The Role of Hawaiian Language Translation and Oral History in Inheritance and Land Rights Case
Probate cases often involve complex and contested issues of inheritance and land rights, especially in Hawaii where historical documents are written in the Hawaiian language and oral traditions are an important source of genealogical information. Our case for today illustrates the significant role that legal translators and the process of legal document translation play in such cases. This case (Makila Land Co. v. Heirs of Apaa) revolved around a dispute over the ownership of a parcel of land (āpana 1) in Kauaula Valley, Maui, which was awarded to Apaa by the Land Commission in 1857.
One of the pivotal issues in the case was an 1872 lease document written in the Hawaiian language that purportedly showed that Momona, who claimed to be Apaa’s son and heir, had leased two other parcels (āpana 2 and 3) of the same award to a third party. The plaintiff, Makila Land Co., relied on this Hawaiian-language document to support its claim of paper title to āpana 1 through Momona’s subsequent conveyance in 1892.
The defendant, Keeaumoku Kapu, challenged this claim by arguing that he was a lineal descendant of the original grantee Apaa through his widow Kekue, who had remarried after Apaa’s death and inherited the parcel.
Resolving Ambiguous Definition of “Father” in the Hawaiian Language
One of the key words that the court had to grapple with was “makuakane,” which appeared in that 1872 Hawaiian lease document as a term Momona used to describe Apaa. Makila Land presented evidence from two expert witnesses that “makuakane” translated best as “my own father,” which proved that Momona was Apaa’s son and heir, and that he had inherited all three parcels from Apaa by intestate succession.
However, Kapu challenged this interpretation by offering an alternate meaning of “makuakane” that includes other male relatives such as uncles or cousins. This interpretation was backed by the affidavit of his brother, Kalani Kapu, who was also proficient in the Hawaiian language and who testified that “makuakane” could have different meanings depending on the cultural context and perception. Kapu argued that the 1872 lease did not necessarily imply that Momona was Apaa’s son or that he had a valid inheritance claim to `āpana 1.
Conflicting Hawaiian Genealogies and Evidence
Another interesting aspect of this case is the role of family oral history as a form of admissible evidence in court. Kapu’s claim of genealogical descent from Kekue was supported by his family oral history, which was presented in court through the affidavit of his brother, Kalani Kapu. Kalani Kapu stated in his affidavit that he had spoken with the elders of his family and learned about their genealogy and land rights. The court accepted Kalani Kapu’s affidavit as an exception to the hearsay rule under Hawai`i Rules of Evidence (HRE) Rule 804, which allows for statements of personal or family history by an unavailable declarant.
Based on this history, Kapu argued that Kekue got the land from the Land Commission and from Apaa’s death, a claim backed by survey notes that named Kekue as the owner. Kapu also showed two genealogies that traced his descent from Kekue through her second husband’s family, who inherited and then passed down the land in question.
Makila Land challenged Kapu’s genealogies and argued that there was no evidence of how the land passed from Apaa to Kekue or to them. Makila Land also doubted Kapu’s grandmother’s legitimacy as an heir, since she was the brother’s granddaughter. The court thus had to consider conflicting genealogies and evidence of record ownership in determining the rightful claimant of `āpana 1.
Makila Land also argued that Kapu’s chain of title was unsupported by any other admissible evidence and characterized Kalani Kapu’s genealogical statements as inadmissible hearsay based on his deposition testimony that they were based on speaking with his family members. Makila Land also argued that the laws regarding illegitimacy precluded the intestate succession from John Manuia Kekai, Kapu’s great-grandfather and Haia Kekai’s son, to his daughter Julia Kealani Kapu, Kapu’s grandmother, who was allegedly born out of wedlock.
Defeating Summary Judgment through Hawaiian Oral History
Kapu opposed Makila Land’s multiple motions for summary judgment to dismiss his claim, arguing that he did not need to prove perfect title in order to contest Makila Land’s assertion of ownership. He relied on a precedent case (Alexander & Baldwin, Inc. v. Silva) to argue that a quiet title defendant only needs to present some evidence of a plausible claim to defeat summary judgment. He also cited this court’s opinion in Makila I, which had previously rejected Makila Land’s arguments regarding the admissibility of the Kalani Affidavit as hearsay.
Kapu further offered additional documents from the State Archives, such as foreign and native testimony, to support his claim that Kekue received the land from Apaa after his death and that he was a lineal descendant of Kekue through her second husband and his brother.
Throughout the motions, the court upheld the admissibility of the Kalani Affidavit, emphasizing the value of family oral history as an exception to the hearsay rule under HRE Rule 804. This affirmation underscores the significant role of oral history and legal translation services in determining rightful land ownership, particularly in culturally rich regions like Hawai`i where historical documents are written in the Hawaiian language and oral traditions are an important source of genealogical information.
Hawaiian Language Translator and Expert Witness Services
This case shows how legal translation and interpretation of language can affect legal proceedings in places with rich native cultural history like Hawai`i. The translation of the Hawaiian word “makuakane” was a key issue that influenced the claims of both parties to the land. The court had to consider the cultural context and perception of the word, and the reliability and admissibility of the translations by different experts and witnesses. The case also highlights the importance of oral history as a form of evidence in probate cases, as the court accepted Kalani Kapu’s affidavit, which was based on his family oral history, as an exception to the hearsay rule. The case illustrates how oral history and legal translation services can help establish genealogy and inheritance in such cases.
Get in touch with All Language Alliance, Inc. to obtain a certified Hawaiian to English legal translation, and to hire a Hawaiian language expert witness.
Case Discussed: MAKILA LAND CO. v. HEIRS OF APAA (K), 463 P.3d 1257 (Haw. Ct. App. 2020).
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