Illuminated puppets act out Blackfoot bison legend against night sky in immersive play

Iniskim tells the story of the buffalo in North America through illuminated canvas puppets at dusk. One October performance has been captured on film, and is now showing at the National Arts Centre.

One October performance of Iniskim has been filmed for National Art Centre initiative

Lanterns of all sizes lit up the October night sky near the Leighton Arts Centre as part of an interactive play, filmed three years after it first came to life to celebrate the return of bison in Banff National Park, so it can be shared virtually for the Grand Acts of Theatre project. 5:23

Iniskim tells the story of the buffalo in North America through illuminated canvas puppets at dusk. One October performance has been captured on film, and will be streaming online this fall thanks to the National Arts Centre's Grand Acts of Theatre initiative.

The event lit up the vast mountain skies near the Leighton Art Centre near Millarville, Alta., as the lighted puppets made their journey across the land to the sound of traditional Blackfoot music. 

Amethyst First-Rider is one of the creators.

"The puppets are such a beautiful way of capturing the energy of the land, of the night, of the light. And in Blackfoot, the word Napi, our trickster, Napi describes a beautiful white light that describes the energy. And so what we're capturing is the energy of Napi, but also the energy of the land," she said.

The play tells a very old Blackfoot story, traditionally about a spirit by the name of Napi.

"Napi is our trickster," First-Rider said. "And as one of the adventures of Napi, Napi hid the buffalo in the mountains. And the people were starving because Napi had hid the buffalo in the mountains. And so really it's a story about how we get the buffalo back out of the mountains and celebrate."

Amethyst First-Rider, co-creator of the Iniskim play, says it's a great pleasure to share the experience with her granddaughter Tanealle Shade. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

The play was developed three years ago to celebrate the return of bison to Banff National Park.

"We're storytellers and that's what we do," said Tanealle Shade, a crew member and First-Rider's granddaughter. "I grew up listening to my grandparents' stories, and hearing these Napi stories, and how our buffalo were hid ... and it's really beautiful for me to see, celebrate them."

The immersive experience takes place after dusk, when the lantern puppets stand out against the sky. Singers and drummers accompany the puppets on their route.

"It's a celebration of the buffalo," First Rider said. "When we got the buffalo in Banff and we secured them and they were on the land, and we had many prayers from community people, from our elders, we celebrated them, we thought this would be a wonderful celebration for the community to come out and join in a festive activity with the buffalo."

The mother buffalo and baby buffalo puppet lanterns make their way across a darkening field near Banff. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

The audience congregates, holding lanterns that will help them see the way. As they are led through the landscape, a garden of lanterns makes a dazzling display in the trees, and voices ring out from a choir in the trees.

After emerging from the trees, the audience sees the mother buffalo and baby buffalo puppet lanterns, then the character of Napi, who tells the story of the buffalo.

"One of the things that's beautiful about the experience is that we also reunite with our relationship to darkness and the night, because nobody gets to use a flashlight, and everybody's eyes adjust to the light of the night, as opposed to the darkness of the night," said Peter Balkwill, education director with the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry, which helped produce the event.

"You can see as you go. And it is an experience of becoming more complete. And in a time, actually when we feel like we're all getting shattered and fragmented and separated, to discover that there is a wholeness that can come from the environment is pretty exciting."

Balkwill said the story of the buffalo is one of resiliency and resurgence, and it's a chance to now celebrate the fact that buffalo numbers are now growing.

Peter Balkwill, education director with the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry, which produced the Iniskim performance with help from Bison Belong, Parks Canada, Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Contemporary Calgary, Leighton Art Centre and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

"The buffalo, they met a very tragic circumstance, but it was not their end," he said. "And that's what we celebrate, that their numbers are growing and coming back."

First-Rider says she is pleased to be able to tell this story, and to share the experience with younger people.

"It's such and honour for us to do this presentation in Canada. Because of our Truth and Reconciliation, this performance is also part of our reconciliation with Canada, but it's our story. It's Canada's story," she said. "And it's such a privilege to do this show with my granddaughter, and to hear another generation speak of relationships within all of Canada."

The Iniskim lantern play was filmed at Leighton Art Centre near Millarville. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

With files from James Young and Vincent Bonnay