A group of artists have come together for a puppetry performance celebrating the return of bison to Banff National Park.

In February, Parks Canada reintroduced the first wild bison to roam Banff in more than 100 years, and the puppet show Iinisikimm: A Homecoming for the Buffalo of Banff National Park, is telling the story of the buffalo return using lighted lantern-puppets.

Combining lanterns and puppets for the show was an organic decision by the artists, says Peter Balkwill, producing director of Iinisikimm and co-artistic director at the Old Trout Puppet Workshop.

"In working with members of the Blackfoot community … we began to realize the significance of light in their stories and their spiritual beliefs, and it just really made a lot of sense." Balkwill said.

The bison return

Iinisikimm is produced by the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry and is supported by Bison Belong in Banff National Park, a not-for-profit organization supporting the reintroduction of bison to Banff.

Balkwill said both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists worked on the project that challenged his artistic ability and offered a glimpse into Blackfoot culture.

Iinisikimm bison puppets

Puppeteers use bison-shaped lantern-puppets to tell the story of bison returning to Banff during a performance titled 'Iinisikimm: A Homecoming for the Buffalo of Banff National Park.' (Iinisikimm: A Homecoming for the Buffalo of Banff National Park)

"I've always had a great curiosity but never really had access or a conduit into the [Indigenous] community," Balkwill said. "So the cultural implications for me are as big, if not bigger, than what I've learned as an artist."

Sixteen students from Camp Chief Hector YMCA, eight of whom are Indigenoushelped build the lantern-puppets with artists in residence.

Final performance

The final performance of Iinisikimm takes place in Calgary at the YMCA Camp Riveredge on Friday evening. Iinisikimm was only performed two other times; once at Camp Chief Hector and again in Banff on Tunnel Mountain.

Balkwill said the puppets will go into storage after Friday's show until next summer, when he hopes to do more performances of Iinisikimm.

"I just feel immensely fortunate to be able to practice my art, but also to learn and figure out new ways to create…And connect to an Indigenous culture that's been on the land for thousands of years before anybody that I was ever connected to came here," Balkwill said.

The curtain rises on Iinisikimm: A Homecoming for the Buffalo of Banff National Park at 9:30 p.m. in Calgary at the YMCA Camp Riveredge, 1215 50 Ave. S.W.