Is It Mine To Tell?: Protecting Privacy in Public History Practice

By Ashlie Duarte-Smith

My first instinct as a public historian is to interpret and translate historical facts into a language that anyone can access–to carve out a navigable path for public consumption. Those instincts were tested when I accepted an internship for the National Park Service at the Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaiʻi. Privacy laws concerning Kalaupapa prevented me from knowing what my subject matter would be, so all I knew was that I wanted to create a short film. However, I found myself in an interesting predicament that forced me to reflect deeply on my professional responsibilities as an historian, and my personal responsibilities to any subject matter I may have. I thought, what gives me the right, as a historian, to make public any select portion of history? In my case, a dear family that I came to love as my own? I was in search of a project to propel myself forward, and yet it includes this family’s pain, joy, and trials? What do I need to know and prepare myself for in order to take on the responsibility of an oral history?

Molokaʻi, Hawaiʻi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The town of Kalaupapa is located on the island of Molokaʻi in Hawaiʻi, and is a former “leprosy colony.” Thousands of residents of Hawaiʻi were forcibly exiled there from the years 1866 to 1969 when they were found to be “guilty” of having leprosy, today known as Hansen’s Disease. Originally an act under the Hawaiian Kingdom, the law continued into the 20th century, extending ten years after American statehood. The town is now a national park where the remainder of patients can live out the rest of their lives in peace, or leave if they wish. To protect the safety and dignity of its residents,

Pali or cliff faces above Kalaupapa, Molokaʻi.

Kalaupapa is off-limits to the uninvited, and receives a cap of 100 people per day, both tourist and visitor alike. The only way to get there is by prop plane, or a two-hour hike up and down a steep trail along a sheer cliff face–making it one of the most beautiful but isolated places in the world.

As a colony, Kalaupapa was meant to separate those who were suffering from Hansen’s Disease from the general population. The disease is actually a degenerative bacteria that dissolves the joints and breaks down the human body leaving sufferers, if untreated, deformed and dying. Thousands of families were torn apart over the years for the safety of the many. Even when a cure was determined in the 1941, the patients remained legally incarcerated until 1969. It was not until the National Park Service was invited to care for the town, the land, and its history in 1981, that those who wanted to preserve the patients stories were permitted to go and do their best.

During my internship, I became fast friends with a wonderful young woman who had also become an intern in the park. She shared stories about her life and memories of Kalaupapa, expressing her deeply rooted genealogy to the town and its people. Not only did she allow me to listen, but she also offered me the privilege to record her family’s history for my project. Their individual stories are long, multifaceted, and so complex that it gave me pause. Who was this history for? If it was only for my sake, and doing nothing for the greater good, then is it even my business to hear? To know? I am a child of Hawaiʻi, born and raised on the island of Oʻahu.

Duarte-Smith in Kalaupapa National Historical Park

Growing up there, I have come to realize that we are very protective of our history because it is often misrepresented or exploited. Even though I had never been to the island of Molokaʻi before this internship, I still hold a kinship with the people there. I was terrified when I decided to apply for a position there, because sadly there is still a stigma attached to Kalaupapa. There is a misguided fear of a disease that not many in my generation can really understand. But for my mother and grandmother’s respective generations, Kalaupapa was very real and very scary place. Certainly not a place for a child to know about when she faced no danger to go there herself. So, as an adult, and as the potential historian for a part of this history, I was scared, and continue to be uneasy about sharing what I am entrusted with.

Toward the end of my time in Kalaupapa, I became very protective of its people. I befriended many of the kōkua, the non-patients that help to run the town, and the patients themselves. I worked in their repository and archives where I witnessed through objects and documents the inhuman moments these people experienced. I also handled some of the physical artifacts that those events left behind. The enormity of my responsibility to these people–to my friends–struck me. I am now personally involved. I have a personal stake in the decision I make regarding my finished project, what I do with it, and to whom I reveal it. These are not just people I casually scheduled an interview with; they became my family. I ate meals and laughed with them. I cried and held them in my arms. Those actions seem so innocuous, but they are overloaded with meaning, especially for those whose touch was actually scorned for the majority of their lives. I want to protect them, but then I remembered that my subject encouraged me to do it, she trusted me, and most of all, everyone involved gave me their blessing.

Duarte-Smith (left) with Jessica “Kanani” Sanchez and Ivy Kahilihiwa.

Anything that I choose to do or to write about with this information is an invasion of my subjects’ privacy no matter what. I have to consider that; it is important. No matter how well meaning my intent, or how open my subjects are, I am entering a sacred place in someone’s life that was never intended for public knowledge. Before conducting my interview, I was terrified of messing it up. But my subjects told me that they were happy I was so visibly shaken. My confusion must have been easy to read because they all explained that my fear was good, it would keep me humble and respectful. There is a fine line between public and private history in this project, a line that is present in all aspects of historical practice. I think that as historians whose main focus is the education of the public, it is critical that we are conscious of that line and how we navigate it. We must remember that any history we partake of is an honor to record, and a privilege to share.

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