These Native Hawaiian social media influencers are using their platforms to educate about Hawaiian language, culture and history.
Many Hawaiʻi influencers seen on Instagram and TikTok gain popularity for sharing a romanticized view of the Hawaiian lifestyle. But some creators are stepping away from this trend, choosing to educate rather than appropriate.
Social media influencers Melemaikalani Makalapua McAllister and Kamaka Dias, use their respective platforms on TikTok and Instagram to educate on all things Hawaiian, from language to culture to history.
“I started creating content simply because I saw so many people asking questions about Hawaiian traditions and culture,” said McAllister. “I feel like creating more outlets and having more creators who educate could really help people.”
Born and raised in California, McAllister is currently training to become an esthetician and will be graduating in Fall 2023. She is one of the biggest Native Hawaiian influencers with over a million followers on TikTok.
“I never got the experience of being able to live in the islands, so everything I know I’ve been taught by my mom. She’s a kumu hula and she’s done the best with what she knows,” McAllister said. “If she doesn’t know something, I usually [reach out to] other kumu or find workshops by other people.”
She began creating content during the COVID-19 pandemic and since then has been educating her audience on ethical tourism, Hawaiian history and more.
“Personally, I think it’s really easy to grow on TikTok rather than any other platform,” said McAllister. “So that’s kind of what got me started making videos.”
Being a child of the diaspora, McAllister says that creating educational content online has made her feel closer to the culture – but it has also made her more vulnerable.
“I’ve always had this feeling that I’m not Hawaiian enough because I wasn’t born there, wasn’t raised there,” said McAllister. “So that kind of makes me scared on social media because I know there’s always gonna be things I don’t know. And with an audience as large as mine, I feel like people expect me to know everything – and I don’t.”
One of her most recent videos on TikTok and Instagram shared about how, in ancient Hawaiʻi, menstruation was seen as sacred – as compared to how Western culture tends to view it in a negative way. McAllister said a big reason why she educates on topics like menstruation is to reverse the colonized mindset that women are unclean.
“I was like wow, people are actually interested in learning more about the culture and the traditions, so I started talking about it more,” McAllister said.
McAllister also has videos on food independence, hula, ʻori Tahiti (Tahitian dance) and different moʻolelo. Many of these videos gain “likes” ranging from 80,000 to over one million.
While McAllister’s audience tends to be comprised more of foreigners interested in learning about Hawaiʻi, Kamaka Dias of “The Hawaiiverse Podcast” caters to a decidedly local audience. As of mid-March, there were 30.1K followers on the podcast’s Instagram.
Born and raised in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, Dias attended Hawaiian immersion schools for the majority of his life. He graduated from UH Mānoa with a degree in communications, joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in Madagascar teaching English in a rural community. Upon his return to Hawaiʻi, he paid off his student loans by doing odd jobs.
Created during the COVID-19 pandemic by Dias and his business partners, The Hawaiiverse was initially a business that focused on supporting other local businesses through its coupon directory and e-commerce store. They started with 40 businesses in Hilo in 2020 and now have some 1,000 businesses across the islands on their directory. Dias says their coupon directory is like a local version of Groupon and the e-commerce store is similar to the format of Amazon or Etsy. They eventually branched out to create The Hawaiiverse Podcast in order to push people toward their business.
“There was really no direction when we started and I guess because of my background with Hawaiian immersion, the conversations kind of gravitated towards culture,” said Dias. “We cover all kinds of topics, but the main ones are the ones people relate to – local Hawaiian culture.”
The podcast is currently on its 65th episode as this article is being written. Dias has interviewed a variety of guests like influencer Bretman Rock, Big Wave Surfer Mark Healey, MMA Fighter Yancy Medeiros and more.
For Dias, creating connections and talking story with the different podcast guests has always come naturally to him because of how he was raised.
“I don’t really know anything else but aloha,” said Dias. “It’s because of my upbringing in school and from my parents.”
Dias focuses on using his platform to show the authentic Hawaiʻi and not the romanticized version of Hawaiʻi that is all over social media today.
“I always felt there was a lack of influencers that shared the real Hawaiʻi,” Dias said. “I just felt like, if I could kind of fill that gap and be that Hawaiian influencer, other people will follow in those footsteps and create content that’s more culturally appropriate.”
While the podcast could have gone in a different direction, Dias has opted to focus on culture and unveiling the true Hawaiʻi that most creators won’t show or don’t truly know themselves.
In one of the earlier episodes of the podcast (#16), Dias spoke with another education-focused kanaka influencer, Maluhia States, who is also a kumu ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. They talked about tips on learning the Hawaiian language and how learning the language can lead to a new understanding of life around you.
Dias interviews a wide range of guests, but each new conversation is always as insightful as the last. He curates each question for his current guest, but really just wants everyone who joins him to feel free to speak their mind.
“I want to connect people, to build these connections,” said Dias. “To provide a safe space where people can have tough conversations without being judged, or to just be themselves without being judged.”
In some of their conversations, Dias and his guests dive deep into weighty issues such as sovereignty and decolonization. While these are heavy topics, he creates a safe space for these conversations to be shared.
In episode #64 of the podcast, Dias sits down with politician and community organizer Kaniela Ing and talks about the ongoing housing crisis in Hawaiʻi. They touch upon their ideas of how to decolonize your mindset and the differences between American culture and Hawaiian culture.
From podcast to TikTok, Dias and McAllister have both contributed to a cause bigger than themselves, bringing awareness and shining a light on Hawaiians and Hawaiʻi.
Although Dias and McAllister have very different audience demographics, both provide a safe space for questions and discussions about Hawaiʻi.
Large audiences always come with online “trolls,” something both Dias and McAllister both try to ignore on their social media accounts in order to avoid being drained by their negativity.
“Sometimes, when something negative is said about one of my guests, I feel protective of them,” Dias said. “Like a mom or dad kind of defensive.”
While Dias feels like a parent when it comes to defending his guests, a “mom defense” is even more real for McAllister – although she doesn’t get too bothered by hate comments anymore, her mother still does.
“I’ll see [my mom] trying to go back and forth with the people in my comments and that sucks because I know where she’s coming from, but she’s gonna get really drained doing that,” said McAllister. “Otherwise, she’s proud of the platform I’ve created.”
Their impact has not gone unseen. With their large audiences, both Dias and McAllister can reach and educate thousands of people with the click of a button. And both influencers have seen first-hand the effect that their content has on people.
“I get messages all the time, people thanking me for just doing the podcast and for giving people a platform to voice their opinions,” said Dias.
“I’ve gotten a lot of DM’s [direct messages] from people who have said, ‘I canceled my trip because of you and I’m learning more about the effects of tourism on Hawaiʻi’ or I’ve had teachers say that they’ve used my videos to educate kids in their countries,” McAllister said.
These two influencers have only just started; both have plans to take their work to the next level.
McAllister said to keep an eye out for a future documentary she’s currently working on with Apple TV and HBO that will likely focus on Hawaiʻi’s affordable housing crisis. She hopes the completed documentary will be picked up by Netflix.
“I hope a lot of people will watch it because it’s going to include a bunch of good info,” McAllister said.
Dias is looking forward to creating an independent space where all guests can speak their minds with no repercussions – and possibly even turning the podcast into a talk show.
“If we continue to grow and reach more people, hopefully, we will help out and make a difference in some way,” said Dias.
If you’re interested in viewing their content, follow @Melemaikalanimakalapua on TikTok and @TheHawaiiversePodcast and @KamakaDias8 on Instagram.
The Hawaiiverse Podcast is also available on Spotify, YouTube and Apple Podcasts.