Huge puppets of serpents, a turtle, bison, and cranes move gracefully across the stage. Bright vibrant colors swirl, capturing the minds and imaginations of the audience.
The Native American story, “Ajijaak on Turtle Island,” was told on Thursday, Jan. 24, and Friday, Jan. 25, at the Al. Ringling Theater in Baraboo.
At the heart of it were two Ho-Chunk actors, Kevin Tarrant and his daughter, Henu Josephine Tarrant.
“It’s a story of a crane that visits Native American communities on its migration journey,” Kevin said. “I’m the traditional music composer, like all the drum songs that are in the production.”
“Ajijaak on Turtle Island” brings together an ensemble of Native American performers to tell the tale of a whooping crane.
Henu Josephine Tarrant, known as Josie, performs as Ajijaak, a young whooping crane who must face her first migration cycle on Turtle Island (North America) after being separated from her family. Josie learned puppetry under Henson and her performance as Ajijaak is her first time in a puppeteer role. Her first-ever show as Ajijaak was in early 2018 in New York City.
Puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, indigenous songs, and dances, and video projections create a transformative experience that honors contemporary Native American cultures and illustrates the harmonious relationships between humans, animals, and the environment.
“Ajijaak on Turtle Island” is written by interdisciplinary artist Ty Defoe of the Oneida and Ojibwe nations of Wisconsin, with lyrics by Defoe and Dawn Avery of Mohawk descent.
The performance is a result of a collaboration between Heather Henson, daughter of legendary puppeteer Jim Henson, and Defoe.
Kevin Tarrant has lived in New York City all his life, but has relatives in Wisconsin, such as the Funmakers, and has spent time in Wisconsin.
“I have a group named the SilverCloud Singers and I have been singing and dancing my whole life,” Kevin said. “I used to come back pretty much every year to work at Stand Rock and to learn from Ken Funmaker Sr. and a lot of the songs sung in Wisconsin Dells.”
Stand Rock was a pedestal rock formation tourist attraction along the Wisconsin River. During a performance, a person or dog would jump from the main rock formation to the independent rock and then back again. Also, the same name was given to a nearby arena in which Ho-Chunk adults and youth would dance to provide performances for visitors. Many Ho-Chunk would earn money this way during the tourist seasons.
Years ago, Kevin performed with his relatives and took those lessons from Stand Rock to heart.
“I used to go around with those guys quite a bit. I learned a lot from those guys and being out with the people because we don’t get too much of that in New York, so I brought that knowledge back with me,” Kevin said.
Recently he performed and served as musical director for “Don’t Feed the Indians – A Divine Comedy Pageant.”
This is his third year with the “Ajijaak on Turtle Island” performances
“This year we’re doing a short tour and then a two-and-a-half week run at the New Victory Theater on Broadway. It’s kind of a big thing – we’re really looking forward to it. As long as people want us to come, I think, as long as things work out – it’ll run a lot longer,” he said.
“I think part of the mission, going into the native communities, is that you can take your cultural practices and performing skills and use them to make a living and be seen on the stage and tell our stories our own way,” Kevin said.
He composed all the native songs that are used in the play and are commissioned for the production. Another aspect of his job is to make sure the native aspects are genuine.
Josie, of the Rappahannock, Ho-Chunk, Kuna, and Hopi nations, states powwow culture is a part of her and has been her inspiration in the work she does. She believes in using her artistic platform to educate and combat social injustice.
“My role in this production is a dual,” Josie said. “I play the crane and one of the main protagonists.”
At an early age, she knew she wanted to become a performer. As Josie got older, she did backup singing for her father and traveled every summer.
“I went to college for performing arts as a musical theater major at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. After that, I didn’t want to do theater anymore and I just wanted to powwow again. Then I found my way back into it again and have been enjoying it, focusing mostly on native productions and native stories, directed by natives and written by natives,” Josie said.
She has performed in several off-Broadway productions and in short films.
“I have been the majority of productions I have wanted to be part of the last couple of years. That’s how I ended up in here,” she said. “Originally I was going to come on as a dancer, then I came back the next year under the guise of Heather (Henson) and it was the beginnings of me becoming a puppeteer, learning how to use the bird and the puppets we use within the show.
“I’m a vocalist, I’m a singer and also an actress,” Josie said. “I became a puppeteer last year. I was very new to it and it was a new skill. It has been enjoyable along with working with Ty as well, just working with other natives, finding ways to condense what we’re trying to say within the story, using the skills we have and using methods to express that.”
At one point in her life, she was set on going to Broadway and winning a Tony (award) because that was what she was brought up in going to school in musical theater in New York City, she said.
“The older I got, the more interested I got in exploring so much of my own artistic abilities and really putting my hands in all the pockets to just try everything that I think I might be able to do,” she said.
Josie is working on writing a one-woman show.
“It would be about the legacy of Lillian St. Cyr,” she said. From her experience in the theater and her research into her cultural background, she’s excited about developing a story about the legacy on her Ho-Chunk side and how those people opened doors for her.
“People like William St. Cyr who may have done vaudeville acts or a performer at Standing Rock, may have felt they were just powwow performers, but they were really a part of breaking this mold and part of giving us this chance to be on the stage,” Josie said.
“So when I think about those things, I think that I would love to have my one-woman show produced – it would be a big goal for me right now because it’s the first time I’m writing about it and the first time I’m exploring myself as a native woman in this world – as a native performer,” she said.
“I have been tracing back all these bloodlines, all these ties I have to the performing arts as a native person and realizing we have a legacy,” she said. “It’s not just about all the movie stars in Hollywood. We, as native people, have our own legacy.”
Her big goal is to have her show produced and someday be on Broadway. She admits that it’s a really big goal, so now she is concentrating on just getting it produced and getting it off the ground.
“One of my big things is to teach native youth – to inspire native youth. Our cultures are so rich and we have our traditional art combined with whatever contemporary mediums. They are so beautiful when we accomplish them, but we also need that support for each other to continue to do these things. I really hope that the work that I do can inspire that, too,” Josie said.
Ty Defoe, the author of “Ajijaak on Turtle Island,” is excited about his creation being taken on the road across the United States.
“I think it’s a really special piece about Ajijaak that tells the story of indigenous people living off the Earth,” Defoe said. “In the mind, it was created to inspire our indigenous youth, but also all people. We work toward keeping our cultures alive but also thriving.”
During his youth, Defoe would pass through Wisconsin Dells on his way to see his family and stop at Stand Rock in the summer.
“I grew up in northern Wisconsin, being Ojibwa and Oneida, and going to powwows to keep the culture alive,” he said. “That mindset went into the performance a lot. I was inspired a lot from the Mirror Lake and Lake Delton areas. I went to science camp there to learn how ecological knowledge connects to the land.”