UH Hilo Kumu Kekoa Harman feels part of something larger, an ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi movement

“Knowing that you belong to something much greater than yourself is one of the most rewarding things you can have,” says Kumu Kekoa Harman about his teaching and community engagement.

Kekoa Harman pictured in lei, chanting.
Kekoa Harman (Photo credit: Cody Yamaguchi)

By Nāpua Iolana Bicoy.

Kekoa Harman pictured.
Kekoa Harman

Kekoa Harman, an associate professor of Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, was born and raised on Maui. He attended most of his elementary and intermediate school years in Wailuku, then went to Kamehameha Schools Kapālama in seventh grade through high school, where he learned ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language). After high school, he took Hawaiian language courses at Maui Community College where he earned his associate in arts degree.

Growing up, Harman learned many Hawaiian chants and songs, which was what inspired him to learn ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, to gain a better understanding of them.

“I was especially interested in hula,” he says. “[That] inspired me to learn the language further so that I could understand what I was chanting, what I was singing, and what I was dancing about.”

And that’s why he came to UH Hilo in 1998 — he was inspired to continue to learn the language, “and thus I ended up here at UH Hilo,” he says.

Harman now lives in Keaʻau and feels blessed to be an associate professor at UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. He began his journey at UH Hilo with earning his bachelor of arts in Hawaiian studies in 2001, and then his master of arts in Indigenous language and culture education in 2008. He started in his current teaching position in 2010. In 2020, he earned his doctor of philosophy in Hawaiian and Indigenous language and culture revitalization. All at UH Hilo.

“I am constantly stimulated, I am constantly inspired,” he says. “I want to continue to learn more. That’s something that is worth more than money as far as having that opportunity to come to work every day and learn more, and then teach and share that information that I value with my students.”

“I don’t think there is any place else that I’d rather be than where I am now,” he adds.

  • Watch the full UH Hilo Stories interview with Kumu Kekoa Harman about his teaching and community engagement (video above).

We are part of a movement, part of a community

Harman notes that his teaching experience includes much more than his work at UH Hilo. “This is a large community when we talk about the Hawaiian language movement, when we look at the preschool all the way up to the college level right here in East Hawaiʻi. We are a part of something that’s much more than just a degree or a Hawaiian language course. We are part of a movement, part of a community.”

Kekoa stands under a tented area with a group of school children dressed for hula.
Kekoa Harman with ʻōlapa keiki of the hālau at the UH Hilo Hoʻolauleʻa. (Courtesy photo)

“Knowing that you belong to something much greater than yourself is one of the most rewarding things you can have,” he says.

Harman is excited with the opportunities and programs at Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani and also within the larger language community.

“I really think that we are at a point where we are accomplishing a lot in our own community here,” says Harman. “But we have an opportunity to fully realize the potential to impact other Native communities in the revitalization of their languages, too.”

One project he’s excited about is a planned National Native American Language Resource Center. UH Hilo will lead a three-university consortium that was awarded a $6.6 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to establish the center. The award is the first of its kind for Indigenous language education in the U.S.

In connection with the consortium, Harman also mentions the ʻImiloa Institute. The University of Alaska Southeast, and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University in Wisconsin, part of the three-university consortium, have long-standing ties with the ʻImiloa Institute and have been working together to reclaim their languages.

The ʻImiloa Institute was established last year as a collaboration between UH Hilo’s Hawaiian Language Consortium partners including Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani, ʻImiloa Astronomy Center, Hale Kuamoʻo Hawaiian Language Center, Mokuola Honua Global Center for Indigenous Language Excellence, Ke Kula ʻo Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki Public Charter School (UH Hiloʻs laboratory immersion school in Keaʻau), and ʻAha Pūnana Leo. The group supports P–12, undergraduate and graduate programs, and community engagement throughout Hawaiʻi and other Indigenous communities and will serve as an incubator and accelerator to support native language normalization.

Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language
Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, UH Hilo.

When you come to UH Hilo, you’re embarking on a journey that’s much bigger than yourself

Harman notes there are many Native American students who have come to the doctorate program at UH Hilo. Moreover, various Indigenous groups have come to visit to gain a full understanding of what’s happening at UH Hilo through the different Hawaiian language institutions now available: ʻAha Punana Leo, Ke Kula ʻo Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, and of course, Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani.

Harman is UH Hilo’s representative for Hawaiʻi Papa O Ke Ao, a program to indigenize all 10 campuses of the UH system. And, as a member of the Hanakahi Council — a campus-based group of faculty and staff who are Native Hawaiian or associated with Native Hawaiian programs — he says he wants to see how they’re able to promote Native Hawaiian culture and language on campus.

“I’m excited to see how that becomes a normal part of how we conduct ourselves and engage with our students, how we grow together as a campus in understanding Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian language.”

While tending to the details of teaching and university service, Harman always sees the big picture.

“When you come to UH Hilo, you’re embarking on a journey that’s much bigger than yourself,” he says. “We are in an exciting time period here at UH Hilo for that type of movement and collaboration amongst the various programs here at UH Hilo.”

Related story

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

Story and video by Nāpua Iolana Bicoy, a Hawaiian studies major at UH Hilo. Susan Enright, editor of UH Hilo Stories, contributed.

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