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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

FEATURE: ‘Their Names Will Be Their Voices’

Non-profit works to ensure that residents of Kalaupapa will never be forgotten.

Forming a “Circle of Remembrance” on Kalaupapa (All photos by Valerie Monson)

More than 20 years ago, Kalaupapa leader Bernard K. Punikai`a was worried about the future of the place he called home in Hawaii. Who will carry on the wishes of the people of Kalaupapa when they are no longer there?

Bernard was well aware that he and his neighbors were getting older and their numbers smaller. He wondered how their voices would continue to be heard so that the future of Kalaupapa would be guided as they imagined.

The result: Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa (“The Family of Kalaupapa”), a nonprofit organization of Kalaupapa residents, family members/descendants, friends, clergy, students and anyone interested in preserving this important history. The ‘Ohana is committed to remembering the estimated 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa by their names and as individuals who were accomplished, loving and strong.

“You have to hear the voices to feel the people. You have to know their names,” said Punikai`a in an interview in 2007. “If you don’t say the names, it’s like something has been lost. We have to echo what was said. I feel lucky that my voice was part of it.”


For much of the 150 years since Kalaupapa was selected as a place to isolate people thought to have had leprosy in Hawaii, the names of most of those taken from their families and sent there have been missing. The people of Kalaupapa had been mostly left out of their own history and their legacies were in danger of being forever lost.

With the vision of Punikai`a, Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa has made it a priority to remember the people of Kalaupapa by their names, to present the history of Kalaupapa in their own words and to recognize the importance of the families they were separated from because of government policies.

Until recently, the history of Kalaupapa had been written almost exclusively from English sources, ignoring all that had been written in Hawaiian by the people of Kalaupapa and others in Hawaii concerned about their plight.

To tell the early history of Kalaupapa from the perspective of the people—90 percent of them Native Hawaiian—historian Anwei Law has had hundreds of early letters and other documents translated from their native language, enabling us to see this history in a much more inclusive and accurate way. Interviews with more recent residents ensure that they will tell their own history into perpetuity.


To keep the legacies of the people of Kalaupapa alive, the ‘Ohana has been helping descendants learn about the lives of their ancestors who were sent there through our “Restoration of Family Ties” program.The ‘Ohana has developed a digital library that contains information on more than 7,000 of those who were taken from their families and relocated there. The library includes data from admissions registers, marriage records, birth records, death records, Census records, petitions and letters, church minutes and nearly 1,000 photographs.

These are almost always life-changing events for the family members.

Traveling exhibits and schools outreach across Hawaii help the ‘Ohana connect to more family members while educating teachers, students and the public about a more accurate history of Kalaupapa.

The ‘Ohana also arranges overnight visits for descendants so they can walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, learning what life might have been like for them, visiting their graves and learning the history of Kalaupapa from a knowledgeable ‘Ohana leader. These are almost always life-changing events for the family members as they feel the spirits of their ancestors.*


All of these programs are leading up to The Kalaupapa Memorial, which will list the names of those sent to Kalaupapa. Because fewer than 1,000 people have identifiable gravestones, the memorial will bring the names back to the landscape of the history they helped to create.

A man contemplates the grave of an ancestor he did not know about.

The ‘Ohana needed the approval of the United States Congress to establish the memorial. Congress gave the memorial its full support. The legislation was signed by former President Barack Obama.

The memorial design incorporates two interlocking circles. The larger, upper circle represents the people who were sent to Kalaupapa and will feature a curved wall engraved with their names. The lower circle represents the families who were left behind and their descendants. The place where the circles overlap is what Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa has always envisioned: reuniting the people of Kalaupapa with their families and descendants.**

Bernard Punikai`a died in 2009. Before that, he made the first donation to The Kalaupapa Memorial. Last year, Mr. and Mrs. Miyoji Moriomoto made the first donation from Japan.

“I hope the names live on,” said Bernard when talking about The Kalaupapa Memorial. “The names will be their voices. I want to hear their voices. The voices are so beautiful, so sweet. The voices say ‘This is our song to you.’ The monument of our voices is so beautiful.”

The Kalaupapa Memorial will be a living memorial. Future generations will visit the memorial, find the name of their ancestors and become part of this important history. The descendants will make certain that Kalaupapa will have a living history where their ancestors will always be remembered and the history will be told in the words of the people for generations to come.

Just as Bernard envisioned.

AUTHOR: Valerie Monson

Valerie Monson is a journalist who has been interviewing and writing about the people of Kalaupapa since 1989. She was a founding member of Ka ‘Ohana O Kaluapapa and currently serves as Coordinator. She can be reached at


* In the past seven years, the ‘Ohana has helped nearly 700 families reconnect to their ancestors or loved ones at Kalaupapa.
** The memorial is now in Phase II of the design phase