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Even Without Interpreter, Hawaiian Judge Brings A Message


There's a court case in Hawaii that is drawing a lot of attention, not just for the reason the defendants are on trial but because they're insisting on giving their testimony in their native Hawaiian language. Now the trial has been put on hold so the judge, who does not speak the language, can be provided an interpreter. One of the plaintiffs in the case, Kahookahi Kanuha joins us from the Big Island in Hawaii. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAHOOKAHI KANUHA: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MARTIN: We should explain that you are part of a group of activists who are on trial for blocking the construction of a large telescope on a mountain that native Hawaiians hold sacred. You are fluent in English. Why is it important, in this case, to testify in Hawaiian?

KANUHA: Hawaiian is ultimately my strongest language. It's my language of preference. It has been the primary language of my education since preschool - and I mean that all the way from preschool through elementary to middle school through high school and in through college. And so what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to - I'm trying to show that the language is alive. And it's about time that Hawaiian be truly recognized, at the very least, as an equal language to English. And so one way to do that, I think, is to prove, in the courts, that I do not need to ask for an interpreter. And that's why the case has been postponed. It is the judge who cannot communicate in my preferred language, which just so happens to be an official language of the state of Hawaii.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that more than a generation ago, the Hawaiian language was almost gone. It had almost been wiped out.


MARTIN: What brought it back? What's to account for the resurgence?

KANUHA: Yeah, so in the early 1980s, actually, it was estimated that there were less than 50 speakers under the age of 18. It was almost guaranteed - approximately guaranteed - that within - within 20 to 30 years, perhaps, the language would be dead. And so what they did was they implemented a preschool system, and it's known as Aha Punana Leo. And as the kids graduated from preschool, those families wanted them to continue their education in Hawaiian language. And that's what created that push and the pressure for the implementation of Hawaiian immersion programs and ultimately, within the last 30 years, we have taken those numbers from less than 50 to about 8,000 or so.

MARTIN: Does that mean that people live in this language? I mean, it's one thing to learn it in a classroom or even be fluent. Do people live in Hawaiian? Do you hear it on the street, in the stores?

KANUHA: Yes, now we do. Now we do because we have - we have students who went through the program who are now parents. And they are raising their kids in Hawaiian. They're not taking their kids to school to learn Hawaiian. They're taking their kids to school to continue their Hawaiian. But Hawaiian is their first language. And they are using it - and like you said - they are living the language. It is not something that they use for a certain time of the day. It's not something that they use on certain days of the week. It is the primary language of the household. It's the primary language of their life.

MARTIN: Do you think this - the fact that your case is going to have to be argued through an interpreter - is there a chance this might hurt your case?

KANUHA: As far as I'm concerned, no. My opinion is that my case is strengthened. My case is solidified because I - as a Hawaiian standing up for my Hawaiian heritage, for my Hawaiian nationality, for my Hawaiian identity - can defend myself in my Hawaiian language, as well.

MARTIN: Kahookahi Kanuha, he goes on trial soon for blocking the construction of a telescope on Hawaii's tallest peak. Thanks so much for talking with us.

KANUHA: (Speaking Hawaiian) I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.