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Two weeks ago, Maui District Court Judge Blaine Kobayashi issued a bench warrant for Samuel Kaleikoa Kaʻeo after the Hawaiian studies assistant professor spoke only Hawaiian — even though he can speak English — in court.
The move prompted public outrage, with many critics noting that Hawaiian is an official language, and has been since 1978. But what that means — and what it should mean — is far from clear.
By the following day, the judge rescinded the warrant and within two days, the Judiciary revised its policy to provide interpreters for Hawaiian language speakers “to the extent reasonably possible.”
That was too little, too late for many Hawaiian families and their supporters. Dozens rallied Jan. 26 in front of the King Kamehameha statue in downtown Honolulu across from Iolani Palace, where Queen Liliuokalani was forced to abdicate the throne 125 years go.
Children played on the grass next to signs that read, “We are not American,” and one man waved cardboard with the words, “English is the foreign language.”
Kaʻeo’s initial arrest stemmed from his protest against telescope construction on Haleakala, a mountain on Maui — already a highly emotional case about native rights and development.
The longtime activist believes the judge’s refusal to recognize his use of Hawaiian is part of a broader problem of indigenous voices being ignored on issues like land use and water rights.
“This whole issue is about us being forced to be invisible. If we represent ourselves in Hawaiian, we will not be heard. If we talk about Haleakala, we will not be heard. If we talk about the desecration of Hawaiian burials, we will not be heard.”
To Kahookahi Kanuha, another Hawaiian teacher and activist, the incident shows that the fact that Hawaiian is an official language “means absolutely nothing.”
But 40 years ago, adding Hawaiian to the constitution was a significant step for the island chain’s native people.
Former Gov. John Waihee, a delegate to the 1978 constitutional convention, says the move was largely about making sure that old property records which were written in Hawaiian were taken seriously in a court of law. “It wasn’t, ‘OK, let’s do something nice.’ There were real reasons why that was passed.”
Residents approved the proposal overwhelmingly, with the vote coming amid a broader revitalization of the Hawaiian culture and growing recognition of the injustice of the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.
Just a few years earlier, a lawsuit sought to force the Navy to cease bombing on the island of Kahoolawe, and the first crew set sail on Hokulea using traditional navigation techniques.
“Hawaiian people were very much feeling that it was time to stop the erosion of their culture and traditions,” recalls Sherry Broder, who served as deputy chief attorney during the convention.
The constitutional convention also established the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, ensured Hawaiians would receive a portion of funding from lands that used to belong to the Hawaiian royal family and limited how much property could be condemned through quiet title claims.
But while making Hawaiian an official language was only one aspect of reform, the decision was significant for many people.
“My parents — when they went to school — if they spoke Hawaiian, they were punished,” says Waihee. Making Hawaiian on equal footing as English carried the weight of that history. “This is to say that that kind of thing should never happen in this state again.”
Waihee and many others who participated in the convention are proud of the progress that’s been achieved in the years since.
“We are not sitting on our okoles,” says Larry Kimura, a longtime Hawaiian language instructor who points to the growth of Hawaiian immersion schools as an indication of success. While “we have a far way to go, I am optimistic. I am happy about the progress and I understand change takes a while.”
The language is also a huge part of Hawaii’s brand — every visitor is greeted with the word “aloha” and Hawaiian language street signs.
Still, only about 18,600 people speak Hawaiian out of a statewide population of about 1.4 million, according to a 2016 state study.
Hawaii is the only state besides Alaska with more than one official language, and while the law requires the courts to provide interpreters for people who can’t speak English, there is no legal requirement to provide an interpreter for a Hawaiian speaker who can also understand English.
The judge’s ruling raises the question of how much taxpayer money and resources should be spent on providing services to such a small population. The same 2016 study found more than 90 percent of Hawaiian speakers say they speak English very well.
Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, a University of Hawaii Manoa political science professor, says incremental changes — adding Hawaiian translations as infrastructure is built — is one way to counteract that cost. But she also says the lack of speakers is precisely why funding is so important.
