Leprosy patients at Kalaupapa were more than just mere folks often portrayed as ill and sometimes unsightly.
The reality is that they were like the rest of us.
Part of the cast and crew of the ‘Ulalena theater show visited the exhibit “A Reflection of Kalaupapa Past Present and Future,” which features photographs by Wayne Levin. One of the performer’s great-great grandfathers, as well as other ancestors, were sent to Kalaupapa. The tour takes in a photo of the Kalawao Choir in 1901.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
The about 8,000 people exiled to Kalaupapa included great kim chee makers, fishermen, divers, stamp collectors, intellectuals, business owners and world travelers.
It appears that the debilitating disease actually strengthened them, said longtime Big Island photographer Wayne Levin, who has captured thousands of images of the Kalaupapa landscape and its people for more than 25 years.
"That's what I wanted to capture most in my photos, their humanity and their dignity," Levin said. "The kind of portraits I took were environmental portraits. I photographed them in relation to their environment."
"Most of them I think were very positive, had positive personalities. I think that was the testimony to their strength," Levin added.
In one black-and-white photo, the late Kenso Seki, who began living on the island in 1928, is pictured by Levin at his home in 1986. Seki's home was filled with pennants from his travels to places such as San Francisco, New Orleans and Florida. Seki also was known to wear T-shirts every day that he got from his travels.
Journalist Valerie Monson, who has interviewed and compiled the history of Kalaupapa patients for decades, said that Seki wasn't expected to live long when he first arrived at the old Baldwin Home for men and boys afflicted by leprosy in Kalawao.
But Seki lived into his senior years, traveled the world and was instrumental in the community, Monson said.
Other uplifting and inspirational stories of Kalaupapa's exiled leprosy patients are being told through Levin's and other historical photographs featured in the exhibit "A Reflection of Kalaupapa Past Present and Future," appearing through Sept. 30 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Schaefer International Gallery.
Other events also are being held in conjunction with the show, including a historical workshop and guided walkthroughs of the exhibit.
The exhibit features 100 photographs - 20 historical photos from different archives and collections and 80 contemporary photos by Levin. The photos include residents and family members honoring their ancestors.
Some photos have quotations from Kalaupapa residents and their family members in recent times. The quotes were taken from oral histories and interviews by historian Anwei Skinsnes Law and Monson, a former Maui News staff writer.
The exhibit was organized and developed by Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa, a nonprofit organization of Kalaupapa residents, family members and descendants, longtime friends and supporters. The organization also is working on a permanent memorial at Kalaupapa.
"We hope this exhibit gives people another perspective on the people and history of Kalaupapa, a perspective that presents people as active members of their community who have overcome the challenges of leprosy, the separation from family and great injustices to go on to live proud and accomplished lives," said Monson, the organization's coordinator, in an email.
"The photos of family members and descendants who are all part of Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa show Kalaupapa has a future - descendants will carry on the legacies of their Kalaupapa kupuna. While there was certainly a great deal of sadness and tragedy for people when they were sent to Kalaupapa and their families they were separated from, we believe this exhibit is ultimately uplifting and inspiring," Monson wrote.
One of those descendants carrying on the legacy of Kalaupapa patients is Lahaina resident Kalapana Kollars.
Through the help of Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa, Kollars was able to locate a photograph from state archives of his great-great grandfather Lui Kapiioho, who was sent to Kalaupapa but was later released in 1909 as he responded to a special oil treatment for leprosy.
While touring the photo exhibit last week, Kollars said he was always envious of families who had photographs of their ancestors at their homes.
Now he has his great-great grandfather's photo on his kitchen wall.
While Kollars said his family unit was always strong, finding the photo was a great feat. They now know how their great-great grandfather looked and are able to preserve history for future generations.
"Our connection to our family has been made stronger by the picture," said Kollars, who has other relatives who lived in Kalaupapa. "This is a victory to our unborn."
Through his own research, Kollars found a 1897 anti-annexation petition that his great-great grandfather signed. Other patients at Kalaupapa also signed the petition against the annexation of Hawaii.
Even though they were exiled, Monson said Kalaupapa residents still were keenly interested and involved with matters outside their community.
Kollars, a performer with 'Ulalena in Lahaina, brought his fellow performers and staffers to tour the exhibit last week so that they all could learn more about Hawaii's history.
The first nine men and three women arrived at Kalaupapa on Jan. 6, 1866. The forced relocation of anyone thought to have leprosy in Hawaii continued until 1949, tearing up thousands of families, according to information from the exhibit. In many cases, those sent to Kalaupapa never saw their families again.
Laws requiring anyone with the disease to be isolated did not officially end for another 20 years after 1949.
In 1873, then-Father Damien (now St. Damien) arrived in Kalaupapa and worked tirelessly for the patients until he died in 1889. He, too, contracted the disease.
Monson said Damien knew he had contracted leprosy when he had his foot in scalding water and didn't even know it.
Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is a chronic bacterial infection of the skin and superficial nerves. It can be treated by antibiotics.
Mother Marianne Cope, who will become a saint in October, also dedicated 30 years of her life at Kalaupapa. She died there in 1918.
The Kalaupapa photo exhibit features a photo of Mother Marianne.
The exhibit first opened at the East Hawaii Cultural Center in Hilo in December and then was on Oahu for three months, on display in Kaneohe, Honolulu and Kapolei. Organizers hope to take it to all islands.
At the Hilo exhibit, Monson said, one person found an ancestor in a historic photograph taken of the Kalawao Choir in 1901.
"He was crying," Monson said of the relative. "He was so emotional."
On Maui, visitors also are treated to a special section in the exhibit about The Baldwin Home, a group home for men and boys that was named after its donor, Henry P. Baldwin of Maui. At the home, residents planted sweet potatoes, onions, cabbages and bananas.
One of Monson's favorite photos in the exhibit is a black and white that features Wailuku-born Danny Hashimoto standing next to his jeep with the tall mountains of Kalaupapa in the background.
Hashimoto, who still resides at Kalaupapa, has been delivering the settlement's mail and newspapers since the 1980s.
Monson added that he also makes "great kim chee."
Another touching photo, according to Monson and Levin, is one in which exiled patients' grandsons re-enact a photo taken of their grandfathers years ago. Modern-day color photos show grandsons Andrew Manuel and Dayton Kupele sitting side by side on the Bay View home porch in Kalaupapa while holding up a photo of their grandfathers sitting on the same porch.
Their grandfathers, Ben Pea and David Kupele, met as teenagers at Kalawao in 1915 and became longtime friends.
Now, Manuel and Kupele are acquainted as well.
Monson said the goals of the exhibit are to educate the public and to connect more families with their ancestors at Kalaupapa.
Ka 'Ohana continues to do research on the patients and the history of Kalaupapa.
She said that though the organization could not help some in the past, people should contact it again because recent research may have turned up new information.
Levin's photos also are available in a newly published book, "Ili Na Ho'omana'o o Kalaupapa: Casting Remembrances of Kalaupapa."
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* What: A Reflection of Kalaupapa Past Present and Future.
* When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays to Sundays until Sept. 30.; also prior to Castle Theater shows and during intermissions.
* Where: Schaefer International Gallery at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
* Other activities:
** Gallery-led walkthroughs by Valerie Monson, coordinator of Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa, 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sept. 15; free, meet at the gallery at 1 p.m.
** Workshop titled, "The People of Kalaupapa as Active Participants in Their Own History," 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Sept. 22, at the gallery. Although the workshop, led by historian Anwei Law, is aimed at educators, it is open to the public and is free.