From 1967 to 1994, Kemnitzer was a professor at San Francisco State University, where in 1969 he taught that institution's first course in American Indian Studies. In this role, Kemnitzer visited Alcatraz Island during its occupation—which had been partially planned in his classroom, and among whose participants were some of his students (including Richard Oakes) — to provide logistical advice on how to set up educational programs for Native American children on the island.
Kemnitzer began his academic career in the 1940s, studying public health at the University of California, Berkeley, but withdrew to become a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad. His experiences in the labor force led him to join the Communist Party USA. In the 1960s, he earned his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, after writing a dissertation based on his experiences living among the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He subsequently became director of the Lakota Language and Culture Center. His published research included: studies of syncretism among the Lakota; analysis of railroad workers' time perception, and an examination of needle exchange programmes.
As an activist, Kemnitzer helped establish the first needle exchange programme in San Francisco's Tenderloin district; he also attempted to distribute condoms to Bohemian Grove attendees. In 2005, Kemnitzer and his partner Moher Downing posed naked for the 2006 "Hotties of Harm Reduction" calendar; the 2007 calendar was dedicated to his memory.
In 1997, Kemnitzer, who had for many years been an avid record collector, helped create the liner notes for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings reissue of Anthology of American Folk Music (originally compiled by Harry Everett Smith, with whom Kemnitzer had been friends); Kemnitzer subsequently shared in the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes.
- University of California Register, 1954-1955, with Announcements for 1955-1956, IN TWO VOLUMES: volume II, page 69; retrieved December 11, 2016
- Luis Kemnitzer -- professor and social activist, by Marianne Costantinou, at the San Francisco Chronicle; published February 22, 2006; retrieved April 30, 2014
- Campus Memo, volume 53, number 23 (item 4 - In memoriam: Luis Kemnitzer), at San Francisco State University; published February 27, 2006; retrieved May 2, 2014
- Grammy winning SF State professor dies: Lung cancer takes former anthropology professor Dr. Luis Kemnitzer, by Paulette Bleam, at San Francisco State University; published February 22, 2006; retrieved April 30, 2014
- From Activism to Academics: The Evolution of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State 1968-2001, by Joely De La Torre; Indigenous Nations Studies Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 2001; p 11-21
- The Occupation of Alcatraz Island: Indian Self-determination and the Rise of Indian Activism, by Troy R. Johnson; published 1996 by University of Illinois Press (via Google Books); page 51
- "Indians ask school on Alcatraz", in the Arizona Republic, page 87; December 4, 1969
- Luis Kemnitzer, at the Lakota Language and Culture Center; published 2006; retrieved May 2, 2014
- The cultural provenience of objects used in Yuwipi: A modern Teton Dakota healing ritual, by Luis S. Kemnitzer; in Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology; Vol. 35, Issue 1-4, 1970; page 40-75; DOI: 10.1080/00141844.1970.9981023
- Another View of Time and the Railroader, by Luis S. Kemnitzer; in Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 1, Golden Anniversary Special Issue on Industrial Ethnology (Jan., 1977), pp. 25-29, via JSTOR
- Needle Exchange: East vs West, by Luis S. Kemnitzer and Moher Downing; in Anthropology News; Volume 35, Issue 3, page 4, March 1994; doi: 10.1111/an.19188.8.131.52.2
- The State, at the Los Angeles Times; published July 13, 1987; retrieved April 30, 2014
- About the Hotties Calendar Project, at Hotties of Harm Reduction (via archive.org); published 2007; archived November 20, 2008; retrieved December 27, 2016
- Harry Smith: The Avant-garde in the American Vernacular, by Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh; published 2010 by Getty Publications; page 249; "Luis Kemnitzer, like Smith an inveterate record collector"
- Smithsonian Folkways - Anthology of American Folk Music, at Smithsonian Folkways; retrieved April 30, 2014
- Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention, by Kevin M. Moist; in American Studies; Vol. 48, No. 4 (Winter 2007), pp. 111-127; via JSTOR