Stab Magazine | Hawaii's Hawaiian Problem

Hawaii’s Hawaiian Problem

Hawaiian Judge issues warrant for University of Hawaii professor for speaking Hawaiian in court.

news // Jan 30, 2018
Words by stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

“I don’t know what that means, Mr. Kaeo,” said Judge Blaine Kobayashi last Wednesday, shortly before issuing a $750 fine and bench warrant for his arrest. (Which many were justifiably confused by, as Kaeo was sitting right there.)

Kaleikoa Kaeo, a professor at the University of Hawaii on Maui, was in court facing charges relating to his involvement in an August 2017 protest, of the construction of a massive new telescope at the summit of Maui’s Mount Haleakala. 

When Judge Kobayashi asked Kaeo if he was present, the professor and activist responded in ʻŌlelo Hawaiian, his native language, and one of the official languages of the State of Hawaii.

For reasons that remain unclear, after Kaeo responded multiple times, Judge Kobayashi responded by issuing a bench warrant, “since the court is unable to get a definitive determination for the record that the defendant seated in court.”

Kaeo was quick to point out that he had sat in front of the Judge on at least 15 previous occasions, leading Kaeo and his supporters to assert that the decision was racially motivated.

The warrant and fine were withdrawn without explanation the following day.

“The idea of [Hawaiians] being invisible is nothing new,” said Kaeo at a rally on Friday afternoon. “What we witnessed in the courtroom on Wednesday is nothing new. It’s not about the Judge, I want you guys to realize this. Yes, you can point the finger at Judge Kobayashi, but even if we change Judge Kobayashi, it does not change the system of racism and sexism that exists in Hawaii. It’s a systemic problem in which they silence our voices. They treat us as if we’re not human beings, as if we don’t know what’s best for our people.”

Judge Kobayashi’s controversial move in the courtroom has sparked outrage and appears to have left the state in a bit of a legal gray area.

The Hawaiian State Judiciary issued a statement saying, “There is no legal requirement to provide Hawaiian language interpreters to court participants who speak English, but prefer to speak in Hawaiian. In those cases, Judges have the discretion to grant or deny a request for an interpreter.”

By Friday, the Judiciary announced a policy change. It would provide interpreters to those seeking to speaking Hawaiian in court “to the extent reasonably possible.”

They noted the new policy takes effect immediately.

Meanwhile, Hawaii State Representative Kaniela Ing posted his response to Facebook.

“This is what they used to do to our kapuna,” said Ing (all sic). “You criminalize our native tongue so you get too scared to use it, which chips away at our culture, and actually almost eradicate our culture until some brave folks in our parents’ generation brought forth the Hawaiian renaissance, but to think in 2018 that this Hawaiian practitioner is getting forced to use the language of what he considers his oppressor is just wrong on so many levels.” 

Ing plans on submitting a bill to address the issue in greater detail. It’s worth noting, that there is only one Hawaiian interpreter in the state officially recognized to serve as a court interpreter. In the case of Kaeo’s situation, the cost of said interpreter is believed to be approximately $70.

On the flip side of the coin, proponents of the judge’s actions argue that if Kaeo was able to speak English he should have done so.

“This gentleman is clearly and unequivocally, remarkably, proficient in the English language and what he’s using this for is to follow up in the type of protest that he had on Haleakala,” said former prosecutor Peter Carlisle. 

Kaeo was one of a half-dozen protesters arrested during the August 2017 Haleakala protest, which drew hundreds of activists and locals to prevent construction crews from getting to the top of the sacred mountain. 

Kaeo is facing petty misdemeanors charges for Disorderly Conduct, obstructing a sidewalk, and disobedience to police officers.

 “It’s really important that we stand up and speak out and take heart when something like this happens,” noted Ing. 

“The only ones that can free us from this dehumanization is us working together.” says Kaeo, who’s conviction and dedication to his people has only been reinforced since last week’s incident.



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