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Traffic ticket spurs fight over state services in Hawaiian language

By Jonathan Kaminsky

(Reuters) - A Hawaiian-language activist unable to renew his driver's license after addressing Honolulu motor-vehicle officials in his traditional tongue is using a traffic court case to push for the hiring of more Hawaiian speakers in government posts.

Daniel Anthony, 35, does not contest that he was speeding when he was pulled over on Oahu in January. But he says he was driving without a license only because his had lapsed five years earlier when multiple attempts to renew it by speaking to Department of Motor Vehicles officials in Hawaiian ended in blank stares and derisive laughter.

"You can't live in Hawaii without speaking Hawaiian. Our everyday language is littered with it," Anthony said. "But use it formally and you're shunned in our official community."

Anthony, who is next due to appear in court for the pending traffic case on August 28, argues in part that Hawaiian's status as an official language enshrined in the state constitution means that government agencies must be equipped to engage with Hawaiian-speaking residents.

His case is part of a multi-faceted movement to revitalize traditional Hawaiian language, culture and political power that has gained traction in recent years, said John Rosa, an assistant professor of history at the University of Hawaii who specializes in 20th century Hawaii.

While the state has two official languages, Rosa said, official business has long been conducted in English, with Hawaiian generally reserved for ceremonial occasions.

Anthony said encouraging state and local officials to hire Hawaiian speakers will make learning the language more appealing to young Hawaiians. Among the beneficiaries, he said, would be his own children, who attend Hawaiian-language charter schools.

"I truly believe that the work I am doing will make a stronger Hawaiian community in the future, will give value to the language they are trained in and will hopefully help them prosper," Anthony said.

Hawaii court records show that since 1997, Anthony has had 28 traffic court cases. He said that during the late 1990s he intentionally violated traffic laws so that he could go to court and demand to be heard in Hawaiian.

His most recent moving violation, he said, was not born of activism. But now that he is back in court, he said, he intends to press his case. A state Department of Transportation spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Hawaii State Judiciary spokeswoman Marsha Kitagawa said Anthony's request for an interpreter in his current case has been granted, but points to court records showing past instances where he has engaged the court in English.

Traffic court aside, this is not Anthony's first fight with Hawaiian officialdom. In 2009, he co-founded a company that uses traditional methods to make poi, a Hawaiian staple food made from mashing taro plant stems and mixing them with water.

When the Hawaii State Department of Health objected to his use of wood and stone to mash the plants as well as the traditional attire he wears in the kitchen, Anthony took his fight to the state legislature.

In 2011, Hawaiian lawmakers passed a law exempting poi makers from most state health regulations, provided they follow certain rules and include a warning label on their products.

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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