March is Aboriginal Languages Month and the Hay River Metis Government Council and NWT Literacy have partnered up to get students thinking about and learning more languages through puppet shows.
“Our community is fortunate to have South Slavey and French available in the schools and I wanted to promote awareness that Metis people here also have Chipewyan and Cree ancestry,” said Jacqueline Carriere, the show’s creator and project organizer.
“The lack of knowledge about Metis people in Hay River was evident to me when I once told a friend that I wanted to take Cree lessons. He asked ‘Why? Aren’t all aboriginal people here Slavey?’ When people come here, they don’t always understand the diversity among the native population and the puppet shows are one way to teach this.”
On March 14, Students at Harry Camsell School learned the names of Northern animals in Cree, as well as a few words of greeting and thanks. They then get to kick back and hear a story, enacted by a few volunteers, on the portable setCarriere built, with the voices played from an iPad at the front of the room.
“Finding volunteers to do the puppet shows was hard because most people work during the day,” said Carriere.
“To solve the problem, we invited volunteers to read and record the stories on my iPad. Now we play the recording while one or two people work the puppets. The variety of readers, especially the male voices, has made a big difference.”
Also key to the success of the project is the involvement of fluent speakers of both languages, something Carriere regrets she cannot yet claim.
“I couldn’t have done this without Frederick Beaulieu, who is fluent in Chipewyan, and Irene Laliberte, who is fluent in Cree,” she said. “They are very patient with me… I don’t have a good accent and I struggle with pronouncing the words sometimes.”
The students don’t seem to mind, however, as they follow along with tiny puppets on popsicle sticks for the first part of the show. Carriere said she underestimated how long it would take to make 120 tiny felt puppets resembling fox, caribou, moose, beaver, and eagles, to name a few figures. She was determined to make the shows as accessible to her audience as possible and resorted to making nearly everything herself.
“I chose animals from the North to focus on but couldn’t find a caribou puppet,” she said. “Barb Low made a horse into a caribou puppet it looks great.”
Kindergarten student Madisen Moshenko said she liked the show and learned that maskwa means bear in Cree. The show told the story of how bear lost her tail because she was vain and was tricked by the other animals into using her tail to fish in an icy pond.
“Because the bear thought her tail was the best, she lost it,” said Moshenko. “It was a good story.”
Carriere said her desire to learn the languages herself encouraged her to create the puppet shows for children, and she hopes to build on what she and her volunteers have done so far for future projects.
“My love of language comes from my childhood,” she said, explaining how different family members spoke French, South Slavey, Michif, Cree, and English.
“I regret that I do not know any other languages (but English) nor do my children, even though our ancestors could speak two or more other languages.”