“There’s a reason why few people speak Hawaiian which is because there was a purposeful attempt to extinguish the language,” says Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua. “We need to invest energy into supporting those who are putting energy into reviving the language and make it be robust again.”
The court contracts with interpreters and pays them between $25 and $55 per hour for at least two hours.
The court also pays for transportation, meals and accommodations when interpreters fly to neighbor islands. Currently there is only one registered interpreter for the Hawaiian language, although judges can approve other interpreters on a case-by-case basis.
Kanuha believes the lack of equality for Hawaiian language is a symptom of a deeper disregard for Hawaiian culture and sovereignty. “We haven’t seen Hawaiian language respected or given any status close to the status of the official language anywhere outside our school system.”
Even that has been a long drawn out fight.
Six years after Hawaiian became an official language, the Legislature rejected a bill to allow teachers to teach in Hawaiian in schools.
The measure passed in 1986, but parents, educators and students still needed to petition the state year after year for approval to continue and expand immersion schools.
William Wilson, a Hawaiian language professor says that at one point, the schools weren’t even allowed to teach reading and writing in Hawaiian because a state administrator said it was only a spoken tongue. Even today, funding and lack of resources are ongoing struggles.
Last year, the University of Hawaii discouraged the passage of a bill that would allow college courses like math and science to be taught in Hawaiian. Wilson says he plans to be back at the Legislature this year to fight for it again.
“The idea of having these official languages is not just whether you can understand but (that) it’s part of our society where we support living your life in either one of these two languages,” Wilson says. “It’s about the right to exist as a full language in your own place.”
Only about 18,600 people speak Hawaiian out of a statewide population of about 1.4 million.
The debate over when — and where — you can speak Hawaiian has made it to the State Capitol. Just four years ago, former Rep. Faye Hanohano got upbraided by House leadership after she refused to translate her vote from Hawaiian to English.
“I don’t want to translate,” she said, prompting Rep. John Mizuno to call a recess and later recite from the House rules that “members should conduct themselves in a respectful manner.”
Kaʻeo, the subject of the bench warrant last week, is still bewildered about why the Maui prosecutors and judge insisted on holding a hearing in English when they previously provided him with an interpreter.
“Where is it coming from, this idea that I can only be heard if I speak the language of those who have done so much wrong to me?” he says. “I’m not in Texas, I’m in Hawaii.”
Many like Kaʻeo look to foreign countries for examples of how more than one official language can thrive.
Canada’s website is translated into both English and French. Hong Kong public transit announcements are made in both English and Cantonese. In New Zealand, court opening and closing announcements are made in both English and Maori. In Finland, only about 5 percent of the population speak Swedish but you can use either Swedish or Finnish for official state business.
You can also find examples closer to home, as most U.S. territories have similar tension between two official languages.
In Puerto Rico, Spanish is taught in schools and English is taken by all students as a second language. Local court proceedings are generally conducted in Spanish and federal courts in English. On a smaller scale on Guam, where most people speak English, the island’s airport includes signs and announcements in both English and Chamorro.
Politicians are already calling for legislation to address the issue. Sen. Kai Kahele and Rep. Kaniela Ing are both backing bills to explicitly allow people to speak Hawaiian in court.
There are also measures in both chambers to add Hawaiian language to traffic signs and to translate the constitution into Hawaiian. It’s unclear how much that would cost, but another measure to translate the constitution and other parts of the Judiciary’s website that failed last year sought to appropriate $25,000.
Ing is also behind a measure that would create a preference for people with basic Hawaiian language proficiency in state jobs related to public information.
“If there are two people that are equally qualified if one was a Hawaiian language speaker they would have a slight advantage,” Ing says. “That way folks are encouraged to learn the language as not just this novelty or badge of pride, it’s actually functional.”
Kaʻeo also wants the language to be functional, but focuses less on the fact that the language is “official.”
“Honestly I don’t see it as important as other people. Even if it wasn’t in the state constitution, I would still demand as a human right that we as Hawaiians in Hawaii, in our own courts, talking about our own lands, we have a right as Hawaiians to use Hawaiian language,” he says.
“If I got to go to jail for speaking Hawaiian in 2018, then something is wrong with the system.”