Only at UH Hilo: How a budding environmental scientist is adding global language revitalization and documentary filmmaking to her toolbox  

In 2018, a group of performing arts students at UH Hilo performed children’s tales for local schoolchildren, all in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language). Inspired by this and other language revitalization efforts she witnessed in Sweden, an environmental science major is producing a documentary film on the global movement to revitalize indigenous languages.

By Leah Sherwood.

Zoë Whitney
Zoë Whitney

It’s not unusual at a liberal arts university for students to explore seemingly unrelated fields of study. Such is the case for Zoë Whitney, an environmental science major at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who, as part of her core requirements, took a class in performing arts, which in turn has led her to embark on creating a film documentary on the global movement to revitalize indigenous languages.

Whitney’s film project started through inspiration born on a campus fully dedicated to Hawaiian language and culture revitalization. These revitalization efforts are not limited to the university’s Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language—programs throughout the campus are infusing indigenous language, culture, values, and activities into curriculum, research, and community outreach.

Justina Mattos
Justina Mattos

For example, Justina Mattos, an assistant professor of drama and performing arts at UH Hilo, began directing performances of three popular children’s plays in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) in 2018. Students in Mattos’s course, Acting Troupe (DRAM 421), performed the plays, which Mattos had translated from their English versions into Hawaiian language. The performances took place at the Hilo Public Library and five Hilo elementary schools during the spring 2018 semester.

The touring production was titled ‘Ekolu: Three Plays for nā Keiki. The three plays were “Nā Kao Pūkalakī ‘Ekolu (The Three Gruff Goats)”; “Nā Puaʻa Li ‘ili ‘i ‘Ekolu (The Three Little Pigs)”; and “Nā ‘Iole Makapō ‘Ekolu (The Three Blindfolded Mice).”

The characters in the plays spoke their lines in the Hawaiian language, while a narrator translated for the audience in Hawaiian Creole English, commonly called pidgin.

“I decided to tell these familiar stories with a pidgin-speaking narrator in order to make the Hawaiian language dialogue more accessible to the students,” says Mattos, a UH Hilo alumna. “It was an experiment for us to see how much Hawaiian language was retained by the elementary school students that we performed for and how much was retained by the UH Hilo college-age performers, most of whom had no background in the Hawaiian language.”

The documentary film

The performances inspired Whitney’s film project, which she began in 2018.

Whitney, a senior from Kula, Maui, who, in addition to her major in environmental science is earning a minor in English and certificates in Teaching English as a Second Language and Energy Science, had been a student in Mattos’s earlier classes. The professor invited her former student to film the DRAM 421 class and their touring production. The initial plan was for the film—still in production—to focus on Hawaiian language revitalization, but the budding filmmaker soon decided to expand its scope to include other language revitalization efforts around the globe.

“Professor Mattos invited me to film the progress her students in DRAM 421 made as they went from knowing either very little Hawaiian or very little theater to combining both,” says Whitney.

“As I watched them grow from behind my camera and heard that Professor Mattos was inspired by the language revitalization efforts in New Zealand, I realized that what was happening in front of me at UH Hilo is part of a global movement,” she continues. “The logical next step was to film similar stories there and weave them together as a documentary. As an academic, Professor Mattos was able to guide me in conducting this project as a form of international cultural research.”

Whitney spent the 2018-2019 academic year at Uppsala University in Sweden, where she documented efforts to revitalize the Sámi languages, which are endangered Indigenous languages spoken in Scandinavia and Northwest Russia.

Whitney is currently in the process of editing her documentary, which will include segments on Yiddish in addition to Hawaiian and Sámi.

The inspiration

Mattos hopes that using Hawaiian language in drama productions will help grow support for ongoing work to keep the endangered language alive.

“Most of the audience gets to see stories that are familiar to them told in a new language—and for some of them, Hawaiian is their home language, so they are hearing stories in their own language,” says Mattos. “Many kids use Hawaiian Creole English at home, so we used a pidgin-speaking narrator to help them follow the story line. So even when the characters were speaking Hawaiian, the kids had no trouble at all. They got the humor and learned new vocabulary in the process of watching the performance.”

Mattos says the Hawaiian language also rubbed off on her students. “I heard my UH Hilo students in the hallways using Hawaiian words not related to performing. They learn the vocabulary by rote first as performers, but then they start to internalize it through physical use of the language,” explains Mattos.

For some UH Hilo students it was their first bilingual production. Mattos recruited UH Hilo undergraduate Landon Ballesteros to enroll in the class to coach his classmates in the Hawaiian language.

“I was the Hawaiian language speaker in the class so I also had a role in coaching my classmates through it,” says Ballesteros. “Some of the students grew up on the islands so they had an idea of the pronunciation and developing the phonetics was easy for most of them, but little things like using the ‘okina and kahakō were more difficult.”

To further help the UH Hilo students learn Hawaiian, Mattos also recruited high school students from Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u, a public charter immersion school, with the help of high school teacher Ha‘amauliola Aiona, who identified students who were interested in pursuing drama. Mattos says that this was a great way for the high schoolers to learn more about theater performance elements.

“They learned about Western theatre vocal production, stage directions, character development and how characters relate to each other,” says Mattos. “They were able to work with advanced level actors, which is good for high school students who don’t usually have that opportunity.”

Students had seven weeks to prepare for performances at Chiefess Kapi‘olani Elementary School, Ha‘aheo Elementary School, Hilo Public Library, Hilo Union School, Waiakea Elementary School, and Waiakeawaena Elementary School.

Watch this space for news about the release of Whitney’s documentary.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

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