UPDATE: A few hours after this post went up, the Hawaii Judiciary announced that it had recalled the bench warrant against Kaleikoa Ka‘eo. Here’s their statement in full:
HONOLULU, HI – This morning, Maui District Court Judge Blaine Kobayashi issued an order recalling the bench warrant in State v. Samuel Kaleikoa Kaeo, case number 2DCW-17-0002038. Therefore, Mr. Kaeo is not subject to arrest. In addition, a hearing has been scheduled regarding the use of a Hawaiian language interpreter.
The Judiciary will be reviewing its policies regarding the provision of Hawaiian language interpreters.
Here’s my original story:
All Kaleikoa Ka‘eo wanted to do was speak Hawaiian in court. It’s a reasonable request. But the fact that a judge found the request unreasonable means that on Friday, Jan. 26, from 3-5pm, activists will gather at the steps of the Old Wailuku Courthouse to, as they put it, “stand for our right to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i.”
At issue are the actions of Judge Blaine Kobayashi during a Jan. 24 court hearing for Samuel Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, an assistant professor of Hawaiian Studies at UH Maui College and activist. The Maui Police Department had arrested Ka‘eo (and five others) back on Aug. 20, 2017 for allegedly blocking a convoy of vehicles loaded with construction equipment headed to the new Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope that will sit atop the Haleakala summit. Ka‘eo, who pleaded not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct, says the telescope doesn’t belong on the summit, which Hawaiians consider to be sacred.
Ka‘eo had already asked Kobayashi for the use of a Hawaiian language translator. Though he speaks English, Ka‘eo said he could best carry out his legal defense in Hawaiian. “There are things you can say in Hawaiian that you know really express through our cultural view of why it’s important for us to defend our sacred sites,” Ka‘eo said in this Jan. 24 Hawaii Public Radio story.
Given that Hawaiian is an official state language in Hawaii, this should not have been a problem. But it was, according to a Jan. 25, 2018 article in The Maui News.
“In making the request, the prosecution noted that Ka‘eo, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii Maui College, is fluent in English,” stated the story. “The prosecution also said requiring an interpreter in the case ‘would cause needless delay in the trial process and an unnecessary expense for the judiciary.”
Though Kobayashi sided with the prosecution, Ka‘eo chose not to speak English when Kobayashi asked him to identify himself in court on Jan. 24. The result was that Kobayashi then issued a $750 bench warrant for Ka‘eo’s arrest after saying, “The court is unable to get a definitive determination for the record that the defendant seated in court is Mr. Samuel Kaeo,” according to the Jan. 25 Maui News.
Minutes after Kobayashi issued the bench warrant, Ka‘eo spoke to his supporters gathered outside the courthouse (his remarks were recorded and posted to Facebook). Far from dejected, Ka‘eo saw Kobayashi’s ruling as an opportunity for further action.
“I say it’s a tragedy but it’s also important that these events happen because when it does, it does wake up the people, to really see what people think,” Ka‘eo said. “The revitalization of our language took a lot of work to get back to the point where it is today. The destruction of our language was something that was purposely done to our people by those who profited off our oppression for all these years.”
It’s easy to forget that the Hawaiian language was banned for nearly a century following the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom (following great Hawaiian activism and effort throughout the 1970s, it was finally reinstated as an official state language in 1978). The reason for prohibiting the language had been simple: the whites who took over Hawaii wanted to stamp out all traces of the Hawaiian culture, and that started with their language.
And while Ka‘eo spoke English outside the courtroom, that isn’t the point. Ka‘eo said that he had a right to conduct his legal defense in Hawaiian, and given the status of Hawaiian in the State of Hawaii, the courts had the obligation to provide a translator.
“Hawaiians are becoming a lot more educated, fearless in our demands that we be treated as human beings,” Ka‘eo said after Kobayashi’s ruling. “The language is the core of all the economic and political struggles to move our people forward.”
There is also tremendous hypocrisy in Kobayashi’s action–hypocrisy David Uahikeaikalei‘ohu Maile, a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, noted on Twitter following yesterday’s action.
“The HI settler state can & does appropriate Hawaiian language, as it pleases, in a gross dual process that simultaneously plays Hawaiian, to settle HI & market tourism, while also criminalizing Kānaka Maoli for speaking our ‘ōlelo makuahine, our native mother tongue, in Hawai‘i,” he said.
The result is bad precedent: condescending and ignorant overuse of uniquely Hawaiian concepts like Aloha are fine when performed by the state and the tourist industry, but an activist who wants his legal defense conducted in Hawaiian presents an “unnecessary expense” on the taxpayers. If Ka‘eo can’t get a translator, then Hawaiian’s status as an “official language” in Hawaii has no meaning.
Given Hawaii’s bloody and ugly post-contact history, Kobayashi’s action is nothing less than a call to arms. Indeed, Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) CEO Kamana‘opono Crabbe wasted no time in denouncing the ruling.
“The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is deeply disturbed and offended that Hawaiian studies assistant professor Kaleikoa Ka‘eo was prohibited from defending himself in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i during his court hearing today and that a bench warrant was issued for his arrest,” said Crabbe in this OHA statement issued on Jan. 24. “Punishing Native Hawaiians for speaking our native language invokes a disturbing era in Hawai‘i’s history when ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i was prohibited in schools, a form of cultural suppression that substantially contributed to the near extinction of the Hawaiian language.
“It is disappointing that the state government continues to place barriers on ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, 40 years after Hawai‘i’s constitution was amended to recognize the Hawaiian language as an official language of the state,” Crabbe continued. “We demand that the State Judiciary find an immediate solution to this issue.”
Given the speed with which activists are leaping to Ka‘eo’s defense, it’s hard to imagine how this gets better once Ka‘eo returns to Kobayashi’s courtroom. Even if Kobayashi reverses course and allows an interpreter, the issue has already taken root far outside courthouse, as tomorrow’s planned demonstration shows.
“I really don’t understand why it’s a huge problem,” Ka‘eo said. “It’s hard to fathom the idea; knowing the history, you’d think they’d be encouraging our people, not trying to continue the oppression of our peoples.”
Photo of Kaleikoa Ka‘eo courtesy OHA