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Kamalani Johnson
Kamalani Johnson

Kamalani Johnson has been a lecturer, curriculum developer and researcher at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language for almost 10 years, and is contributing much to his alma mater and the field of Hawaiian language and culture revitalization.

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

Johnson earned two bachelor’s degrees in Hawaiian studies and linguistics (2015), and master’s in Indigenous language and culture education with emphasis in Hawaiian language and literature (2022).

Passion for stories

In spring 2023, Johnson piloted Moʻolelo ʻĀina, an innovative 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 community resource.

Students walking in field
Moʻolelo ʻĀina students on a huakaʻi (hiking trip) in Kona, Hawaiʻi Island.

“Kamalani’s passion and talent in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language), and specifically moʻolelo (stories), are clearly evident in his course offerings and co-curricular activities,” said Hoʻoleina Ioane, Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center’s student development coordinator. “By bringing moʻolelo to the forefront of his classroom and research, he reasserts them as valuable academic records that students explore to expand their understanding of Hawaiʻi, strengthen connection to these places, and deepen their commitment to aloha ʻāina (love of the land).”

In addition to teaching and developing curriculum, Johnson also created Nanaikamalama Research Program, which focuses on Hawaiian language research about place name and place name histories of Hawaiʻi Island.

Working with renowned mentor

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 ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“Kamalani was my Hoʻokawawo project intern in 2016, when we worked together on a very technical task of translating Office of Hawaiian Affairs website pages,” said 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 ʻike (knowledge) from those primary resources into the collective consciousness of Hawaiian language speakers today.”

Sparking students

The class standing and posing for picture
Students in Kamalani Johnson’s class Moʻolelo ʻĀina. 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.

“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,” said Kahiau Snyder, a Hawaiian studies major and one of Johnson’s undergraduate research assistants.

A former student, Kalamakū Freitas, now a Hawaiian immersion high school teacher at Ke Kula Kaiapuni ʻo Lahainaluna, said 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,” said 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.”

Creating change

Concurrent with teaching, Johnson is pursuing his second master’s degree in tandem with a doctoral degree, both in political science at UH Mānoa.

He 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,” Johnson said. “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 (change) for today and for the future.”

Read more about Johnson at UH Hilo Stories.

By Susan Enright

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