HONOLULU (AP) — Three people arrested for blocking telescope construction crews on a mountain held sacred by Native Hawaiians want to testify at their upcoming trials in Hawaiian.
Even though Hawaiian is one of the state's official languages, court cases are primarily conducted in English, with interpreters provided for those who speak other languages.
The three cases were postponed as court officials arrange for Hawaiian interpreters.
During the 2014 fiscal year, there were seven cases that used Hawaiian interpreters, according to the state Judiciary. In fiscal 2010 there were three cases.
For one of the defendants, Kahookahi Kanuha, it's about defending himself in the language he's most comfortable speaking. "It's been the primary language of my education since preschool," he said in English. "I speak Hawaiian about 80 percent of my life."
Kanuha said he's not the one requesting an interpreter— it's the judge because she can't speak Hawaiian. "I'm proficient in both languages," he said. "If the courts want to go ahead and send an interpreter, that's fine. ... I should not have to receive permission to speak Hawaiian in court. It is my right. We're 35 years into the Hawaiian language revitalization movement."
His desire to testify in Hawaiian represents how a language that was destined to disappear has flourished, said Puakea Nogelmeier, a Hawaiian language professor at the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus.
The judiciary of the Hawaiian Kingdom operated in Hawaiian, he said. In 1893, a group of American businessmen overthrew the kingdom, with support from U.S. Marines.
A bill passed in 1896 that made English the only language of instruction in schools, Nogelmeier said: "By 1970 it was estimated the language would be dead in 10 years. Just a handful of children were being raised in Hawaiian-speaking families."
A movement fought to change that, and the law regarding English-only instruction was changed in the mid-1980s, he said.
Kanuha was one of the students who benefited from the movement and received a Hawaiian-language immersion education.
According to the most recent Census data available for 2009-2013, 5.7 percent of the state's residents spoke Hawaiian at home.
Momi Fernandez, of Papa Ola Lokahi, a designated Census Information Center, said that data doesn't fully represent the amount of Hawaiian speakers. She said the amount is closer to 30 percent when children and those of all levels of proficiency are counted.
While Kanuha said he's not asking to testify in Hawaiian to prove a point, he said it's also about honoring the essence of his protest on the Big Island's Mauna Kea, which he described as the "suppression of the Hawaiian identity."
He was arrested in April and in June, when he and other protesters blocked crews attempting to build the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope from accessing the construction site near Mauna Kea's summit. Opponents cite a range of reasons they are against the project — including curbing development, preventing desecration and asserting Native Hawaiian cultural and religious rights.
"The struggle for Mauna Kea is connected to the struggle of the revitalization of the Hawaiian language," Kanuha said.
Nogelmeier, who was born in San Francisco, raised in Minnesota and doesn't have Hawaiian ancestry, learned to become fluent in the language after arriving in Hawaii in 1972. "You don't have to be Hawaiian to care," he said. "This is Hawaii and this is the language of the place."
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