Photo Essay: Kalaupapa Memories, Molokai, Hawaii

One of the Hawaiian words for Hansen’s disease is mai hookaawale—the disease that separates. In the 19th Century, it did just that. Sufferers were quarantined on Kalaupapa, not only isolating them geographically, but separating husbands from wives, and children from their families. The quarantine was lifted in 1969, but by that time Kalaupapa had become home, and many patients chose to stay. A new book, Ili Na Hoomanao o KalaupapaCasting Remembrances of Kalaupapa, tells the town’s story in detail. Here, we’ve selected images from renowned photographer Wayne Levin, who contributed to the book. All were taken between 1984 and 1987. Quotes from patients in the following pages are taken from videotaped oral histories collected by Anwei Skinsnes Law in the 1980s, and later selected for this book. At the time Levin shot the photos, about 100 residents still lived in Kalaupapa; today, it’s fewer than 20.

Resident William Malakaua in 1986, in his workshop with a photograph of himself in earlier years. 

“Kalaupapa, it’s a big space. You could go hunting. You could go fishing. You could go hunting for shells. You could always think of a hobby. … Eventually I took all kinds of jobs over here. I worked as janitor in the hospital, yard boy, mechanic’s helper … And in ’49 I landed one of my best jobs … to help build the Quonset huts over here. They gave us a wage of $1.03 an hour. For us it was good wages. I saved a lot from that because I was planning to get married in 1950 … March 25, 1950 we got married.”


Resident Kenso Seki with his Model A Ford, 1984.

Effective treatments for Hansen’s disease in the 1940s eventually led to the quarantine being lifted in 1969. Many of the residents took advantage of their newfound freedom to travel the world. Recalled Seki: “We took in the East Coast, went up to Vermont, went down to Washington. From there we came back. We went to Mexico one year, then took in Eastern Canada. We took in some National Parks … Then the year before we went to Australia and New Zealand. Last year we went to China. For the last, let’s see, must be about four or five years, I think, we go to the Rose Bowl, take in the parade and everything. … There’s Vegas … losing money every time.”



Resident Richard Marks with his large collection of artifacts, 1985.

Marks was a leader in the community, operating Damien Tours, one of two tour companies. He would take visitors around the place, including Kalawao, on the east side of the peninsula, where the original settlement was located. He was a natural storyteller and historian, and collected all kinds of memorabilia. “Here’s one of the old spoons,” he said. “The old medicine bottles … This stuff was full of opium and laudanum and alcohol. Didn’t cure anything but it sure helped kill the pain. You get stuff like Sanford’s Radical Cure, Kickapoo Oil, the Great Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Remedy, Kidney, Liver and Bladder Cure.”


Laurenzio Costales (left) and Henry Nalaielua on the porch of the staff dining room, an area previously off-limits to patients, 1986.

“It’s a great feeling to know that you can come into one of those places where you were never allowed before,” said Nalaielua. “I don’t ask the reason, I just like the change. I think if there’s any reason for things opening up, it’s because we now have people who have become understanding. They don’t have the fear that people once had about ‘leprosy,’ and they can accept you for what you are, not what you have.” 


Alice Chang Kamaka at home, 1984.

Kamaka has the distinction of having lived in Kalaupapa longer than any other resident. Sent to the peninsula in 1919, at the age of 13, she would live there for 81 years, passing away in 2000. Wayne Levin says, “I photographed Alice on my first trip to Kalaupapa, in 1984, and it was really fortunate, because she was still living in her house. The next time I came, a couple months later, she was living in the hospital, where she lived the remainder of her life.”


Henry Nalaielua with his favorite dog, Sabu, Kalawao, 1985.

Pet ownership was very common among the residents. Levin says that since children were taken away from the patients, pets became very important. Most people had dogs, but one patient had, “like 100 cats,” Levin recalls. “The dog in that photograph, I remember him really well. It was Henry’s favorite dog, a half-pitbull, but a really nice dog. Henry would always drive me over to Kalawao or different spots, and the dog would always be happily running alongside the truck.”


Mariano Rea in Rea’s Store, a bar he owned and operated for many years, 1985.

“We called it The Bar,” says Levin. “Mariano sold soft drinks, chips, ice cream, beer. I don’t recall getting a full lunch there, but I would get snacks. In the ’80s, it was the major hangout. People would come, play music, talk story. It was a real focus of the community. It’s still there, run by Gloria Marks, Richard’s wife. It’s kind of been handed down from one person to another.”


Clarence Naia in front of the Kalaupapa Store, 1986.

“Clarence was a real character, a really nice, interesting guy.” says Levin. “That car, it’s just a typical Kalaupapa car, without the door. They wouldn’t be able to easily repair the car and it would just end up rusting out. Some of them didn’t have license plates or floor boards. The rules were pretty lax.”


Bernard Punikaia on the steps of Hale Mohalu for the first time after its demolition, Pearl City, Oahu, 1985.

Some of the residents became politically engaged in community issues, protesting the planned demolition of Hale Mohalu, an Oahu residential treatment facility where Hansen's Disease patients received dialysis and other specialized services. The protests were ultimately unsucessful, but Punikaia would go on to lead efforts to build a senior citizens’ housing complex on that site.


Coming out this month: The book Ili Na Hoomanao o Kalaupapa, Casting Remembrances of Kalaupapa, by Anwei Skinsnes Law and Valerie Monson, featuring photographs by Wayne Levin. Published by Pacific Historic Parks, visit for more information.

Also this month, The Maui Arts and Cultural Center is hosting an exhibit entitled A Reflection of Kalaupapa, Past Present and Future, featuring photos from Wayne Levin and historical archives. The exhibit runs from Aug. 19 to Sept. 30.

On Sunday, Aug 19, from 2 to 4 p.m., there will be a panel discussion sharing connections to Kalaupapa with Ka Ohana leaders, family descendants and journalist Val Monson. On Monday,  Aug. 20, from 3:30 to 6 p.m., there will be an exhibit walkthrough and lecture by Levin for high school students and the general public. Saturday, Sept. 22, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., there will be an exhibit walkthrough and lecture by Anwei Skinsnes Law for teachers and the general public.