UH Hilo alumnus Kamalani Johnson is taking the road less traveled in the field of Hawaiian language and culture revitalization

In his curriculum development, teaching, and research, Kamalani Johnson is contributing much to both UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language and to the field of Hawaiian language and culture revitalization in general.

Kamalani Johnson pictured.
Kamalani Johnson (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright.

An alumnus from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, with baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the fields of Hawaiian studies, linguistics, and Indigenous language and culture, is taking an untraditional path as he pursues his doctorate.

A curriculum developer and lecturer at his alma mater’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, Kamalani Johnson is an expert in the interstice of 19th– and early 20th-century Hawaiian language and literature, political theory, and Indigenous and Hawaiian life writing. He is now pursuing his second master’s degree in tandem with a doctoral degree, both in political science at UH Mānoa.

“My entry into political science is anything but traditional—I actually never took a political science course in my academic journey,” says Johnson. “While I was finishing up my MA at UH Hilo, my now advisor [at UH Mānoa], Noenoe Silva, urged me to consider political science because the work I do, which is similar to the work she does, is political—looking at the ways in which Kānaka Maoli have resisted and persisted in the face of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

“Iʻve always thought of my work in the frame of the Hawaiian language, but Noenoe’s mentorship has allowed me the latitude to consider the value of my work in other audiences such as political science as well as critical Indigenous studies,” he adds.

Receiving his two bachelor of arts degrees in Hawaiian studies and linguistics (2015), and his master of arts degree in Indigenous language and culture education with emphasis in Hawaiian language and literature (2022), all from Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani, Johnson has been a lecturer, curriculum developer, and researcher at his alma mater’s Hawaiian language college for almost ten years. 

Hoʻoleina Ioane
Hoʻoleina Ioane

Hoʻoleina Ioane, student development coordinator at UH Hilo’s Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, explains that Johnson’s work began at the center as a peer tutor during his time as an undergraduate.

“Kamalani’s passion and talent in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language), and specifically mo‘olelo (stories), are clearly evident in his course offerings and co-curricular activities,” says Ioane. “By bringing mo‘olelo to the forefront of his classroom and research, he reasserts them as valuable academic record that students explore to expand their understanding of Hawai‘i, strengthen connection to these places, and deepen their commitment to aloha ‘āina (love of the land).”

“He inspires students to take these narratives beyond the bounds of classroom walls and find ways that they inform and connect us to this ‘āina and the people who continue to live there,” she adds.

Larry Kimura pictured.
Larry Kimura

In a notable project, following graduation and with his two baccalaureate degrees in hand, Johnson was an intern with renowned UH Hilo Professor of Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Studies Larry Kimura on a collaborative project with Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikōlani and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“Kamalani was my Ho‘okawawo project intern in 2016, when we worked together on a very technical task of translating Office of Hawaiian Affairs website pages,” says Kimura. “Since then, he has taken a keen interest in 19th century Hawaiian literary works by native speakers and focuses his work in that area to bring the ‘ike (knowledge) from those primary resources into the collective consciousness of Hawaiian language speakers today.”

In his curriculum development, teaching, and research, Johnson has contributed much to both Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language and to the field of Hawaiian language and culture revitalization in general.

“In order for the Hawaiian language to live today, it must be incentivized,” he says. “I hope the variety of my work demonstrates its utility today to my students, colleagues, and those that are supporters and advocates.”

Curriculum and teaching

A norm for Johnson’s work, he is always actively involved in creating and teaching new, culturally relevant courses that advance the understanding of Hawaiian history, culture, and language. Even while he pursues his second master’s and doctoral degree in political science, he says it’s all tied into what he teaches in the classroom.

“I like to think of the classroom as a laboratory where I am able to explore and experiment ideas with my students—I am usually the one who walks away with the most growth learning from my students,” he says.

An example of Johnson’s innovative curriculum development and teaching happened in spring 2023, when he piloted Mo‘olelo ‘Āina (KHWS 494), an undergraduate course developed around land and place name histories. Focusing on the literary works of Kona-born historian and political advocate J.W.H.I. Kihe (d. 1870), Johnson’s students researched, compiled, and produced story maps and mele (song) as a resource for the Kona community and Hawai‘i Island community-at-large. The class made a video about their findings.

“A unique feature to this course is the huaka‘i (experiential learning) component in which I took my students on two huaka‘i—one to Kona ‘Ākau (North Kona) and one to Kona Hema (South Kona)—to physically experience the places they were reading and researching about,” says Johnson.

Kahiau Snyder pictured.
Kahiau Snyder

Says student Kahiau Snyder, a Hawaiian studies major and one of Johnson’s undergraduate research assistants who took the Mo‘olelo ‘Āina course, “Kumu Kamalani’s deep dedication to preserving and perpetuating the Hawaiian language and culture is clear, and it is obvious that he wants to spark a similar dedication and passion within his students.”

