Do No Harm: HOPE Crew and Preservation at Kalaupapa National Historical Park

By Special Contributor posted 06-12-2020 09:28

By: Kerri A. Inglis and Molly Baker

In March 2020, fourteen students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo gathered at Kalaupapa National Historical Park for a HOPE (Hands-on Preservation Experience) Crew preservation workshop and cultural immersion program, offered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS).

From 1866-1969, the Kalaupapa peninsula was used as a place of separation for those who had contracted Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy), approximately 8,000 individuals (90 percent of whom were Native Hawaiian) were sent to live out their lives in this place of exile. Due to its geographic setting (between high sea cliffs and deep oceans), access to the peninsula remains limited, making getting materials to the island for preservation work a challenge.

View of Meaula Ridge, some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, located on the east side of the Kalaupapa Peninsula. These cliffs contribute to the isolated nature of Kalaupapa. | Credit: Molly Baker

The Native Hawaiian students, enrolled in a public history course, were invited to participate in this preservation workshop, where the main purpose of the cleaning was to remove biological growth and general soiling from every known grave marker (approximately 1,200 markers) on the peninsula. Participants employed appropriate historic preservation techniques, using the gentlest means possible, under the guidance of preservation trades experts Jason Church, chief of technical services at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), and Rusty Brenner, owner and operator of Texas Cemetery Restoration.

As part of the cleaning process, the participants were taught first and foremost to work according to the dictum "do no harm." While stone appears to be a durable material, it can be affected by weather and pollution. Instructor Jason Church advised the group, “Gravestones are delicate structures and a great amount of care must be exercised when cleaning them.”

The process employed included misting the grave marker with water, coating the surface with D/2 biological solution—allowing it to dwell for ten minutes—then carefully scrubbing the marker in small circular motions with a natural bristle brush, working from the bottom up to avoid streaking. By soaking the stone first, the cleaner is able to stand on the surface, minimizing the impact to the stone and maximizing the cleaner’s effects.

HOPE Crew participants assess a gravestone before conservation at the rim of the Kauhakō Crater. | Credit: Molly Baker

The use of bleach, other salt-laden cleaners, or strong acids or bases is never recommended. Likewise, mechanical devices such as sand blasters, high pressured power washers, or power tools such as sanders or drills equipped with a wire brush should never be used. Techniques that could possibly remove or damage the original surface of the stone should be avoided. In addition to the natural bristle brushes, soft rubber scrapers were used to work inside the carvings and grooves. If the stone was fragile, the solution was left on the surface with no scrubbing.

Finally, the stone was rinsed with water, revealing a truly remarkable “before and after." This process works on all stone types, concrete, and masonry grave markers. The workshop allowed for the successful cleaning all 1,200 known gravestones, clearing of invasive plants surrounding the graves, and cleaning of five monuments, an ambitious task the participants worked hard to accomplish. Every drop of the two 55-gallon drums of cleaner, donated by D/2, went to use, ensuring the grave markers continue to share the stories of the men, women, and children who passed away on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Carrying the principle of “do no harm” through to the cultural impact of the work at Kalaupapa, it was important to the project partners and participants to honor the ancestral practices. Strict protocol was adhered to in accordance with Hawaiian tradition. Park cultural anthropologist, Ka’ohulani McGuire, advised the group on the importance of asking permission from the kūpuna (elders) and the ‘āina (land) to enter the work sites, and requesting their ka'ike (knowledge) to guide the efforts. As part of this custom, a ritual of centering oneself for the task, referred to as piko, was taught. Each day began with the piko, which consisted of an oli (chant) and mele (song) that was delivered by the entire crew.

HOPE Crew Participants as they work on one of the gravestones located at the at the St. Philomena Church, the first Catholic church on the peninsula, built in 1872 in the Kalawao Settlement. Kalawao is the original, now uninhabited, settlement located on the eastern shore of the peninsula. | Credit: Molly Baker

Participant Kekamamakoaaka’ilihou Kaleilani Caceres shared what the piko practice meant to him: “Every morning we hold piko because we’re trying to re-center ourselves, we’re trying to focus all of our energies so that we can ensure that whatever kuleana (responsibilities) we have …we are in a place where we can take care of those responsibilities…but to say that kuleana equals responsibility isn’t completely true. It’s more a part of who you are, it’s more a part of your identity, that you’re not your truest self unless you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing for the betterment of your community. And so, learning about my past, learning about my language, learning about my culture, it takes me one step closer to who my ancestors meant for me to be and that is a vital person within our world community.”

In addition to the work on the gravestones, there was a particular emphasis on learning about the ancestors they were caring for and the cultural significance of place (learn more in this piece on Students were immersed in the history not only of Kalaupapa, but of Hawaiʻi, and of their own family history. It was in the doing of the work that the students and instructors learned the most, not only about the techniques and importance of preservation, but about working together and belonging to a community.

Kerri A. Inglis is an author and professor at the University of Hawaiʻi, and Molly Baker is the HOPE Crew manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Special thanks to D/2 for donating two 55-gallon drums of cleaning solution to the efforts

In the words of another student, “this trip was very life changing for me. It gave me a whole new outlook on life and all the possibilities that life holds. I will never forget this huaka'i [journey] and the pilina [connection] I and the rest of the hui [group] built and experienced. I have gained a new sense of belonging, sense of place, and sense of aloha.”