UH Hilo alumnus is first Native Hawaiian associate curator for Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

A 2013 anthropology graduate of UH Hilo now a doctoral candidate at UH Mānoa, Halena Kapuni-Reynolds is a Kanaka ‘Ōiwi composer and scholar, born on Hawai‘i Island and raised in Keaukaha.

At left large multi-storied building with curved architecture. At right, inset, is Halena Kapuni-Reynolds in lei.
At left is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. D.C., at right is UH Hilo alumnus Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, the first appointed associate curator for Native Hawaiian history and culture at the museum. (Courtesy photos)

An alumnus of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is the first appointed Native Hawaiian associate curator for Native Hawaiian history and culture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. D.C. Halena Kapuni-Reynolds, a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at UH Mānoa, will continue to reside and work from Hawai‘i Island.

Michelle Delaney pictured
Michelle Delaney

His supervisor Michelle Delaney, assistant director for history and culture at the Museum of the American Indian, wrote the grant proposal for the nascent Native Hawaiian associate curator position to be community focused and 100 percent remote.

“We are thrilled to have Halena join the [museum] team and welcome the increased emphasis on Native Hawaiian cultural research and programming which will be developed over time,” says Delaney.

Kanaka ‘Ōiwi scholar

Kapuni-Reynolds is a Kanaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiian) composer and scholar, born on Hawai‘i Island and raised in Keaukaha. A double major, he received bachelor of arts degrees in anthropology and Hawaiian studies from UH Hilo in 2013, and also received the anthropology department’s Outstanding Graduating Student Award.

Kapuni-Reynolds received his master of arts in anthropology with a focus on museum and heritage studies from the University of Denver in 2015. His master’s thesis, “Curating Ali‘i Collections: Responsibility, Sensibility, and Contextualization in Hawai‘i-Based Museums,” analyzed the ways in which ali‘i (Hawaiian high chiefs) collections are cared for and exhibited at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and the Lyman House Memorial Museum.

“When I was an undergraduate at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, I majored in anthropology and Hawaiian studies, took an array of courses focused on Hawaiian language, community-based archaeology and ethnohistorical research, and participated in numerous internships across East Hawai‘i,” says Kapuni-Reynolds. “These experiences continue to inform my education at UH Mānoa as an American studies graduate student, where I have taken courses in museum studies, Indigenous studies, diasporic literatures, and U.S. history, culture, and politics.”

“I am grateful to the UH faculty and staff members who continue to support my intellectual and personal growth over the past 15 years,” he adds.

Halena Kapuni-Reynolds surrounded by roots and branches of a tree.
Halena Kapuni-Reynolds in 2013, the year he graduated from UH Hilo with bachelor of arts degrees in anthropology and Hawaiian studies. Kapuni-Reynolds also received the anthropology department’s Outstanding Graduating Student Award. (Courtesy photo)

Following his graduation from UH Hilo, Kapuni-Reynolds served as a graduate assistant for the museum studies graduate certificate program at UH Mānoa, where he worked collaboratively with faculty members to organize conversations and events around museum decolonization and Indigenization.

In 2022, he assisted in the development and implementation of “Weaving a Net(work) of Care: A Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Museum Institute,” a museological training program for individuals in Hawai‘i and across the Pacific, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Community outreach and programming

Kapuni-Reynolds’s new duties at the Smithsonian museum include doing professional curatorial work associated with research, exhibits planning and development, collections review, collections development and information, community outreach, public programming, education and public service functions.

SMITHOSIAN FOLKLIFE FESTIVALThis includes research for the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, specifically how to include participants from Hawai‘i to perform and share on the National Mall. He will also be developing new programming for the Smithsonian’s museum across the state. A traveling banner show on Hawaiian sovereignty may also be in his future.

In addition to these responsibilities, Kapuni-Reynolds is finishing his dissertation, which tells a decolonial story of the ‘āina aloha (beloved lands) of Keaukaha. Delaney said she hopes he will publish it with the Smithsonian museum.

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