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Arts & Culture

Touring puppet musical inspired by Native American stories

Show explores theme of nature, environmental conservation through music, puppets

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2019

“Ajijaak on Turtle Island” featured animal puppets, dancing and songs to share the story of a young crane completing her first migration. This story originates from traditional Native American folklore about the environment and teaches audience members to protect natural habitats.

“Ajijaak on Turtle Island” captivated audiences last week at Moses Brown School with soaring kites, graceful puppetry and a heartwarming story about family and nature.

The puppet show was created by performance artist Ty Defoe and puppeteer Heather Henson and hosted by the FirstWorks Arts Learning Program, a Providence-based arts education organization that hosts festivals, workshops and other arts-related activities for the local community.

The story follows a whooping crane as she attempts to find her family and subdue the evil serpent Mishibizhiw. As Ajijaak migrates south for the first time, she learns about different cultures and ecosystems through a variety of traditional Native American songs, dances and stories. The beauty and theatricality of the performance allowed for children and grandparents alike to find enjoyment in the music and narrative.

In a question and answer session following the performance, Henson, co-director of the show and daughter of legendary puppeteer Jim Henson, explained how the story of the crane’s long migration across the North American continent allowed the show to be intertribal. According to the show’s website, Ajijaak meets “communities of people from Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Lakota and Cherokee Nations, living in balance with their environments.”

Musician John Scott-Richardson also commented on how the show incorporated many Native American traditions. “Different areas could interject things into this because it’s all about how we’re taking care of Mother Earth, how we’re supposed to be stewards of the land,” he said.

Musician and composer Kevin Tarrant also spoke on the subject of inclusivity, saying, “We wanted to make sure that the show would be authentic but not insulting to anybody.” The writers drew inspiration from traditional songs and dances when creating their original compositions, but were careful not to replicate music that could potentially be used in hallowed ceremonies.

Themes of environmental conservation and protection pervaded “Ajijaak on Turtle Island.” The evil Mishibizhiw only “awakes” when human greed brings imbalance to the environment, and Ajijaak’s mission is to restore this balance. Tarrant discussed the message of the play in the Q&A, describing how the show illustrates everyone’s responsibility to protect the natural world. “We’re all in this together whether we want to believe it or not. We’re not the same color, we’re not the same shades, but … without all of us, like the story says, we’re not going to have anything.”

Many audience members were enthralled by the beauty of the puppetry. Valerie Bassett ’89 found the show magical and absorbing. “Certain little things will just stay with me a long time, like the birch trees that folded into the deer. I could cry thinking about it. It was like a spell; it was so beautiful,” she said.

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