“In my Hawaiian language journey, he has been a pillar of support by guiding me to helpful resources and encouraging me to broaden my horizons.,” continues Snyder. “I appreciate all of the knowledge and support Kumu Kamalani has provided me as he helps cultivate my own passion for learning the language and teachings of my ancestors.”

Group stands for photo with palms and ocean in the background.
Students in Kamalani Johnson’s class Moʻolelo ʻĀina (KHWS 494), an undergraduate course developed by Johnson around land and place name histories, gather for photo during a field trip on March 6, 2023. From left, Kaliko Pascua, Kamalani Johnson, Kele Rehmert, Kiha Stevens, Kauʻionālani Navas-Colburn (front), Kaʻimipono Atkinson, Kahiau Snyder, Mālie Hayashida, ʻAkoni Pfluke, and Kukui Akana. (Courtesy photo)
Group of about a dozen people hiking over lava fields. Vast, sloping mountain in the background.
Moʻolelo ʻĀina (KHWS 494) students on a huakaʻi (hiking trip) on Feb. 5, 2023, in Kona, Hawaiʻi Island. (Courtesy photo)
From high above (aerial photo), a group of hikers are photographed while on a trail through a lava field leading to the coastline. Lava fields are in the lower half of the photo, ocean is in the top half of the photo.
Aerial view of Moʻolelo ʻĀina (KHWS 494) students on a huakaʻi (hiking trip) on Feb. 5, 2023, in Kona, Hawaiʻi Island. (Courtesy photo)
Kalamakū Freitas pictured.
Kalamakū Freitas

A former student, Kalamakū Freitas, now a Hawaiian immersion high school teacher at Ke Kula Kaiapuni o Lahainaluna, says Johnson was a rigorous teacher who helped the language abilities of Freitas and his classmates to blossom.

“Kumu Kamalani is very skilled in Hawaiian-centric linguistics and literature,” says Freitas. “It is because of his ability to explain and clarify the different aspects and functions of the Hawaiian language that has helped to strengthen my language abilities. From the very beginning of my time as a student of his, I have admired his skillfulness in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and begun to mimic his style of speaking and writing because of the cleverness in using different sentence structures, patterns, and elements, as well as the Hawaiian perspective embedded within his language.”

“Kumu Kamalani continued to support me for the remainder of my undergraduate journey, during my graduate studies, and he continues to support me during my current work as a Hawaiian immersion teacher,” adds Freitas. “Whenever I might have questions, he continued to guide me. Kumu Kamalani is a role model because of his unwavering dedication to the progression of the Hawaiian people.”

Johnson is currently planning two new pilot courses on Hawaiian language competency and Hawaiian advocacy slated to be offered this fall and in spring 2024.


In addition to teaching and developing curriculum, Johnson has also created Nanaikamalama Research Program.

“In response to a need to develop Hawaiian language capacity at Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikōlani, I developed the Nanaikamalama Research Program, which focuses on Hawaiian language research about place name and place name histories of Hawai‘i Island,” Johnson explains. “I currently have four research assistants who are both undergraduate and graduate students of the college. Through Nanaikamalama, I hope to be able to develop students’ curiosity, drive, and passion to uplift Indigenous and Hawaiian ancestral knowledge through the Hawaiian language.

Kamalani in hat with backpack.
Kamalani Johnson teaching in the field. (Courtesy photo)

Giving back to the community

Johnson says he is afforded the opportunity to do what he does because of the various communities that have contributed to his journey. And in turn, his work impacts the Hawaiian community on two levels.

“On one level, the work I do benefits the Hawaiian community because I am able to develop more Hawaiian language and knowledge stewards for prosperity,” he explains. “On another level, the type of research I undertake is what I call legacy research. I spend countless hours in the archives to highlight the stories of kūpuna (ancestors) who documented their experiences in the 19th and early 20th centuries to bring attention to their intellectual sovereignty and struggle to maintain their Hawaiian identity in a vastly changing time at the hands of colonialism.”

About the inspiration for the work, he says he is continually enthralled by the creativity of Hawaiian and Indigenous people to create knowledge kīpuka (intentionally preserved spaces) amidst a tumultuous landscape at the hands of colonialism.

Johnson hopes to one day secure a tenure-track professorship in Hawaiian language and studies and/or political science at UH Hilo where he can develop undergraduate and graduate courses surrounding Hawaiian political theory.

“There are many unsung heroes whose stories are yet to be told,” he says about his life’s work. “Through the work I do, I strive to do the ‘in-the-trench’ tasks to highlight their experiences—the beauty, difficulty, and tenacity—in hopes that it inspires how we create kīpuka for today and for the future.”

Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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