiian studies. “Just honoring them for their resiliency as well as how they persevered, stuck together, that ‘ohana unit.”

The isolation policy is no longer in affect but the hui wants to be sure the people with leprosy who lived and died on the peninsula are forever honored and remembered.

Story and video by Kirsten Aoyagi, a communication major at UH Hilo.

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