The Setting    

The very first American Court House erected on the Island of Kaua’i was built in 1837, with complete awareness and intention on the top of the bulldozed ruins of what was the oldest heiau on this Island.

Heiau were (and those that remain are) sacred stone enclosures for Native Hawaiian ritual and spiritual practice, prayer and ceremony.  Every heiau was built in alignment with the planets and the stars – with an ancient people’s sophisticated awareness of the night sky.  Each heiau sat within full view of the ocean horizon.

These sacred stone walls, built without mortar and standing tough for thousands of years, were deliberately destroyed to make way for an American claim on another nation.

After Calvinist missionaries built on the oldest heiau, they created and enforced laws that for almost 150 years denied Native Hawaiians:  the right to speak their language in public; the right to name their children a Hawaiian first name (it had to be Christian); the right to use herbs and plants for healing; and the right to dance the authentic hula, which was prayer (never entertainment).

Only since 1972 may Native Hawaiians legally speak and name, plant and heal, dance and pray.  They may do these things – but they no longer can.  Cannot, because of colonial dishonoring and outright destruction of heiau, fishing beds, forests, land, and ocean; because of a two-century gap in genealogically transmitted knowledge; and because they have been shamed.

The imposed government outgrew their first Court House many times over.  In August 2005, the county of Kaua’i dedicated a new and extravagant $42 million “Judiciary Complex,” housing the United States courtrooms and the jail.

Now when you arrive by airplane on this lush tropical Island and leave the lovely, open-air, welcoming airport, you encounter first, this bulwark of the American judicial system.  Before you see the inescapable ocean, mountains, or banana trees, you see this out-of-scale Judiciary Complex.

‘Iokepa Hanalei ‘Īmaikalani says succinctly of the huge investment of much-needed public money:  “For some people, this building is reassuring – it makes them feel safe.   For others, it’s the death of a culture.”

Thursday, February 10, 2010. 10:00 a.m.        

It was to this building that ‘Iokepa drove the 1998 Subaru from the Northwest edge of the Island to its center, an hour drive, with no driver’s license. It was in the doorway of this building that ‘Iokepa and I passed through security gates, temporarily relinquishing my purse and his belt, and made our way to the District Court for ‘Iokepa’s trial.

Oh, there were warnings aplenty, from sidewalk lawyers and real ones.  His was an argument, they said, that could not be made in an American courtroom. There could be no precedent.

But it was an argument that innumerable friends and supporters prayed would be heard.  Dozens of phone messages filled our usually quiet cell phone in the 24 hours before the trial.  Dozens of emails filled the Return Voyage box.  They sounded much the same:  “Tell me the hour of the trial – I will be with you.”  Truly we felt that safety net of affection and faith.

For his “crime,” ‘Iokepa faced thirty days in jail, several thousand dollars in fines, and abundant court fees.   We’d had, of course, no predictable source of income for thirteen years – our total worth on the day of the trial was twenty-four dollars and pocket change.

There were seven trials on the court docket this day.  ‘Iokepa’s case was called fourth.  He followed a child mauled by a dog, and a kid who had skipped out on his first court date.  I don’t remember the third.   Each was represented by an attorney.

When his turn came, ‘Iokepa walked through the gate that separated the spectator from the accused.  He stood with his back to the seats behind; his shoulders squared; his almost waist-length silver hair shining under the fluorescent lights; his light brown eyes riveted on the judge.  He articulated his full name clearly – because even in Hawai’i (especially in Hawai’i) Hawaiian names are most often mispronounced.

The judge, a middle aged woman asked crisply, “Do you have an attorney?”

‘Iokepa answered clearly, “I do not.”

The judge said, “You should!”

He answered, “I won’t need one.”

“Do you want to hear the maximum punishment?”

“I’d rather hear the minimum.”

He explained.  “I’m not an American; I’m a Hawaiian, in my culture, with my people, on my Island.  There is law, and there is justice.  I’m asking for justice.”

She responded, “I want you and the prosecuting attorney to spend a few minutes together outside the courtroom and see if you can work this out. “

The courtroom sat in absolute silence and waited.  The judge appeared to read documents submitted to the court including ‘Iokepa’s written description of our life and service. She checked her watch repeatedly.  I smiled to myself, absolutely certain that ‘Iokepa’s words were filling those conference minutes. After a half an hour, the judge asked the court officer to bring the two men back.

