LISTEN: Students learn Indigenous culture through puppet powwow

Monday, June 11th, 2018 10:38am




By Brittney Pastion of CFWE-FM Contributor


It was an idea sparked by Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik (OPK) School and its interest in hosting a puppetry workshop for the students. The school in Desmarais, Alta. is located about 325 kilometers north of Edmonton.  

Lance Cardinal, the founder and creative director of Calling Lake Arts Academy, felt inspired. He remembered seeing an artist in Las Vegas perform a powwow puppet show, and he began to imagine powwow puppets for the students. 

Lance Cardinal, the founder and creative director of Calling Lake Arts Academy

Cardinal began designing six styles of powwow puppets after presenting school staff with the idea of holding a mini-powwow using marionettes, building them with 55 students, half from the local area and half visiting from Vancouver. 

Cardinal handcrafted marionettes from scratch in his art studio. He created the powwow clothing for each marionette.  The marionettes were then brought to the school for finishing touches. Each student had a chance to decorate the puppets with their own artistic flair.

Then the students held their own mini powwow, working in teams of two. It was a first for the northern community, said Cardinal.

“It was so awesome. It was just like the coolest thing ever... To see (the students) enjoying that moment was just so cool.”

When Cardinal was building the puppets he said he felt “such a cool energy about the whole situation... I felt like the grandfathers were looking down, and I felt some sort of spiritual energy and acknowledgement that this was helping share the culture.” He said he felt like the puppets were coming to life for the right reasons as he created them.

Cardinal is no stranger to creative expression after two decades of working in Canada's performing arts industry. He uses his artistic expertise to educate and inspire people about Indigenous culture though his Cree background.

The students responded very well to the project, he said. They watched powwow videos and then mimicked the moves with their own bodies. Then they worked to make their puppets make those same dance moves. Some students faced challenges in the beginning, but in the end all the students performed with confidence and had a chance to showcase the puppets they created.

 “This project is one of the hardest I've ever had to do in my professional career,” said Cardinal. There were so many puppets that had to be created by hand in such a short time. “It was a labor of love,” he said.

“I think sometimes the Creator guides our hand when it needs to happen… I was really led by the spirits on this one, I’m pretty sure.”

Cardinal’s work was rewarded by the reaction of the kids.

The school has plans to take the puppetry powwow on the road to local area Indigenous schools. It’s important for the schools to promote Indigenous culture while building student confidence.

Cardinal said sometimes sports and physical activities seem to be a big focus in Indigenous communities. “One of the biggest things we need to figure out is how to find inspiration in creativity… We can express ourselves in other ways besides sports or academics.”

He said puppetry is a great way to do that, allowing young people to express their feelings and emotions through an inanimate object and bringing it to life.

More access to the arts for the youth to express themselves is worth fighting for, said Cardinal. “Having their spiritual soul enlightened and inspired.” 

“I think that's really important, that we try to encourage that within our own people, by our own people, in our own communities.”