On Jan. 24 the legal system performed a miracle. The District Court in Maui made a man disappear before the watchful eyes of the Hawaiian community. And, the court did it using the verbal incantations of the law.

A Hawaiian man was denied his constitutional right to speak his native language in the District Court. By now everyone knows that the olelo Hawaii is the native language here. Hawaiian is the “official” language of the state of Hawaii protected by the Hawaii State Constitution, Article XV§4. Therefore, all rational thinking citizens expect the state’s constitution and laws to protect Hawaiian language and the culture it carries.

On Jan. 24, Maui District Court Judge Blaine Kobayashi refused to acknowledge the man’s right to speak Hawaiian in court. The judge’s decision and actions that day failed the constitution, the man and the people of Hawaii.

Also on that day, the Maui County prosecutor failed the people of Hawaii when she neglected her professional and ethical duty to protect the Hawaiian language from Judge Kobayashi’s ill-advised, unconstitutional decision.

Olelo Hawaii demonstrators hold Hawaiian flags fronting Aliiolani Hale.

Olelo Hawaii demonstrators hold Hawaiian flags fronting Aliiolani Hale on the 125th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Jan. 24 the constitutionally protected rights of all Hawaiians were rejected and the Hawaiian language paid the greatest price. The judge denied the man’s right to speak Hawaiian and made the man invisible to the court. The only way the man could reveal himself to the judge was to utter the magic, and somehow sacred, words of the English language.

No English meant that the man would be silenced and erased from the courts consciousness. Though the man was physically present, his Hawaiian language made him legally, socially and politically invisible. Oh, the power of law and those who wield it.

Here are the facts of the court hearing as reported by our community observers:

  • Judge Kobayashi started the trial by telling the man to “identify in fact that your name is Samuel Kaeo.”
  • The man stood and politely spoke in Hawaiian acknowledging the judge saying, “eia no au ke kū nei ma mua ou.” 
  • Judge Kobayashi then told the man, “I do not know what that means Mr. Kaeo, what you just said.”
  • Judge Kobayashi repeated his question and said, “Iʻm going to give you another opportunity Mr. Kaeo to identify yourself.”
  • The man explained with more detail and identified himself to the judge in Hawaiian.   
  • Not understanding the man’s Hawaiian statements, the judge looked past the man and asked his court officer to go into the hallway and look for the man known as Samuel Kaeo. The court officer left then returned and said, “There was no answer.”
  • The judge then told everyone in the room: “the court is unable to get a definitive determination for the record that the defendant seated in the court is Mr. Samuel Kaeo.”
  • Finally, the judge issued a bench warrant and asked the prosecutor to recommend a fine. The prosecutor recommended “$250 for each count.” The order was made and the hearing abruptly ended.

Apparently, the courtroom is a place where Hawaiians go to disappear. How? By simply speaking Hawaiian.

There Is No Greater Pain

This is the tragedy of the time. All who believe in Hawaiian language and Hawaiian self-determination, and all who believe in justice and equal rights, must take heed. The law today cancelled the life of a Hawaiian man for being Hawaiian.

There is no greater pain; no greater form of ethnocide than reducing a person to nothingness and the court did it in the blink of an eye. The judge and the officers of the court acted without remorse because the law facilitated and sanctified their belligerent acts.

The man’s name is Samuel Kaleikoa Kaeo. He has a name, a family, and a lineage that connects him to the lands of Maui. He is a human being. But he is a Hawaiian who speaks his language and today those facts made him erroneous and wrong in the eyes of the law.

Kaleikoa’s legal invisibility created by the court means he has no right to be treated with the dignity and humanity like every other citizen. In other words, his Hawaiian language makes him neither a man nor human; he is just an “other.” And, if the court can legally treat Kaleikoa as irrelevant to society then all other Hawaiians will surely suffer the same fate. To believe otherwise is foolishness.

“Hawaiian people make up a nation of wonderful, complicated, flawed and vibrant people.”

Even as the Judiciary attempts to right the wrong of this courtroom debacle questions remain whether Hawaiian language will ever be as equal as the state constitution promised. Maui Prosecutor John Kim said as much when he wrote in an email that the case “is not about race or culture, this is about economics and the administration of the courts daily process.”

The daily process that the prosecutors are advocating seems to encourage further invisibility even though the state judiciary is saying that they will commit to Hawaiian language by creating new rules. These contradictions tell us that even within their own ranks the government lawyers and judges can’t seem to understand the value and constitutionality of Hawaiian language being on the same equal footing as English. For their needs and purpose, English must always have power over Hawaiian. And so, Hawaiian will, in many ways, be reduced to a cultural pantomime hidden by English’s clamoring courtroom performances.

Hawaiian people are not invisible. Hawaiian people make up a nation of wonderful, complicated, flawed and vibrant people. Hawaiian people are a lahui (a “nation”). Looking back at this past week’s courtroom drama it is obvious that the only thing invisible was justice. Sadly, in the courtroom where the rights of all are supposedly protected, justice for Hawaiians was nowhere to be found.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author