‘Iokepa spoke his last words quietly to the prosecuting attorney in the doorway to the courtroom.  I barely overheard him.  He said “I know that you’ll do the right thing.”             It’s a funny thing about those words that I’ve heard ‘Iokepa speak before – even to a K-Mart manager about a defective, past-warranty beach chair.  He says:   “Those words make a person responsible.”

From those words spoken in the doorway, to the table twenty-five feet away, the young prosecuting attorney, with shaking voice, recommended that the judge drop all charges other than the absent driver’s license – and for that offense,  he asked only twenty-one hours of community service, plus court fees – no jail, no fine.

The judge invited ‘Iokepa to speak.

He began to describe our lives and its purpose.

“For thirteen years my wife and I have lived what the prosecuting attorney requires.  Our life is ‘community service’ and that won’t change regardless of what this court decides.”

The judge shook her head in the affirmative. “Yes, I believe that’s everybody’s duty; I walk the beaches and pick up trash.” ‘Iokepa answered her.  “Picking up opala – trash – is a good thing and necessary.  But when I speak of community service, it’s this.  My wife and I lived in tents in the public parks for ten years among alcoholics and drug dealers, spousal and child abuse – the results of oppression.  We did not get out of the tent and lecture people – we live so as to offer an alternative.  I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t use profane language.

“I’ve stood in the middle of two men about to fight, and I’ve reminded them that this is not how their ancestors would have handled it.  And you know, these men no longer fight, no longer drink.

“I call this ‘community service.’  I’ve never taken a paycheck.  That is the culture I represent, taking responsibility for all people in all circumstances.  This is our walk of faith.  And it will continue whatever happens here today.”  ‘Iokepa told the judge, “I didn’t walk in here alone.  My ancestors are here, and your ancestors are here.”

The judge grinned.

‘Iokepa considered the prosecuting attorney’s recommendation for punishment and he said, “I don’t think that I can do better.”

The judge disagreed.  She prodded ‘Iokepa to continue the trial, call up the police witness who’d issued the ticket. “Because the prosecutor might miss something and then I can dismiss this case.”

‘Iokepa declined the offer.

In the end, the judge (who looked a great deal like the new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor) said, “Thank you.  I wish there were more people who felt like you do.   I appreciate your statement.  I apologize…I don’t have a way to do more…”

And then the court clerk picked up the ball and reminded the judge that the mandated minimum $77 court fees could be reduced in this case for some legal reason.  The judge laughed, looked at ‘Iokepa, and said:  “We just saved you $40 – the court fees will be $37.”

‘Iokepa answered:  “Give that to me in cash, and we can all go to lunch.”                                 Not one soul in that courtroom suggested or implied that he should get a drivers license or discontinue driving until he had one.  Not one, not once.

It was obvious that the courtroom had been won over – judge, clerk, bailiff, prosecuting attorney, and spectators – all paying deep attention, all smiles afterwards.  ‘Iokepa had touched them.  But he saw it differently: “It was the grandmothers.”


Afterward ‘Iokepa said, “I felt shot out of a rocket…the adrenaline.  It was like the song you’ve never sung before, but you know the words.  I felt that building needed something from the ancestors.”

Afterward, a dear friend who’d warned us of the impossibility of ‘Iokepa entering the lion’s den and exiting unscathed, expressed his awe:  “You entered their turf – a U.S. courtroom – on your terms.”

My husband and I sometimes disagree – vigorously.  For the past three months, I awaited with extreme anxiety the results of this trial:  none of which I could foresee would be to our advantage.  My anxiety deeply annoyed and distracted ‘Iokepa, whose faith in the protection of his ancestors is bullet-proof.  One week before the trial, I surrendered that anxiety.  I agreed that, whatever the outcome, it would be purposeful.

After a full three months of anticipation, I am struggling to let Thursday’s events sink in.  Hence my uncertainty, still, about which are the essential words among so many to be reported here.

‘Iokepa, on the other hand, is nothing but excited to be used, as the court intimated, in those 21 hours – speaking to and for those most in need of his words.                                        In truth, for both ‘Iokepa and for me, this small victory for human decency is just that – small.  The morning after, he awakened and reminded me, “We have a prophecy to fulfill, and it speaks to freedom and responsibility – for all people.”

I could say more, but I won’t.