Professor of all things Hawaiian

LIHUE — Aloha is second nature for 63-year-old Dennis Chun.

So much so, he’s made a tenured career out of teaching it.

And by teaching ohana dynamics, taro culture, Hawaiian music and Polynesian voyaging, Chun is the professor of all things Hawaiian.

“The idea of aloha is a reciprocal act. It’s all about karma. It’s really a responsibility to pay it back,” said Chun, who taught Hawaiian culture for 23 years. “Those who receive it should be thinking about what they can give back.”

Chun’s influence can be profound for some. He has taught thousands of students about the geography of the islands, and lectured and debated during his two decades of teaching for the Hawaiian Studies Department at Kauai Community College.

“My classes have adult learners and others trying to satisfy graduation requirements,” said Chun, whose just as likely to be on a paddle board as in the classroom. “I’ve had attorneys and grandparents in my classes.”

When Chun entered the Hawaiian Studies department, he said the program had minimal offerings beyond the Hawaiian language courses. Now, the course catalog is chock-full of diverse options for students yearning to learn more about Hawaiian culture.  

“We have other classes in development,” he said. “Hawaiian mythology and Hawaiian music.”

Kananaikahaku Kuhaulua graduated from Kauai Community College in 2012 after studying with Chun.

“The highlight of my Hawaiian studies classes was the Polynesian navigators course he teaches,” Kuhaulua said. “It was an awakening moment for me learning how our kapuna navigated by the stars. I went to Japan afterwards and looked up at the stars with a realization that we are all under the same sky.” 

Chun’s passion for sharing his knowledge of Hawaii runs deep. Once a week, he weaves Hawaiian stories with folk music for audiences at the Hukilau Lani Lounge in Kapaa. The songs are authentic Hawaiian music he loves to keep alive and pass along, just as he does in his classes when he teaches his students about Hawaiian culture and history.

“Those folk songs tell stories. Stories of heartaches and stories of places,” he said.

The musician and assistant professor has made Hawaiian culture his life in myriad ways. He surfed since he was a kid and was on board the Hokulea Canoe that sailed to Japan via Micronesia in 2007. The trip produced an epiphany of sorts for Chun.

“I think I began to realize that we are all island and ocean peoples that are more similar and related in culture, beliefs, values, than we are different,” he said.

 The assistant professor’s water passion fits ideally with his evolving age.

“It’s getting harder to stand-up,” joked Chun about surfing.

Therefore, he took up paddle boarding. One of his favorite spots is just off Kalapaki Beach.

“It’s really peaceful out there,” Chun said. “When you’re standing up on a board you can really see down into the water. It’s clear and really beautiful.”

The best part, he says, is the sweet freedom it allows.

“You can go on forever,” Chun said. 

• Lisa Ann Capozzi, features and education reporter can be reached at lcapozzi@thegardenisland.com.

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