Museum Month: Kalaupapa National Historic Park And Leper Settlement, Molokai

Some people – me, for instance – tend to skip museums when traveling in favor of fresh air or outdoor recreation. It’s always a treat when I can combine the two, especially because I’m fascinated by indigenous cultures. Though not considered museums in the strictest sense, National Historic Parks, Monuments and the like often do have buildings, exhibits, or relics with educational materials that provide a museum-like experience. When I can combine that with some physically challenging activity, it often makes for an incredibly rewarding day.

While relatively few visitors ever make it to the Hawaiian island of Molokai, located just off of Maui’s western shore, its fame is global due to its tragic history. From the mid-19th century until 1969, thousands of islanders afflicted with leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) were forced into isolation on the Kalaupapa peninsula on the northern shore. A smaller settlement also exists at Kalawao, on the eastern side. Today, Kalaupapa National Historic Park receives thousands of visitors annually, who come to pay tribute – and satisfy their morbid curiosity – to a tragic episode in Hawaii’s turbulent history.

Molokai’s North Shore is covered in dense rainforest and has the world’s highest sea cliffs, which tower over 2,000 feet. These geographical features made Kalaupapa the ideal location in which to displace lepers, often by cruel methods such as tossing them off of ships, which sometimes resulted in fatalities. The forcible removal of native Hawaiians from their ‘aina – family and land, which are at the core of their culture – devastated generations of islanders.

%Gallery-155196%Critical to the development and notoriety of the settlement was the arrival of Joseph De Veuster, a Belgian missionary better known as Father Damien. Although not the first missionary or caregiver at Kalawao and Kalaupapa, it was he who turned the colonies into a place of hope, rather than exile and death.

Father Damien spoke Hawaiian and established schools and other educational and recreational projects. He developed a water system, expanded St. Philomena Catholic Church, and became a source of comfort to residents. He died of Hansen’s Disease in 1889, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

Although a cure for Hansen’s Disease was discovered in the 1940’s, most of the colony chose to remain at Kalaupapa, as it had become a tight-knit community. Today, only a, uh, handful of elderly residents remain, keeping alive Kalaupapa’s legacy by talking story with visitors and relatives alike.

The National Park Service established Kalaupapa as part of its system in 1980 (previously, it was a National Historic Landmark, the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement). While somewhat pricey and challenging to get to, it’s worth a visit if you’re at all interested in Hawaiian culture and history.

You can get to Molokai year round by either regional air carriers or ferry via Maui. To enter the Park, state law requires a permit from the State Department of Health, and no children under 16 are permitted. All entries are booked and must be prearranged through Damien Tours (808) 567-6171, which is endorsed by the National Park Service (there is also a Father Damien Tours out of Honolulu, but I can’t speak with authority to its quality).

Two excellent ways to gain entry to the park – via prior reservation – are by hiking the 3.5-mile trail or on muleback. Kalaupapa Mule Tour has been a park concession since the early 70s, and I highly recommend the ride if your butt and legs are in good shape and you don’t have a fear of heights. It provides a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, but be prepared for insanely steep, narrow trails and brutal switchbacks. Whether you hike or ride, please be sure to do an honest assessment of your physical abilities beforehand; another option is to do a flightseeing/ground tour. There are no medical facilities at the park.

[Photo credit: Flickr user University of Hawaii – West Oahu; Father Damian, Wikipedia Commons]

Museum Month: Brush Up On Hawaiian History at Maui’s Hale Pa’i Museum

“My Kingdom will be a land of literacy”, Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), 1813

If you didn’t know that Hawaii at one point had it’s own currency, that’s ok, neither did I. It was called the “Dala“, and the exchange rate was pegged to the US dollar from which it took its name.

Did you know that for a six-month period of its history Hawaii was officially and illegally occupied by the British? Overthrown in February, 1843, the eventual nullification of the takeover by the British Crown would prompt King Kamehameha III to utter the phrase which now stands as the Hawaii state motto: Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.

Looking for more Hawaiian history? At Maui’s Lahainaluna High School–itself the oldest public school in the United States west of the Rocky Mountains–the restored stone museum known as Hale Pa’i (The Printing House) offers visitors a fascinating window into the history of 19th century Hawaii.

When Western explorers arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1700’s they found a native populace with no system of reading or writing. Instead, through the use of chant, song, and dance such as hula, native Hawaiian stories were passed orally down through the generations.

All of this changed, however, when American missionaries in 1821 decided to formulate an alphabet for the Hawaiian language. Using the naturally occurring sounds of the language, an original alphabet of 17 letters was penned down on paper before ultimately being shaved down to the current alphabet of only five vowels and seven consonants.

%Gallery-155281%With an alphabet now firmly in place, missionaries next took to the task of converting the Hawaiians to Christianity via scripture translated into the printed Hawaiian word. As it happens, much of this initial printing would take place in Lahaina at Hale Pa’i.

Using a printing press shipped over from the neighboring island of Oahu, the press housed at Hale Pa’i would not only be the first press to grace the island of Maui, but also churn out the first newspaper to exist west of the Rocky Mountains–Ka Lama Hawaii, a Hawaiian language periodical with an initial circulation of 25 copies in 1834.

In addition to newspapers and books (namely the Bible, the Hawaiian translation of which is said to be the thickest Bible ever printed), the printed Hawaiian alphabet now gave the ruling Hawaiian monarchy a means of establishing a written constitution and instituting written laws.

The voracious demand for the printed word which ensued soon after the introduction of the printing press prompted builders to swap the original thatched roof of Hale Pa’i for a permanent structure which would endure as a house of literature for generations to come.

Operated by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the museum also houses cultural artifacts from Ancient Hawaii and documents detailing specific events in Hawaii’s recent yet captivating history.

Hale Pa’i Museum is open Monday-Friday from 10am-4pm on the campus of Maui’s Lahainaluna High School.