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

Born and raised on Kauaʻi, Kahaunaele graduated from Kapaʻa High School, and enrolled at Kauaʻi Community College, at which her steadfast interest in her Kānaka Maoli heritage manifested into a membership in the school’s Hawaiian club.

I have to be the example that Hawaiian is a living language that you can apply in all facets of your life.

“At the time, the Hawaiian club would take an annual excursion to UH Hilo to attend the Hawaiian Leadership Development Program,” said Kahaunaele. She credits this conference as being her first experience at the university and the one that ultimately inspired her to move to Hawaiʻi Island.

“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,” she said. “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.

The teacher

Kainani Kahaunaele
Kainani Kahaunaele

Kahaunaele is now a lecturer at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at UH Hilo.

“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,” said 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.

“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,” Kahaunaele said.

The musician

Kainani Kahaunaele
Album cover for Waipunalei

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 Nā Hōkū Hanohano award 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. She 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 said. “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 Hawaiʻi.”

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

Whether at school or on stage, Kahaunaele’s primary goal is to educate and promote ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and all things Hawaiian.

“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,” she said. “I have to be the example that Hawaiian is a living language that you can apply in all facets of your life.”

Read more at UH Hilo Stories.

—By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, a UH Hilo student