A judge in Hawaii has issued a warrant for the arrest of Maui resident and activist Kaleikoa Kaʻeo because he tried to communicate in his native Hawaiian language during court proceedings. Both English and Hawaiian are official languages in Hawaii.
When Judge Blaine Kobayashi asked if he was present in court, Ka’eo responded by saying, “eia no wau ke ku nei,” which means, “here I am standing here,” according to Hawaii Public Radio.
Video recorded during the hearing shows the judge responding by saying, “I don’t know what that means.”
Since Judge Kobayashi didn’t understand what Kaʻeo was saying, he declared the defendant was “Not Present,” according to Maui Now, and issued a warrant for his arrest, saying he had failed to appear in court.
Kaʻeo was in court facing three petty misdemeanors related to his arrest at a 2017 protest against the construction of a telescope atop Haleakalā, a mountain which Native Hawaiians consider a sacred space.
Ka‘eo is currently an associate professor of Hawaiian Studies at The University of Hawai‘i in Maui. Before teaching in Maui, he was a lecturer in the Hawaiian language at The University of Hawai‘i in Manoa.
A request had been made for an interpreter in the courtroom, but prosecutors objected, arguing it was an unnecessary expense because Ka‘eo could speak English and that there is no legal requirement to provide an interpreter, according to The Associated Press.
“I do not want to be held in contempt of court. I don’t wanna be fined. I don’t want to go to jail for this,” Ka’eo told Hawaii Public Radio. “But if there’s any reason for me, Kaleikoa Ka’eo, to go to jail, it would be to defend our right as a people to speak our language in our own homeland.”
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a statewide agency led by elected officials who are charged with improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians, said it was disturbed by the judge’s decision. “It is disappointing that the state government continues to place barriers on ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, 40 years after Hawaii’s constitution was amended to recognize the Hawaiian language as an official language of the state,” OHA executive director Kamanaʻopono Crabbe said in a statement.