In January, a Maui district judge issued a bench warrant for the arrest of a University of Hawai‘i professor after he repeatedly responded to the judge in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i during a court hearing, a case that drew national attention and sparked outrage from the Native Hawaiian community.

In a statement, OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamana‘opono Crabbe said the agency was “disturbed and offended” that UH professor Kaleikoa Ka‘eo was prohibited from speaking Hawaiian in court and was nearly arrested.

Photo: Kaleikoa Ka‘eo
Kaleikoa Ka‘eo was denied the right to defend himself in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. Pictured: Ka‘eo at the East Maui Taro Festival. – Photo: Alice Silbanuz

“Punishing Native Hawaiians for speaking our native language evokes 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. We demand that the State Judiciary find an immediate solution to this issue.”

The next day, the judge recalled the bench warrant without explanation. But the incident raised questions about what legal protections are provided to the Hawaiian language as a constitutionally- recognized language of the state. While the state Judiciary said it would review its policies regarding Hawaiian language interpreters, it insisted that “there is no legal requirement to provide Hawaiian language interpreters to court participants who speak English but prefer to speak in Hawaiian.”

The incident led to a number of rallies across to state in support of ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, and lawmakers committed to introduce legislation to resolve the issue.

Crabbe said that the incident served as a “wake-up call” for many in the Hawaiian language community. “The only way for the Hawaiian language to fully thrive once again is by ensuring that it can be spoken in as many spaces as possible, not just at home, but also in schools, in businesses, and, especially, in the courtroom,” he said.