2022 Festival Archive: Ty Defoe

Ty Defoe:
Skeleton Canoe

January 29-30, 2022

American Indian Center

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Scholarship and Resources

The Storyteller and the Skeleton Canoe:
Cultural Revival Through Puppets and Performing Objects

AnEssay by Skye Strauss

Before the work-in-progress performance of Skeleton Canoe, presented as part of the 2022 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, the production’s dramaturg, cultural consultant and elder Mark Denning (Oneida/Menominee/Mille Lacs Ojibwe/Delaware/Lenape/Mohican) walked around the makeshift performance space—set up in the middle of the gymnasium at the American Indian Center of Chicago—carrying smudge. Watching the smoke rise reminded everyone present that storytelling is more than entertainment—it is also a sacred act. In the multilingual greeting that followed, Denning acknowledged that the audience was a mix of both “insiders,” community members from the many tribal nations whose flags hung on the walls around us, and “outsiders,” a diverse crowd of puppet people from Chicago and beyond, brought together by the festival.

A drum, which had been hanging prominently displayed on the left side of the stage, became a way to transition into the flow of the performance when community members came up to play and chant. When they finished their traditional song, Ty Defoe (Oneida/Ojibwe), the writer and performer of Skeleton Canoe, began to sing a new song as a solo—eventually inviting the audience to participate in call-and-response. In that moment, I became acutely aware of my “outsider” status. I was being prompted to repeat words that, for me, had no clear meaning, and I recognized that to imitate that chant on my own would be deeply disrespectful. Yet, when issued a clear third invitation to join in—that Defoe seemed to address to all of us—it felt equally rude to refuse to sing along. Together, we magnified his voice to fill the farthest corners of the cavernous space as the story began.

Skeleton Canoe tells the tale of Nawbin, an Anishinaabe child on the brink of adolescence, who is trying to discover where they fit in. Vying for the attention of various family members, Nawbin is ignored, until the fateful moment when they break the familial peace pipe—suddenly, all eyes are on them in the worst way. Nawbin flees the house into a birch forest under the night sky, beginning an unexpected journey. A firefly guides them to a canoe stuck in the riverbed. What remains is its skeleton, the bent-wood frame with only scraps of veneer still clinging to the sides. Such is the magic of the moment that, once pulled free from the riverbed, the canoe still floats. Climbing into it, Nawbin finds themselves rushing along the river rapids and thrust underwater, where they meet a rainbow trout—also a delicate skeleton, with translucent fins both designed and fabricated by Kris Waymire—who helps Defoe present a “fish dance.”

Inside the story world of Skeleton Canoe, one specially crafted basket, with eyes cut out of the base, becomes the main character, Nawbin. Defoe as the storyteller both is and is not his main character. In some moments, he wears the basket like a mask. At others, he holds it apart from himself—allowing us to imagine the smaller stature of the unseen child. The oscillation was touching because, at times, I began to wonder where pieces of Defoe’s autobiography might be interwoven with his character’s, where precisely he knows the story from the inside out. Yet the moment of greatest magic happened between two inanimate objects. When Defoe kept the mask hovering above the exposed ribs of the birchbark boat in front of a projection screen filled with a tangle of trees and stars above a flowing river, we “saw” Nawbin sitting in the skeleton canoe. My imagination jumped at the chance to fill in the stage picture. 

Denning placed the whole production within an ancient tradition of “interacting with things.” In that sense, Skeleton Canoe joins an ongoing project that Jill Carter (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi) describes in the abstract for an article on Indigenous performance: 

[Indigenous theatre] artists are actively mining their nations’ knowledge systems for the building materials with which to construct singularly Indigenous, nation-specific works that serve the communities and the biotas out of which those knowledge systems emerge (2016: 1).

In Carter’s article, Guna/Rappahannock performance artist Monique Mojica looks to quilted Mola, as “non-human collaborator[s],” to guide her to a dramaturgical structure for Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way (2016: 4). Thus culturally significant things become a gateway to culturally specific knowledge, helping the artist step into the flow of a story that, in an Indigenous worldview, is part of a contemporaneous past, present and future (Carter, 2016: 2). What that means becomes clearer in relation to Skeleton Canoe, not in the plot points involving the puppet fish (however beautiful) but in the presence of the smudge in the space and the drum, baskets and canoe with Defoe onstage. Those things animate not just a character but a culture. 

At first, the feeling that this is a children’s story—amply reenforced by Defoe’s friendly banter with the youngest members of the audience in the front row—seems at odds with the presence of skeletons. Yet in the context of cultural estrangement and loss, the aim is indeed to revivify. Puppetry is usually the medium through which what might otherwise be considered inanimate lives. More important, in this context, when Indigenous performance follows Indigenous belief and language, all things—even everyday objects—are “alive and invested with spirit” (Carter, 2016: 6). The respect for the objects onstage becomes about more than the “illusion of life” that puppeteers and scholars have theorized in a variety of ways, rather it becomes an act of communion with those things. Denning’s comments after the show also lent the tension between animate and inanimate, living and dead an additional gravity by talking about the imminent danger of suicide for Native and Indigenous youth. To find oneself feeling invisible, as Nawbin does, is a real and present danger. Reconnecting with the past through what is still here is instrumental to protecting the present and future.

