Raised in Orange County, CA, Kānaka Maoli comes to UH Hilo to explore her heritage

Once at UH Hilo, the budding anthropologist Heather Leilani Kekahuna started to learn more about her heritage, including some knowledge that had been lost to her family. “I’m now teaching things to my own family and strengthening family ties through knowledge.”

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Heather, with backpack, stands for photo, Halema‘uma‘u crater and ohia trees in the background.
Heather Leilani Kekahuna at Halema‘uma‘u crater while on a tour of Hawai‘i Island with a group from Honolulu Community College in 2019. The group was part of Poʻi Nā Nalu, HCC’s oldest Native Hawaiian-serving program. The tour included a visit to the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo campus that helped spark Kekahuna’s interest in enrolling at UH Hilo after earning her HCC associate’s degree. Courtesy photo.

An anthropology student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, with a passion for history and preserving culture, came to Hawai‘i to learn more about her Kānaka Maoli heritage. Little did Heather Leilani Kekahuna know, such a journey would forever change her life.

Kekahuna grew up in Orange County, California, away from her Hawaiian roots.

“My grandfather is originally from Olowalu, Maui, but grew up in Papakōlea on O‘ahu,” she says. “When he joined the military, my grandparents moved to the continent. It was there that my father met my mother and after that my dad moved to Hilo, and so I wasn’t raised much around the Hawaiian culture.”

According to family, Kekahuna’s grandfather was a fluent ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i speaker. Her grandmother, also Hawaiian, was born and raised on Oʻahu with ancestry from Molokai and Kauaʻi (she is still thriving in good health at 88 years old). During the brief encounters their young granddaughter had with them, Kekahuna remembers hearing Hawaiian words here and there when they spoke. Her grandmother sprinkled in some pidgin. Yet the interactions were enough to spark what would become a lifelong interest in the Hawaiian culture.

Kekahuna went to Mission Viejo High School for most of her high school years. After graduating from Joanne Macy Girls School in San Dimas, California, she enrolled as a history major at College of the Desert, a community college in Palm Desert, California. While a student in an elective anthropology course, the professor convinced her to shift her focus. “I kept doing projects based on Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture and so she asked me why didn’t I come to Hawai‘i to learn,” she says.

Kekahuna moved to Hawai‘i in 2017 to attend Honolulu Community College. Being part of the University of Hawai‘i ‘ohana is what led her to participate in the Wahi Kupuna Internship Program. The program, supported with funding from Kamehameha Schools, is open to undergraduate students in any of the ten UH campuses enrolled in anthropology, archaeology, Hawaiian studies or a related field. During the program, interns engage in place- and community-based cultural resource management projects on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu or Hawai‘i Island (Hawai‘i Island for Kekahuna) that are geared toward developing cultural, academic, scientific, social, professional, and technical skills. The primary goal is to increase the number of Native Hawaiians and kama‘āina in the field of cultural resource management.

Kekahuna says that through Wahi Kupuna, she “started to learn so much, including some knowledge that was lost and I was able to regain again.” She adds, “I’m now teaching things to my own family, my father and niece, and strengthening family ties through knowledge.”

Thriving Vulcan

After completing the five-week Wahi Kupuna internship, Kekahuna wanted to make her stay on Hawai‘i Island more permanent. After receiving her associate’s degree from Honolulu CC, she enrolled at UH Hilo in the fall of 2019 and has been a thriving Vulcan ever since.

“The university resides on Native Hawaiian land, and that’s how it gave me the tools to connect me to the right people, the right programs, and the right classes,” says Kekahuna. “The university helped ground me, immersing myself into the community and its culture.”

Within her first year of enrollment, she has become president of the university’s resident Kuikapiko anthropology club. Although the club has been limited to mainly Zoom activities since the COVID-19 pandemic, Kekahuna urges students to join. “Kuikapiko reaches to guide students in getting internships and scholarships, and giving them hands-on experiences,” she says.

Under pre-pandemic circumstances, the club would organize different field trips, fundraisers, cultural project presentations, and volunteer work in conjunction with Malu ‘Aina Center that advocates non-violent education and action. In the past, members even got to assist graduate students on their respective research.

“Students would sometimes get to work with students from the [UH Hilo] heritage management master’s program,” says Kekahuna. “The club would get advanced educational opportunities and experiences.”

In addition to her efforts to sustain the anthropology club, Kekahuna recently wrote a blog post for the Hawai‘i Historic Foundation highlighting her anthropological field research. The piece speaks about her quest to be more educated on Hawaiian culture and the community connections that have helped strengthen those efforts.

A large part of the article has to do with a project for her museology class. The budding researcher describes a serendipitous moment that led her to find a single box of fishing artifacts in the anthropology department’s collections room. These possessions came from the only remaining fishing village in Hawai‘i, a place called Miloli‘i.

Kekahuna writes, “It was wonderful because prior to this finding, I was intent on building my connections with Miloli‘i and the community I come from. I was getting to know the place my Tūtū Kilikina was from and it became of personal importance to take on this project.”

Reflecting back on this venture, Kekahuna believes that this project was just the beginning—a stepping stone on the way to her future goal of becoming a secondary school teacher.

“As a Hawaiian, I feel like it’s expected of me to be here, to teach, to participate in anthropology. I should know that connection to the ‘āina,” she says. “The anthropology department has led me to finding out my identity and what it’s like to give back to the kupuna. ”

Kekahuna hopes that by becoming a social studies teacher, this will fulfill her vision to “preserve and protect” her sacred culture. But she also hopes to inspire that same sense of passion for anthropology and history that her previous educators instilled in her.

“That’s where I found my passion, in my high school history class,” says Kekahuna. “And so I hope to be that really cool history teacher that my history teacher was to me, someone that I could go to and even open up to.”


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.

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