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Environmental assessment is approved for memorial project

Completion and opening targeted for October 2020

Members of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa gather at the site where a future memorial honoring the 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa will be built. As part of a remembrance ceremony, each person spoke the name of a loved one who died at Kalaupapa. Ka ‘Ohana has set a goal of opening the memorial by October 2020. The memorial’s final environmental assessment was recently approved. WAYNE LEVIN photo

Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa has targeted October 2020 as the opening date for a memorial honoring the estimated 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa.

A dream of the community since the 1980s, the long-awaited memorial recently crossed another hurdle after the state approved its final environmental assessment, which was published April 8 in the state Office of Environmental Quality Control’s “The Environmental Notice.”

“This is a big step for us, and we’re just going to continue to move on,” Valerie Monson, executive director of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa, said Thursday. “Hopefully, we’ll get this dedicated by 2020.”

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the environmental assessment in February and issued a finding of no significant impact for the project.

Monson said the next steps involve finalizing a lease for the land with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, as well as another review process on the impacts of the project on historic properties. Monson is “hoping that will go smoothly,” since Ka ‘Ohana has already done plenty of work with the state Historic Preservation Division.

An ahu sits in the spot where the piko of the memorial will be built. The ahu was built by members of the memorial design team during a two-day planning session at Kalaupapa, where the conceptual design was agreed upon. DEGRAY VANDERBILT photo

An estimated 8,000 people — mostly Native Hawaiians — were sent to Kalaupapa between 1866 and 1969 due to government policies on leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, according to the assessment. Of those, 951 have marked gravesites. The National Park Service also has identified 279 gravesites that “do not have identifiable names and are listed as ‘unknown.’ “ Thousands of others lie in unmarked graves.

That’s why residents found it appropriate to place the memorial in a spot overlooking a field believed to contain nearly 2,000 unmarked graves. The 5.9-acre plot where the memorial would stand once served as the site of the Old Baldwin Boys Home.

The memorial is designed as two overlapping circles. The larger Mauka Circle would be bordered by a large rock wall bearing the names of the 8,000 people sent to Kalaupapa. The smaller Makai Circle represents the families connected to Kalaupapa. The area where the circles converge symbolizes reunion and creates a third circle to complete the Hawaiian concept of pikokolu, the triple piko. In Hawaiian thought, the figurative meaning of piko is “blood relative.” The memorial also would offer benches and a lawn for quiet reflection.

Since the mid-1980s, residents have been advocating for a memorial at Kalaupapa, which is owned by the state but managed by the National Park Service. Ka ‘Ohana formed in 2003 and has been working to preserve the history of Kalaupapa’s people and connect families with the records of long-lost relatives sent to the settlement.

The community’s hopes for a memorial won the support of President Barack Obama, who signed the Kalaupapa Memorial Act in 2009 that directed the secretary of the Interior to authorize Ka ‘Ohana to create a memorial. Since then, Ka ‘Ohana has been working to design the memorial and complete a lengthy review processes with both the state and the federal government. A Maui County grant helped the nonprofit pull together a design and planning team. Local planning firm Munekiyo & Hiraga prepared the environmental assessment for Ka ‘Ohana pro bono.

Monson said memorials can sometimes take a while to turn into a reality. For example, the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., was proposed by King’s former fraternity in 1984, approved by Congress in 1996 and finally dedicated in 2011.

“Sometimes you get frustrated, but (the process) is required, and you have to do it right,” Monson said. “The good thing is we continue to reach more families. We get more well known. Our exhibits continue to travel around the island. . . . We’re really increasing awareness, so I think that’s going to only help us.”

Monson said Ka ‘Ohana gets about 80 requests a year from families searching for answers on relatives who were sent to Kalaupapa. The nonprofit has a digital library of 7,400 people, and Monson is usually able to help families find some trace of their relatives, whether it’s a marriage or birth record or a letter left by the person.

In addition to researching family ties, Ka ‘Ohana also has developed a Kalaupapa Schools Outreach Program to educate students about Kalaupapa’s history.

“We’ve just found so much information that we have in our digital library, so when people contact me, it’s amazing what we can find for people,” Monson said. “People who have been dead for so many years — I feel like we’re bringing them back to life.”

All of the names that Ka ‘Ohana has records of would be inscribed on the memorial, and Monson said the board is discussing what to do should they discover more names in the future.

Ka ‘Ohana plans to raise funds for the construction and maintenance of the memorial. Construction is estimated to cost $5 million, and the nonprofit wants to raise an additional $5 million for an endowment to cover upkeep at the site.

Unfortunately, many of the residents who first envisioned the memorial have since died, Monson said. But she hopes the remaining residents will be in the front row when the blessing finally takes place.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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