Mi'kmaw educator teams up with Wowkwis the puppet to take kids on language journey

·4 min read
Trevor Gould, an artist, powwow emcee, and language program developer from Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, teams up with Wowkwis the puppet in the new language series.  (Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia - image credit)
Trevor Gould, an artist, powwow emcee, and language program developer from Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, teams up with Wowkwis the puppet in the new language series. (Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia - image credit)

As a child of the 1980s, Trevor Gould grew up in awe of Jim Henson's muppets, dreaming of a day when he could join them.

The artist and educator from Paqtnkek Mi'kmaw Nation, N.S., has gotten pretty close to fulfilling that dream now that he's teamed up with a Nova Scotia theatre company to teach kids the Mi'kmaw language using puppets.

Gould co-stars next to Wowkwis — the Mi'kmaw word for fox — in Mermaid Theatre's Animalingo, a video series for school-aged kids that the organization hopes to bring to classrooms across the province.

Over 10 episodes, the duo journey to the river, forest and other locations as Gould shares Mi'kmaw culture, traditions and language.

"The ending is getting Wowkwis to a mawiomi, which is very much me, who I am," said Gould, a dancer, singer and powwow emcee.

"People in the Mi'kmaw community that already have an idea of who I am from working in the community, this will be a lot more, I guess, familiar to them and it'll be easier to connect."

Mermaid Theatre uses a mix of live puppetry performed by puppet master Jim Morrow and 2D animation to bring the lessons to life.

"The beautiful part of these stories is we have the human world, and then we go into this animated world where you see Trevor as an avatar and Wowkis in 2D animation," said executive director Danny Everson.

Animalingo has 30 episodes in total, covering three languages: Mi'kmaw, Gaelic and Acadian French.

Anika Lirette guides the Acadian lessons and the Gaelic series is led by Cape Breton musician Mary Jane Lamond.

Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia
Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia

Lamond stars next to Caoirigh the puppet and hopes the make-believe world they've created together is as captivating for children as it was for her.

"I was completely engaged with this puppet," Lamond said. "I mean, sometimes I was talking to the puppet and I forgot it was Jim actually working it."

The episodes are designed for learners as young at Kindergarten and have a Sesame Street-vibe. Each episode introduce kids to a new animal, number and colour, and the lessons build on one another.

By the end of each series, Everson said students will have learned about 150 to 200 new words, and there are plans to expand the series to include more languages, such as Arabic, Mandarin and Inuktitut.

Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia
Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said it appreciates the work that Mermaid Theatre is doing to share and preserve the Mi'kmaw language in this way.

The department said it reviews all new learning material "to ensure it aligns with existing programs and teaching" and that it looks forward to reviewing the Animalingo series.

The province is also working on more ways to infuse Mi'kmaw teachings into the curriculum.

Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia
Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia

Next school year, a new online Mi'kmaw language course will be available to high school students and a new Grade 12 science course called Netukulimk and the Environment will be introduced in 2024.

"The course will focus on sustainability and environmental stewardship through immersive land- and community-based learning experiences and the guiding principle of Etuaptmumk, or two-eyed seeing, which brings together Indigenous knowledge and western science," the department said.

Mi'kmaw series to be released in October

Animalingo was inspired by the work of Mi'kmaw linguists Tom and Carol Ann Johnson in Eskasoni, known for their cult classic Mi'kmaw Chicken Run and their translation work for the TV show Vikings.

After learning about their work, Everson said he wanted to find a fun, accessible and engaging way to marry language lessons with the puppetry and animation Mermaid Theatre is known for.

For Gould, his foray into the world of puppetry and animation has been a chance to see his story reflected, and to sharpen his own language skills.

"As a non-fluent speaker ... I learned so much about the language and I really do hope people get the same experience as I did," he said.

Gould's Mi'kmaw language series will be released online in October to coincide with Mi'kmaw History Month. The Gaelic and French Acadian series are expected to be released in early 2023.

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