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]

Video: ‘No Kitchen Required’ In New Zealand, ‘When Maori Attack’

Here at Gadling, we’ve been keeping tabs on the new BBC America reality show “No Kitchen Required,” which is taking cooking competitions to new highs (and lows). Battling for fame and glory are award-winning chef Michael Psilakis of New York’s Fish Tag and Kefi; private executive chef Kayne Raymond; and former “Chopped” champ Madison Cowan.

The chefs hunt and gather ingredients to prepare regional cuisine in various locations, including Dominica, Belize, Fiji, Thailand, South Africa, Hawaii, New Mexico and Louisiana. The show is a cross between “Survivor” and “Top Chef,” with a dash of over-the-top, Bear Grylls-style drama thrown in, but it’s all in good fun and provides a fascinating cultural and culinary tour of little known destinations and cuisines.

Here, we have a teaser clip from New Zealand that features the chefs watching a haka, or traditional Maori warrior dance, prior to having the local community judge their respective meals. Here’s hoping they didn’t give anyone food poisoning.

New photos released of remote Brazilian rainforest tribe

Survival International, a UK-based rights group dedicated to protecting indigenous communities worldwide, has just released new photographs of an “uncontacted” group of indigenous people living on the Brazilian-Peruvian border. This is only the second time in two years photos of the isolated Indians have ever been released.

FoxNews reports the photos were taken by Brazil’s Indian Affairs department, which monitors various indigenous tribes by aircraft. Uncontacted tribes are so described because they have limited interactions with the outside world. Survival International estimates that there are over a hundred uncontacted tribes left globally.

The organization came under fire for creating a hoax when the first photos were released in 2008; the president of Peru even hinted that such tribes were an invention of environmentalists opposing Amazonian oil exploration. The myth of “first-contact” tribes also prevails amongst unscrupulous companies catering to tourists. Survival International’s website quotes Marcos Apurinã, Coordinator of Brazil’s Amazon Indian organization COIAB as saying, “It is necessary to reaffirm that these peoples exist, so we support the use of images that prove these facts. These peoples have had their most fundamental rights, particularly their right to life, ignored … it is therefore crucial that we protect them.”


The Brazilian government is a believer, however, and has dedicated a division to helping protect uncontacted tribes. Many indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been the victims of disease or genocide (due to war or, uh, “eradication”) or displacement by petroleum companies. The Brazilian government is concerned that an increase in illegal logging in Peru is forcing uncontacted tribes over the border into Brazil, which could result in conflict.

Survival International reports that the Brazilian Indians appear to be in good health, as evidenced by their appearance (FYI, their skin is dyed red from the extract of the annatto seed), as well as that of communal gardens and a plentiful supply of food including manioc and papaya. The tribe was also recently filmed (from the air) by the BBC for the television series, “Human Planet.”

While there is admittedly a certain hypocrisy in buzzing uncontacted peoples with planes, the bigger picture is the necessity of proving their existence in order to save them, as Apurinã points out. Look for my forthcoming post on my stay with the remote Hauorani people of Ecuador, who had their first contact with the outside world in the late 1940’s. Over the last twenty-plus years, they have waged legal land rights battles against various petroleum companies in order to preserve both their land and their existence.

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Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

No one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]

Outback Australia: Disappointment in the Tiwi Islands

When visiting a colonized country, it is difficult to ignore many of the social and economical inequities that exist. Australia is no different. Much like the United States, Australia’s history of dealing with the indigenous peoples is checkered at best and downright awful at worst. Native cultures have been marginalized, victimized – read up on the Stolen Generations – and subjected to both institutionalized and socialized racism for centuries. The climate has changed in recent years thanks to activist groups and improved government policies, but the poverty and stigmas that past practices created still linger. Cultural tourism has provided new sources of income for many aboriginal communities, but that often leads to commercialization and exploitation. And nowhere is that more evident than on the Tiwi Islands.


Located a mere 80km north of Darwin, the Tiwis are comprised of Melville Island and the smaller Bathurst Island. The local Tiwi people are culturally distinct from the native people of mainland Australia. Ferries shuttle passengers to and from the islands via Darwin, and charter flights make the trip in about 30 minutes. And the only way to tour the islands is via Tiwi Tours, which is owned and operated by the Tiwi Land Council (though they lease the operation to Aussie Adventure Holidays, a privately-owned venture).

I visited Bathurst Island with Tiwi Tours and was cautiously optimistic before the trip. I’m always skeptical of organized cultural tours as they often end up being forced reproductions of ceremonies that result in me feeling more guilty than educated. The last thing I want as a traveler is for people to pander to me or disrespect their traditions for the sole purpose of entertaining visitors. Whether the operation is owned by the local people or not, the resulting experience is more exploitative than authentic. Buoyed by the knowledge that all the guides on Tiwi Tours are of Tiwi decent and that we’d be speaking with island locals over morning tea, I boarded the propeller plane and enjoyed the views on the way to Bathurst Island.

Upon landing, we met our Tiwi guide, Trevor, and our white driver, Rod. We boarded our bus and proceeded into the island’s interior. Our first stop was the local history museum which houses artifacts of the island’s rural past and Catholic missionary experiences. Trevor did an adequate job of explaining both the Dreaming of the Tiwi people, as well as their dances, hunting practices and general history. Our time there was short, if not rushed, and it was difficult to absorb the abundance of information.

It was at morning tea, however, that the tour revealed itself as the faux cultural experience I had feared. We met several Tiwi women who explained the various dances that are used to celebrate auspicious events. They then demonstrated these dances in front of the tour group in celebration of nothing more than the attendance of another group of paying customers. We then watched as they painted their faces and those of their young children while offering limited explanation of the nature of the custom. The vast majority of tourists looked on in amazement while I struggled with feelings that ranged from unease to guilt.

Watching the women and children dance and sing for our amusement, with limited educational or cultural content, was beyond inauthentic. It was pandering. The same can be said for the myriad art galleries that are part of the tour. Guests are encouraged to purchase the works of local artists, though it seems that any Tiwi who wants to come to the art centers and paint a picture can be called an artist. By no means am I diminishing Tiwi or aboriginal art, but I have a hard time believing that anyone who picks up a brush is automatically an artist telling a story. Many of the artists are simply impoverished and unemployed locals hoping to make some money from tourists. Several of the installations are managed by whites, which only emphasizes the exploitative nature of the experience.

A positive highlight of the tour was the visit to the former Catholic mission. The church was a unique hybrid of Tiwi and Catholic liturgy and that is evidenced by the ornamentation that is evident in the structure. Figurines of Jesus sit next to depictions of Tiwi Dreaming spirits. And the church complex is also home to a fascinating piece of WWII history. The radio shack on the site was used by the priest to warn Darwin of the first incoming Japanese war planes. The planes flew directly over the Tiwis and the priest attempted to warn the mainland of the impending invasion. His calls for vigilance were ignored, however, and Japan struck a deadly opening salvo on Australian soil.

Overall, Tiwi Tours strive to both educate and bring much needed income into the struggling communities of Bathurst Island. However, the emphasis is clearly on the latter at the expense of the former. While I appreciate their desire to operate a revenue-generating venture in the Tiwis, the cultural costs seemed excessively steep. I would much prefer to attend several discussion groups with locals and be invited to attend an authentic ceremony than have contrived activities thrown in my honor simply because I had a ticket granting admission.

As always, cultural tourism can often have positive intentions that are lost in the execution. Tiwi Tours does seem to have the best interests of the people and history in mind. But more effort is needed to avoid turning Bathurst Island into a depressing Epcot Center version of its former self.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.