Photo: Kalaupapa Residents
Robert Hoʻopiʻi (far left) was born at Kalaupapa but raised on Oʻahu. In this photo he joins Kalaupapa residents (l-r) John Arruda, Winnie Harada, Pauline Chow and Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa at the ahu that marks the site of the future Kalaupapa Memorial. The kūpuna were part of a Remembrance Ceremony in 2016 hosted by Ka ʻOhana o Kalaupapa. Kahilihiwa, who served as president of Ka ʻOhana, passed away in 2021.- Photo: Wayne Levin

By Valerie Monson

Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa began taking shape in the mid-1990s thanks to the vision of Bernard K. Punikaiʻa, one of the great leaders in the history of Kalaupapa.

Photo: Bernard Punikaiʻa
Bernard Punikaiʻa was sent to Kalaupapa in 1941 at the age of 11. He grew up to become a community leader who advocated for the rights of Native Hawaiians and Hansen’s disease patients. Punikaiʻa founded Ka ʻOhana o Kalaupapa and was also a talented composer and musician. He passed away in 2009. – Photo: Valerie Monson

He was worried that as the Kalaupapa community aged and their numbers became fewer, that their voices would no longer be heard, so he planned a three-day workshop at Kalaupapa inviting guests with connections there to remind them of the important history and the many contributions to society made by the people of Kalaupapa – contributions often forgotten. Residents of Kalaupapa invited guests into their homes to talk story, gave tours of their favorite places, and shared their hopes that they could remain in their homes for as long as they chose and that their history would live on long after they had passed.

The participants left inspired and determined to see the wishes of the Kalaupapa community carried out. Even without an official name, Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa had been born, giving the Kalaupapa community a restored sense of pride that this fledgling network would provide needed support and that their lives would be remembered.

In 2003, Punikaiʻa called for another meeting, gathering 70 residents, family members and longtime friends, and Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa was officially organized. Punikaiʻa served as chairman of the board of directors with Kalaupapa residents Kuulei Bell as president, Winnie Harada as vice president, and Gloria Marks as treasurer, and Makia Malo and Boogie Kahilhiwa serving as directors. Family members and friends filled out the board – and offered support in other ways.

Photo: Artist’s rendering of the planned Kalaupapa Memorial
Artist’s rendering of the planned Kalaupapa Memorial at Kalawao. The memorial will include the names of the more than 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa between 1866-1969. Design image courtesy of G70.

Since then, Ka ʻOhana has gone beyond what anyone imagined in those early gatherings. Progress continues on plans for The Kalaupapa Memorial – Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa was authorized by Congress to establish the memorial to display the names of everyone sent to Kalaupapa. Through its “Restoration of Family Ties” program, Ka ʻOhana has helped nearly 900 descendants reconnect to their Kalaupapa ancestors. A traveling exhibit about Kalaupapa has been shared on every island, the continent and in Europe.

Leaders of Ka ʻOhana have been diligently involved in advocating for local voices – Kalaupapa residents, descendants, Hawaiian Homelands beneficiaries and residents of upper Molokaʻi – to be part of the decision-making process for the future of Kalaupapa.

Entering 2022, leadership of Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa has changed. Last year, President Boogie Kahilihiwa passed away – he was elected president after the death of Kuulei Bell in 2009 – a tremendous loss for us all. While Kalaupapa kūpuna Pauline Chow (vice president) and Gloria Marks continue to serve on the board, descendants and friends now carry most of the kuleana – just as Punikaiʻa foresaw.

Lopaka Hoʻopiʻi, whose grandparents and other ʻohana are buried at Kalaupapa, is serving as interim president. Joseph Lapilio, whose great-grandfather was choir director at Kalaupapa in the early 1900s, is wrapping up his first year as executive director. Jason Umemoto, whose great-uncle was a beloved Kalaupapa leader, chairs the Kalaupapa Memorial Committee.

Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa is moving forward with new leaders at the helm, but the rallying cry remains the same: e hoʻohanohano a e hoʻomau – to honor and to perpetuate; to always remember the people of Kalaupapa.

The descendants of Kalaupapa will make sure that Kalaupapa has the kind of future their ancestors envisioned.

Valerie Monson has been visiting Kalaupapa since 1989. She is a founding member of Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa and served as its coordinator/executive director from 2008-2020.