Ajijaak on Turtle Island review- Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival opens with a First Nations presentation

The evil serpent under the water awakened by human greed; "Ajijaak on Turtle Island"; photo by Richard Termine
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On January 17, 2019, puppet artist Heather Henson’s IBEX Puppetry presented Ajijaak on Turtle Island at The Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, as one of the opening acts in the 2019 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, (CIPTF) which will present 100+ performances in 19 venues over 11 days, and as part of its 4-city national tour.

The show promised and delivered visually stunning puppetry and also featured kites, projections, music, singing, chanting, dancing and acting in an ecology focused story that celebrated the richness of our national indigenous peoples’ lives. Co-directed by Grammy Award winner Ty Defoe and Henson, the daughter of legendary puppeteer Jim Henson (The Muppets), Ajijaak joined together an ensemble of Native American performers to tell the saga of a young whooping crane who must face her first migration- described as a flight of freedom- on Turtle Island (North America) after being separated from her relatives.

The education of Ajijaak; photo by Theo Cote

After CIPTF Artistic Director Blair Thomas opened the Festival in the landmark art nouveau motif and mural graced Fine Arts Building’s historic Studebaker Theater, the piece was introduced by a local First Nation representative who described his early upbringing living near The American Indian Center (AIC) in Chicago, and his dual heritage influenced background. Chicago’s AIC, the oldest such organization in the nation, strives to be the primary cultural and community resource for the nearly 65,000 American Indians in Chicago’s 6-county region. Chicago has the 3rd largest urban Native American population in the country, with over 100 tribal nations represented.

Cranes are associated with good luck and also used as clan animals in many Native American tribes and cultures. In fact, in the Chippewa tribe, intrinsic to the Midwest- there is a Chippewa Park on Pratt and Sacramento in Chicago- the Crane Clan and its totem are called Ajijaak.

The cranes and the crab dancer; photo by Theo Cote

In the play, Ajijaak’s birth is celebrated by all, and we take part in her early instruction into the magic of earthly plants as medicine, the duty to keep the waters clean, and the importance of sharing and giving, of only taking “as much as you can eat.” The family friendly saga, enthralling to both the young and old members of the audience, was told by a grandmother/narrator to her grandchildren, who helped develop and embody the myth as it grew onstage. The dialogue is instructive and filled with import; for example, the humans tell the cranes, “You are in our stories and we are still here,” and “We come from a long line of story-keepers”.

The tale itself, while absorbing and charming, was most distinctive for the insights it gave the audience into the generational aspects of Native American life, their upholding of sacred learned traditions as well as their well deserved pride in a culture that supports the environment. Watching the members of the cast, who represented many different Native American nations, including the Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Lakota, and Cherokee, it was strikingly obvious that these performers had a very special relationship to the animal puppets, the crane, buffalo, turtle, coyote, crab, butterfly and water serpent. They handled or inhabited the puppets in an exceedingly natural way, as though entering into their spirits as well as imitating and anthropomorphizing their actions.

Buffalo dancing; photo by Theo Cote

The wonderfully crafted variously sized puppets, the artfully produced shifting projections that reflected the puppets and the action on stage, the beautiful representational costumes, headdresses and masks were vibrantly enhanced by the intriguing soundscape. The lovely pure voices of the cast engaged in call-and-response between actors and audience, the percussive and bell-like melodies and harmonies, all served to underline the moral imperatives of the Native American way of life, in which “2-footed, 4-footed, finned and feathered” creatures are of equal importance to the planet.

“We are thrilled to bring Ajijaak on Turtle Island to four US cities in 2019, bringing communities together to share in this immersive journey that reflects our interconnectedness with all of creation,” said Heather Henson. “Over the last 20 years of producing environmental spectacles, I have seen how puppets can be powerful connectors to nature and how much cranes can teach us. I am grateful to be able to bring together my passion for visualizing environmental issues with Ty’s incredible storytelling, and look forward to celebrating the talented artists who bring this show to life.”

Finale, “Ajijaak on Turtle Island”; photo by Richard Termine

Ajijaak on Turtle Island was written and performed by interdisciplinary artist Ty Defoe of the Oneida and Ojibwe Nations of Wisconsin, with lyrics by Defoe and Grammy and NAMA-nominated Dawn Avery of Mohawk descent, and music by Avery & Grammy Award winner Larry Mitchell (Totemic Flute Chants), Kevin Tarrant of The SilverCloud Singers and of the Ho- Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and Hopi Tribe of Arizona, and Defoe, based on original storyboards written and drawn by Henson. The cast includes Tony Enos (Echota Cherokee), Joan Henry (Tsalagi, Nde’, and Arawaka), Wen Jeng, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore (Cheyenne River Sioux), and Henu Josephine Tarrant (Ho-Chunk, Rappahannock, Hopi and Kuna), with designs from Christopher Swader and Justin Swader (Scenic), Katherine Freer (Projections), Marika Kent (Lighting), Emma Wilk (Sound), Lux Haac (Costumes), and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop TM (Puppet Design & Fabrication).

As a trustee for the International Crane Foundation (ICF) based in Baraboo, WI, much of Henson’s work with cranes is inspired by ICF’s mission to conserve cranes and their landscapes. Defoe’s work in communities across North America explores the parallels between environment and identity using art to inspire others for cultural and social change.


The 2019 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival continues throughout the city through January 27, 2019 with many wonderful presentations that “will astonish and delight”. For information and tickets, go to www.chicagopuppetfest.org


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