Students learn Inuvialuktun with puppets that don't speak English

Anna Pingo teaches Inuvialuktun in Inuvik, N.W.T., using puppets she got through the South Slave Divisional Education Council.

Naanak Sarah and Taatak Lennie puppets named after respected couple Sarah Kay and Lennie Inglangasuk

Teacher Anna Pingo says the puppets have had a big impact on everyone at the school, even the staff. (Submitted by Trish Laye)

When Inuvialuktun teacher Anna Pingo first got her elder puppet, she was a bit worried.

"They told us that they don't speak in English," Pingo told CBC's Trail's End. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God — because I'm not fluent — what am I going to say?'"

So Pingo decided she would have to learn along with her students.

Pingo teaches Inuvialuktun in Inuvik, N.W.T., and she got the puppet through the South Slave Divisional Education Council. The puppets are used in classrooms to help teach Indigenous languages.

Pingo got her grandma puppet, Naanak Sarah, about two weeks ago.

The grandpa puppet, Taatak Lennie, still hasn't arrived in the mail. The puppets are named after Sarah Kay, a Gwich'in woman, and Lennie Inglangasuk, an Inuvialuit man. Pingo says they were the first Gwich'in and Inuvialuit couple and are her husband's great-grandparents. 

Naanak means "grandma" in Inuvialuktun and taatak means "grandpa."

The Grade 8 class was the first to meet Naanak Sarah.

"They couldn't get over Naanak introducing herself," Pingo said.

"I changed my voice to an old granny and asked them in the language … 'What's your name?' The kids were just laughing so hard."

She learned to say "high five" so Naanak could say to the kids, "Give me a high five!"

The puppet wears a kerchief and a skirt, and is wearing an "old granny sweater," Pingo said.

At first, the students were a bit leery of her, said Pingo.

"They were a little bit squeamish, getting ticklish and going, 'Holy, she looks so real!' But they really do look at her as a real granny when she gets talking."

Kim Lea and Trish Laye have made almost 100 puppets for the South Slave Divisional Education Council. Now they're being used in classrooms like Pingo's. (Submitted by Trish Laye)

Students can use the puppets, too, but they have to follow the rule that the puppets don't speak English.

Using the puppets to practice the language might help kids who feel shy because they won't be the ones actually speaking, Pingo said.

The only other rule she has for the students is to be respectful, to treat the puppet like a real naanakand not throw her around or treat her like a toy.

Our language is not dying, it's just sleeping.- Inuvialuktun language teacher Anna Pingo 

"One of the students wanted to put his finger into Naanak Sara's mouth and I looked at him and I said, 'Oh, my! Remember she's our naanak of the class. You wouldn't like it if Naanak came and put her finger in your mouth!"

She's looking forward to getting the taatak of the pair so the puppets can start having conversations with one another.

"I just hope that it creates more dialogue in the language…. I've been really trying to encourage the students. Our language is not dying, it's just sleeping."


  • A previous version of this story stated the puppets were named for a former languages teacher. In fact, they are named for Sarah Kay and Lennie Inglangasuk
    Mar 02, 2019 10:38 AM CT

With files from Mark Hadlari