Kalaupapa “is such an important part of history” with “questions that we’re still trying to solve,” Maldonado recently told me when I asked her about the new plans. Until Kalaupapa sees more closure, she said, “there aren’t any answers for the place.” At least not one that involves making it a tourist attraction. But what might real closure look like? Though Maldonado’s family-mapping effort has its critics, including advocates who say it infringes on patients’ privacy, the people most intimately connected with the place seem to agree that the current restrictions should largely be kept it place. Some say it’s especially important to preserve its boundaries once the last patients die, as it would become even more difficult to assess how to best honor their struggle.
“We are—and you are not,” Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, one of the last-remaining Kalaupapa patients, explained to The Times back in 2008. “Every time one person dies, we get less and less.” And even though Kahilihiwa supports the proposed change—at least the idea of allowing children to visit—tourism isn’t on his mind: “Come when we alive,” he told The Associated Press earlier this month, speaking in Hawaiian Pidgin. “No come when we all dead.”
Indeed, many community members acknowledge that opening Kalaupapa would serve raise awareness and educate those who might not otherwise resonate with its history. The Diocese of Honolulu supports the park service’s plan because it would allow Catholics around the world to travel to the one-time colony, which was home to two saints, including Father Damien. According to Hawaii News Now, officials say that thousands of Catholics would start traveling to the area to reflect and pray.
Still, larger sensitivities about Hawaii’s preservation compound the Kalaupapa controversy. The islands have seen their natural landscape change substantially in recent decades amid rapid population growth, commercial construction, and massive public projects. Seventy percent of the beaches on Hawaii’s most-visited islands are undergoing long-term erosion, and nearly two-thirds of its streams are considered “impaired” by natural pollutants. Current infrastructure can’t handle the population: Honolulu is the country’s most congested city, topping Los Angeles, according to INRIX’s Traffic Scorecard.
Development has resulted in some of Hawaii’s most high-profile political battles and large-scale lawsuits—and disputes over Native Hawaiian land rights have often figured prominently in these debates. Native Hawaiians have suffered from discrimination since Western contact, particularly since the islands were annexed by the U.S. in 1898. According to some research, the Native Hawaiian population declined by 84 percent between the time the British explorer James Cook arrived, in 1778, and 1840, when some historical accounts even predicted the complete eradication of the Hawaiian race by the early 20th century. The ban on the Hawaiian language wasn’t lifted until 1986, and today, according to census date, those who identify as at least part Native Hawaiian constitute just a fifth of Hawaii’s population. Yet they make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s prison population and suffer from poverty at disproportionate rates.
“With the patient population getting smaller, there has been a tendency lately to refer to a time in the near future at Kalaupapa when there are no more patients,” the Kalaupapa advocacy organization, Ka Ohana O Kaluapapa, told the National Park Service in 2009. “The Ohana does not believe such a time will ever come to be. While the patient population may no longer be with us physically, they will always be present spiritually. They will always be part of this land.”