Educating children about a global pandemic can be a daunting task, but with the help of Indigenous puppeteers, the Blood Tribe communications team is able to deliver its COVID-19 safety messages to youth in both an entertaining and relatable way.
DerRic Starlight, an Indigenous comedic puppeteer, and his team are collaborating with the Blood Tribe on its COVID-19 outreach campaign for children.
The first episode of the four-part campaign was made available on Oct. 12.
Starlight grew up watching Sesame Street and instantly fell in love with the lively characters of Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster and Big Bird. He soon learned how to imitate their voices and developed a knack for the art of puppeteering.
Starlight started putting on shows for family and friends, his performances then expanded to bigger audiences and venues as he grew older.
“Once I heard about the project, I became instantly excited to get involved.
“As a parent and puppeteer, I too wanted to do my part to help make a difference, and this video idea provided me with the perfect opportunity to do just that,” he added.
Starlight, who is based in Edmonton, is known all over the country for his ‘nuppets’ — or Native puppets — with a twist on Sesame Street. He’s been working with puppets professionally for more than two decades now.
“The world as we know it has changed and some children are frightened to go to school,” Starlight said.
“I was partially raised by my grandmother on the Tsuut’ina reservation, Mary Jane, that’s who the granny puppet is.”
The first episode takes place at the home of an elder — granny — who lives on the Blood Tribe reserve. The next scene features Indigenous children at school. Granny teaches students about face masks and how to wear them properly. Another puppet named Wind Dancer helps her granny teach the others about health and safety protocols.
The production team even decided to use some artwork from real students to decorate the classroom set.
The nuppets can also be seen adorning traditional clothes and braids in their long hair with feathers in the video.
Pam Blood, the director of Blood Tribe communications and community engagement, says they recognized they had to overcome the hurdle of adults getting tired of constantly listening to the same type of COVID-19 messaging and put a fresh spin on the delivery method.
Public health experts have been advising officials to tailor their communications for their target demographics in order to help curb COVID-19 numbers.
“There were still some issues and we thought, maybe we need to empower kids, and at the same time, kind of beating on that nostalgic feeling of seeing puppets and Sesame Street,” Blood said.
“And at the end, sometimes kids are really good enforcers,” she added.
“When we were brainstorming as a department on what we can do to help people during the pandemic, we thought about our youth and how they too need to be taught how to be safe, since most of the information out there is more geared for older people and adults,” Blood said.
Although the messaging is aimed at children, Blood hopes the videos will help influence adults as well.
Blood says the group received positive feedback from the community, especially when it comes to Indigenous youth seeing themselves and their culture reflected in the messages on television and online, where Indigenous voices and faces are underrepresented.
“We really made the placement important for our community to recognize within the airing of that announcement,” Blood explained.
Blood goes on to say that even though the messages are targeted for the Blood Tribe community, the health and safety lessons featured in the videos are universal, and therefore anyone can learn from the video, while getting in a couple of laughs from the light-hearted approach.
Starlight says it brings him sheer joy to be able to share his life-long passion with others.
“When I do shows with puppets, no matter what it is — whether it’s this video or any kind of media — I just want the kids to enjoy the puppets I saw when I was a kid.”