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Kalaupapa memorial bill considered


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POSTED: Saturday, February 21, 2009

The U.S. House is expected to approve a bill authorizing a monument to 8,000 Hansen's disease patients who were exiled to Kalaupapa between 1866 and 1969.

The proposal for a memorial at Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai is included in an omnibus public lands bill. It was due to come up Wednesday, but the vote was pushed back by economic stimulus bill negotiations. It might be voted on later this month.

Hansen's disease is spread by direct person-to-person contact, although it is not easily transmitted. It can cause skin lesions, mangle fingers and toes, and lead to blindness.

The Hawaiian kingdom started exiling Hansen's disease patients to the remote, desolate Kalaupapa peninsula in 1866 amid a widespread outbreak of the illness.

Many of the early exiles had to scrounge for shelter, clothes and food because Kalaupapa had little existing infrastructure when they arrived.

The Republic of Hawaii continued the isolation policy after the overthrow of the monarchy. The U.S. territory, then the state, followed suit.

Fewer than two dozen patients live there today.

Hansen's disease became curable by sulfone drugs in the 1940s, and patients have been free to leave the settlement since 1969. Even so, many have chosen to stay because Kalaupapa has become their home.

Families and supporters have for years been pushing for the establishment of a memorial. They envision a monument spelling out the names of all 8,000 sent to Kalaupapa, giving relatives a place to honor their ancestors.

Only 1,300 people buried at Kalaupapa have tombstones, meaning an estimated 6,700 were buried in unmarked graves.

“;I've been with family members who were searching for graves of their ancestors and they can't find anything, and it's heartbreaking to them,”; said Valerie Monson, secretary of Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa, an advocacy group for leprosy patients which will build the monument.

The memorial also is designed to honor those who went through great hardship so the rest of Hawaii would not be exposed to the disease.

“;The people of Kalaupapa made sacrifices by leaving their families and going to Kalaupapa because they wanted to protect the general community,”; Monson said. “;These guys are heroes and they should be honored.”;

The bill does not appropriate any funds to build a monument. Instead it says Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa will be responsible for raising money for its construction.

Monson said the group never expected Congress would appropriate funds, and had always planned to raise money itself.

The bill's expected passage is bittersweet, however, as it comes just after longtime Kalaupapa resident and Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa president Kuulei Bell died Feb. 8 at the age of 76.

Bell wanted the monument so the names of her family members who died at Kalaupapa, including her grandfather, father, two aunts and husband, would be remembered, Monson said.

Bell wanted her great-great grandchildren to know what she did, Monson said.