UH Hilo alumna Kainani Kahaunaele’s primary goal is to teach ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i and all things Hawaiian

Once a Hawaiian language student at UH Hilo, Kainani Kahaunaele is now a lecturer at the university’s Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. She’s also a highly successful musician and four-time Na Hoku Hanohano award winner.

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Educator, musician, advocate. Kainani Kahaunaele does it all. A proud alumni-turned-employee of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, she credits much of her success to former mentors and peers who have fostered her knowledge of both Hawaiian language and culture.

Kainani Kahaunaele
Kainani Kahaunaele

Born and raised on Kaua‘i, Kahaunaele graduated from Kapa‘a High School. Immediately after, she enrolled at Kaua‘i Community College, at which her steadfast interest in her Kānaka Maoli heritage manifested into a membership in the school’s Hawaiian club. 

“At the time, the Hawaiian club would take an annual excursion to UH Hilo to attend the Hawaiian Leadership Development Program,” says Kahaunaele. She credits this conference as being her first experience at the university and the one that ultimately inspired her to move to Hawai‘i Island. “It took one weekend for me to decide that I wanted to be around this energy, that I wanted to be around those people, and I wanted to learn from those people at the Hawaiian language college at UH Hilo.” 

Being from a small town herself, going to school in a place like Hilo was a fairly easy shift. Kahaunaele enjoyed the country-esque vibes, but was also excited to take advantage of the island’s unique landscape. She felt that living and learning in a place that has everything from lava to snow truly enriched her experience. 

 But what really set the tone for her educational prosperity were her educators at UH Hilo. “Some of my earliest influences were Kauanoe Kamanā, Taupori Tangarō, Larry Lindsey Kimura, and many of the Native Hawaiian speaking elders that were brought in,” says Kahaunaele. “To have access to them through our college was one of the best benefits as young Hawaiian language learners.” 

She went on to earn a bachelor of arts in Hawaiian studies and a master of arts in Hawaiian language and literature.

“As a teacher now, I often remember my teachers, their expectations, their practical knowledge, and how they made us fall in love with them,” she says. She remembers them as the “best instructors” who offered the “best opportunities.” Emulating those same qualities is a goal she continually strives to provide for her own students. 

The teacher

Kahaunaele is now a lecturer at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at UH Hilo. When starting this work in 1998, being a teacher wasn’t necessarily a goal she had been consciously working toward. But it was one that arose alongside the Hawaiian language revitalization movement. 

As I worked hard to earn my degree, I realized I wanted to work at the college level and teach Hawaiian because I had good experiences and wanted to stay accountable in my line of work,” she explains. If she hoped to be on the right side of preventing her culture and language from being extinct, she realized that passing on that knowledge was essential. This is why she thinks of every student as a sort of “investment.” 

Haleʻōlelo aerial shot, green curved roof , surrounded by green forest.
Haleʻōlelo, Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, UH Hilo. Photo by Andrew Hara.

“Having the Hawaiian language almost at extinction, but being here during revitalization, all the kumus, including myself, see every student as a way for our language to live further,” says Kahaunaele. The Hawaiian language program is one of the few on campus where students meet five days a week, and this is to both maximize time spent learning about the language, but also to fully immerse the students in it. She says, “Their interest will help the language thrive.”

Kahaunaele hopes to continue her career in teaching for as long as she can. With the ongoing pandemic, she says, “I’m in a pretty vulnerable space, but like my teachers and colleagues and mentors, we have overcome all of those kinds of adverse situations because we’re so committed to the language.” She continues to stay positive, maintaining that “I love my school and I love my job.”

The musician

She loves her job so much that she continues to educate others about the Hawaiian language beyond the classroom door, through the universal language of music. A four time award-winning Na Hoku Hanohano recipient, Kahaunaele is both a singer and songwriter. Using her growing knowledge of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, she writes mele with the intent of Hawaiian language and cultural advocacy. 

Kahaunaele’s music career began when she was a college student. Weekend gatherings with her friends developed into a hub of musical, and by extension cultural, expression. “The music would be Hawaiian music and the songs that we brought from our homes and families were the focal songs of our weekend gatherings,” she says. “We would practice, sing, and enjoy.”

This process also helped with their language acquisition. “The better we got at language acquisition, we were better able to deliver our songs and understand the meanings and the layers.”  

Over the years, the group was asked to perform at different events. Their music could be heard anywhere from weddings, to graduation parties, to birthday celebrations. The band became known as Kahikina and was comprised of Kahaunaele, Kīhei Nahale-a, Ron Nahale-a, Sean Nāleimaile, and Kalaʻi Ontai.

Kahaunaele decided to go solo in the late 1990s after spending time working for the ʻAha Pūnana Leo curriculum development department, an organization dedicated to the Hawaiian education movement. “One of my projects in that department was to record songs from my personal songbook,” she says. “My boss asked me if I’d consider doing personal songs as a curriculum tool and to also be put into the mainstream of Hawaiian music in Hawai‘i.” 

Since becoming a solo artist, she has released three albums. Her most recent entitled, Waipunalei, just dropped last November.  

Album cover: Waipunalei Kainani Kahaunaele
Album cover for Waipunalei by Kainani Kahaunaele.

Despite being labeled a solo artist, Kahaunaele’s music is the product of a highly collaborative process, one that takes into account Hawaiian history, language, and people. “Paying attention to classic Hawaiian mele, including chants, therein lies the best examples of how a Hawaiian song is experienced or seen,” she says. “I also often consult with some of my favorite song writers, cultural experts, and language experts.” This creative undertaking also involves fellow musicians who contribute to a song’s arrangement and lyric writing. 

Once a song or album is released, Kahaunaele measures her success in community feedback. Whether that is in the form of radio requests or halaus performing to her music, she cherishes these examples of support at all levels. “It’s really about getting down into the community and seeing how they can make my music useful and enjoy it,” she says. “That’s enough for me.”

Whether at school or on stage, Kahaunaele’s primary goal is to educate and promote ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi and all things Hawaiian. She says, “My professional music career, my profession as a teacher who teaches Hawaiian language, and as a mother who facilitates my family in Hawaiian, it’s all equally related and important. I have to be the example that Hawaiian is a living language that you can apply in all facets of your life.”


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.