Residency at Kennedy Center enriches teachings of Hawaiian studies scholars Kekoa and Pele Harman

Kumu Kekoa Harman and Kumu Pele Harman dedicated their time during a five-day residency at the Kennedy Center in D.C. to creating new teachings for their haumāna on Hawai‘i Island.

By Susan Enright

Two Hawaiian studies scholars from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo were invited to collaborate during a residency for social impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in early October.

Kekoa, Pele and their young daughter stand next to a life-size statue of JFK.
From left, Kekoa Harman and Pele Harman with their daughter Hi‘iaka outside the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Oct. 2022.

Kekoa Harman, a UH Hilo alumnus now an associate professor of Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language at UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, and his wife, Pelehonuamea Harman, a UH Hilo alumna now a certified Hawaiian medium teacher at the university’s Hawaiian language medium laboratory school Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u, spent five days at the Kennedy Center, Oct. 3-7, dedicating their time to creating new teachings for their haumāna on Hawai‘i Island.

“We were provided with studio space and a generous stipend to create new dances and curriculum that would further our reach in our community,” says Kekoa.

In Studio J at The REACH, located at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Kekoa Harman focuses on creating hula while Pele Harman works on her laptop with their daughter napping on her shoulder. In October 2022, the Harmans took part in a five-day residency program designed to engender projects that will have social impact on participants’ home communities. (Photo provided by Kekoa Harman and used with permission.)

In addition to their teaching at the university and laboratory school, Kekoa and Pele also have a hālau they founded called Hālau I Ka Leo Ola O Nā Mamo, or the Hālau of the Living Voice of Descendants, where they continue the traditions of hula and teach exclusively through ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language).

“The week [residency] provided us a tremendous opportunity to create new dances that will be taught to students and faculty at Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani, Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u, and ‘ōlapa of our hālau,” says Kekoa.

Kekoa is seated at the left with ipu, while Pele dances hula in front of a modern sculpture of a dancing figure in front of the The REACH.
Above, on the grounds of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. in early October, Kekoa Harman performs oli while Pele Harman dances to a chant honoring Princess Ruth Keanolani Kanāhoahoa Ke‘elikōlani (1826-1883), a formidable presence in nineteenth-century Hawai‘i who is the namesake of UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. (Photo provided by Kekoa Harman and used with permission.)


The residency program the Harmans attended, called Office Hours, is a curated developmental program housed within a myriad of social impact programs hosted at the Kennedy Center’s The REACH, a major expansion built at the center in 2019 where visitors, audiences, and artists gather for collaborative and experimental projects. The Office Hours program, which supports residencies that will have social impact on participants’ home communities and artistic fields, seeks out artists with an interest in developing new ideas through “playful exploration and spatial intervention.” Provided with access to studio space in the REACH (the Harmans worked in Studio J), artists in residency have the sole task of creation.

Learn more about The REACH:

Kekoa and Pele’s residency

Pele says that being invited to do a residency at the The REACH was very educational for all parties involved.

“It reminded me of the importance of inter-generational transference of knowledge, of the value of collaboration and critiquing of colleagues, of the many Native Hawaiians who remain steadfast in upholding our traditional values in areas outside of Hawaiʻi, as well as the responsibility we have to the broader community to be ambassadors of aloha and advocates of our language and culture,” she says.

In that spirit, the Harmans took full advantage of the residency opportunity to enrich their knowledge, creativity, and teaching.

“Both Pele and I wanted to work on choreographing mele that we would be able to utilize in or programs,” explains Kekoa.

First, he says, they focused on the Hawaiian language of the chants/songs because that is the most important aspect to them before creating a dance. One of the chants they chose honors Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani, A Ka Laʻi Au I Mauliola. Another was a song written by Associate Professor of Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Studies Larry Kimura for the district of Puna.

“Choosing chants/songs that strengthen identity of our students and ʻōlapa are especially important to us: our aliʻi, our chiefs and chiefesses, where we come from, and the schools that we serve, located in Hilo and Puna,” says Kekoa.

Kekoa and Pele are raising all four of their children through the Hawaiian language. The youngest, Hi‘iaka, now a preschool student at ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, traveled to D.C. with her parents. “To have our daughter with us, to see us work together during this period of time was also special,” Kekoa says.

During the Harmans’ residency at the Kennedy Center, a friend of theirs, U.S. Representative Kai Kahele, dropped by for a visit.

“Since Kai Kahele was there with his ʻohana, the staff at The REACH thought it was a wonderful opportunity for them to come by during our residency,” says Kekoa. “Also, both of his younger daughters, ʻIolana and Nāmaka dance for our hālau. Both of Kai and Maria’s (Kaiʻs wife) daughters attend Ke Kula ʻo Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu. It was a nice way to connect and bring meaning to the work we were doing during the residency.”

The Harmans treasured their creative time at The REACH.

“As educators it is often challenging to set aside time from our schedules to just focus primarily on creating and learning in order to better ourselves for our students,” says Kekoa. “To have this time with one another to create, and also critique each other to come up with something we are both proud of and want to teach to our students was especially rewarding and valuable.”

Learn more about the Harman family:

Hashtags: #UHHilo, #KenCenSocialIpact, #KenCenREACH.

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.

Photos provided by Kekoa Harman and used with permission.