Friday, February 13, 2009

U.S. House Considers Bill Authorizing Kalaupapa Monument

Honolulu Advertiser Feb. 12th: The proposal for a memorial at Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai is included in an omnibus public lands bill. It was due to come up yesterday, but the vote was pushed back by economic stimulus bill negotiations. It may be voted on later this month. Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is spread by direct person-to-person contact, although it's not easily transmitted. It can cause skin lesions, mangle fingers and toes, and lead to blindness.
The Hawaiian Kingdom started exiling leprosy patients to the remote, desolate Kalaupapa peninsula in 1866 amid a widespread outbreak of the illness. Many of the early exiles had to scrounge for shelter, clothes and food because Kalaupapa had little existing infrastructure when they arrived. The Republic of Hawaii continued the isolation policy after the overthrow of the monarchy. The U.S. territory, then the state, followed suit. Today, fewer than two dozen patients live there.
Leprosy became curable by sulfone drugs in the 1940s and patients have been free to leave the settlement since 1969. Even so, many have chosen to stay because Kalaupapa has become their home. Families and supporters have been pushing for the establishment of a memorial for years. They envision a monument spelling out the names of all 8,000 sent to Kalaupapa, giving relatives a place to honor their ancestors. Only 1,300 people buried at Kalaupapa have tombstones, meaning an estimated 6,700 were buried in unmarked graves. "I've been with family members who were searching for graves of their ancestors and they can't find anything. And it's heartbreaking to them," said Valerie Monson, secretary of Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa, an advocacy group for leprosy patients that will build the monument. The memorial is also designed to honor those who went through great hardship so the rest of Hawaii wouldn't be exposed to leprosy. "The people of Kalaupapa made sacrifices by leaving their families and going to Kalaupapa because they wanted to protect the general community," Monson said. "These guys are heroes and they should be honored."
The bill doesn't appropriate any funds to build a monument. Instead it says Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa will be responsible for raising money for its construction. Monson said the group never expected Congress would appropriate funds, and had always planned to raise money itself. It's expected passage is bittersweet, however, as it comes just after longtime Kalaupapa resident and Ka Ohana O Kalaupapa president Kuulei Bell died Sunday at the age of 76. Bell wanted the monument so the names of her family members who died at Kalaupapa, including her grandfather, father, two aunts and husband, would be remembered, Monson said. Bell wanted her great-great grandchildren to know what she did, Monson said. The House last year approved a bill authorizing the monument, but its passage was held up as Congress dealt with the financial crisis.
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