Teacher's dream of Blackfoot language 'Sesame Street' inspires art exhibit
An art festival in Calgary is showcasing how animation can introduce an Indigenous language to new audiences — and perhaps future speakers.
Currently on display at the Festival of Animated Objects is an exhibit featuring 29 animated cartoons that illustrate words in the Blackfoot language.
Created by both student and professional animators, the short, whimsical cartoons teach viewers the meaning of Blackfoot words and phrases, complete with spelling and pronunciation.
The exhibit was the brainchild of Fort Macleod teacher Celestine Twigg, who dreamed of creating a Blackfoot language version of "Sesame Street."
"A lot of our children learn to speak English through Sesame Street," she said. "So why can't they learn to speak Blackfoot through cartoons?"
Twigg shared her vision with producer Xstine Cook, who is also co-artistic director for the Festival of Animated Objects. They worked to make Twigg's dream a reality.
In January of 2020, Twigg led a group of ninth-grade students at F.P. Walshe High School who were picked to be part of an animation residency hosted by the Calgary Animated Objects Society.
The animation students collaborated with Blackfoot language learners, who recorded the pronunciation of over 80 Blackfoot words. The students then spent three days in small groups coming up with concepts and storyboarding their ideas.
"Any language you learn, there is so much about the culture you learn from the language," Cook said.
"In Blackfoot, for example, the words are very action oriented. Like the word for snake, if you directly translate it, is 'the one that crawls.'"
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the residency to change course, since teaching the students in-person was no longer an option.
The organizers pivoted online and put out a call inviting animators across the world to take on the project. Many Canadians responded, as did animators in the United States and England.
The result was artwork that brings humour and fresh context to a language some might be hearing for the first time.
"Art has a magical way of translating things to all people," Cook said.
For Twigg, she hopes to be part of similar projects in the future.
"I'm on my way now," she said. "Nothing's stopping me."
The Blackfoot Language Animation Projects is on display at cSpace King Edward in Calgary's southwest. The exhibit runs through the weekend.