Lānaʻi’s Landmark Clarabal Case a Turning Point for ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi Advocacy


By Sharla Manley and Camille Kalama

For the first time, in August 2019, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court addressed Hawaiian language rights in a landmark decision, Clarabal v. Department of Education, and ruled that the state has a constitutional duty to provide a Hawaiian language immersion education in our public school system.

The Clarabal decision made it clear that offering Hawaiian language classes as a second language or providing an after-school Hawaiian language program is simply not enough to accomplish the constitutional mandate of reviving ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. Reviving ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi means that the language is “actively spoken and no longer in danger of extinction,” the court ruled.

Today, ʻōlelo Hawai‘i is classified as a severely endangered language by international authorities, one step away from extinction and in need of immediate remedial action.

If we understand the history of how ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi became critically endangered, we also understand the critical role that the public education system of Hawaiʻi serves in its revitalization. Before arriving at its watershed ruling, the Clarabal decision reckons with the suppression of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi as part and parcel of the colonization of Hawaiʻi.

The decision acknowledges the initial prevalence of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in the Hawaiian nation. Hawaiʻi’s public school system, originally created by Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, in 1840, and administered entirely in the Hawaiian language at its inception, was the first of its kind established west of the Mississippi River. It grew to over 200 Hawaiian medium education schools prior to 1893 when the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown, and the provisional government banned educating Hawaiʻi’s children in the Hawaiian language.

For almost 100 years, Hawaiian language was not used in our public school system.

Then, the people of Hawaiʻi in 1978 amended the State Constitution so as to recognize the Hawaiian language as a state official language, and to require the state to provide a program of Hawaiian education to revive ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. After years of grassroots efforts and lobbying, the first Hawaiian language immersion program was introduced in the public schools in 1986.

The Clarabal decision also vindicates the incredible efforts of those in our community who had the foresight and the tenacity to begin Hawaiian language immersion programs in the 1980s. For too long, Hawaiian language immersion programs were wrongly considered to be mere special programs. Under the Clarabal decision, these programs are the constitutional minimum.

That these programs constitute the standard of care for the Hawaiian education constitutional mandate is underscored by the Clarabal decision’s firm rejection of the proposition that the state could meet the Hawaiian education mandate in the state constitution by using a combination of after-school classes, computer programs, and traditional language classes. Clarabal v. Department of Education, 145 Haw. 69, 86 n. 37 (2019).

The Department of Education (DOE) asserts that a teacher shortage is an obstacle to meeting this mandate. However, the high court’s determination that a kula kaiapuni program is required is not so easily excused. The Clarabal decision identified some efforts that should be taken, such as offering incentives to attract teachers.

Months after its issuance, the Clarabal decision was cited by the DOE and the board of education in support a new pay incentive of $8,000 annually as a premium to attract Hawaiian language immersion teachers. This incentive was instituted in 2020 and is included in House Bill 613 currently awaiting Gov. Ige’s signature.

For the Clarabal family, nearly seven years have passed since they turned to the court for relief for their keiki on Lānaʻi. The case is currently on remand back at the circuit court. Trial is scheduled for the week of Nov. 15, 2021.

This case could never have achieved the result it did were it not for all those who came before and all who have continued to teach, learn, build and support kula kaiapuni programs for over 30 years.

Sharla Manley and Camille Kalama, who have handled a variety of Native Hawaiian rights cases, represent the Clarabal ʻohana in this matter.