To preserve what is sacred to “insiders” requires the team to draw boundaries around what will and will not be translated for “outsiders”—for the production to do its work, eventually touring to Indigenous communities around the United States, it must retain its cultural specificity. So some words, images and actions in the production that spoke clearly to insiders remained opaque to me as an outsider. Therefore, I was excited to see community insiders’ enthusiasm about the parts of the performance I could not have judged. A woman in a skirt adorned with ribbons and a print of leaves and animals, ostensibly an insider, praised Defoe’s fish dance in the post-show talk-back. The lesson that unfolded was one of my favorite parts of the evening: Denning proceeded to explain to the outsiders what we saw when Defoe danced, which was the story of a fish. When it begins to dance, it is shy, barely flapping a fin to the rhythm of the drums. As it finds its confidence, we see it use its strength to hover against the current, suspended over the river rocks, and begin to swim with vigor. Perhaps that is what makes the fish in the story an important companion for young Nawbin—small and shy, asking why, looking for the confidence, support and strength they need to join in the dance.

Of course, as with all live theater, this performance would not be possible without a team of artists—Native, Indigenous and allied—whose contributions work in concert. The set design by Katherine Freer, burnished to a soft glow by lighting designer Emma Deane (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara Nation), carved out an artful performance space within a communal one. Freer’s multimedia design, which served as the production’s animated backdrop, brought Katrina Brown’s illustrations to life—allowing us to wander through the forest, lie beneath the stars and crash downriver with Nawbin while we listened to the score by Olivia Shortt (Anishinaabe/Nipissing First Nation). Costume designer Lux Haac expanded the circle of collaborators by costuming Defoe in clothing by Native companies Teton Trade Cloth, Urban Native Era and Ginew. The prints in the costume reference Woodland Nations floral designs that ground the story in a particular region and, in Haac’s words, “show a contemporary depiction of the current presence of the Anishinaabe people.” The dark-wash jeans and denim jacket, by Ginew, kept Defoe visually connected to the water while creating shadowy hiding places for puppets. For this phase of development, the team was joined by stage manager Nikki Konomos and the festival’s artistic director and founder Blair Thomas, who served as puppet and movement consultant. The final flourish, linking cross-cultural communities, extended beyond the stage in an act of hospitality—as we were leaving the space, audience members were offered cups of soup to ease their own journeys homeward through the winter cold.

Future iterations of the performance will expand to include three more scenes—in addition to the fish, we will meet a second guide in the form of kingfisher and a third in the form of a turtle, who is an environmental activist. After having met the trio of guides, we will witness Nawbin’s journey homeward, filled with new purpose. To find out more and follow the production’s fundraising activities and ongoing life, visit: www.skeletoncanoe.com.

Works Cited

Carter, Jill. “The Physics of the Mola: W/riting Indigenous Resurgence on the Contemporary Stage,” Modern Drama, volume 59, no. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 1-25.

Play Video

View Ty Defoe’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Ty Defoe at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 29, 2022, Ty Defoe was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Race & Representation in Puppetry.”

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held online through Howlround.

Transcript of Ty's Presentation

Everyone, I am so ready. Wow, what a thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on that piece and I cannot wait to experience it . So I said hello, good morning, feeling the weekend vibes, ready to talk about race and representation because it's in the morning, it's at noon, it's in the afternoon, it's in the evening. And I am, talking about racism, representation and also decolonization and how that relates specifically to native indigenous peoples and puppetry.

And I just also want to underscore too, that I’m just speaking from one experience, which is my own and also providing hopefully some teachings from mentors and elders and other puppet makers who have been invisibilized and erased by colonialism. So is seen in a different view. But I’ll go to the next slide, so hello and good morning. And also I will say too, I’m very excited ’cause I’m on the land, land of the council of three fires. So here is a photo I embarrassed chair of myself at the age of seven that begins, started working with ab objects called hoop. And hoops, it’s a special dance and sort of hoops maybe 24 inches in diameter and you begin to make different animal form make you get to make different relatives as I refer to the two-legged, four-legged wind and rooted. And so I just wanted to share this with you all once when I had bangs, but this dance is very highly, it talks about how we are all intra and interconnected, which is very important as it relates to indigenous native philosophy in particular, the Anishinaabe people. So I’ll go to the next slide. 

And yeah, so here are some of my greatest teachers, my mother and my father. And I wanted to show you them both because they’re both movers, movement workers, dancers, enacting different stories as it relates to being showcased at I guess community events, ceremony events, and also public powwows. And my mom on the left here wearing this like beautiful elaborate medallion of an eagle at which my father is, that is his clan representation in terms of sacred ceremonies, how to be who you’re related to and everything. And my father on the right of course, who’s sort of looking at what seems like at the ground is holding a shield and dancing with a shield and feathers and a fan. And I wanted to show these two photos because at an early age for me, I began to learn about story, I began to learn the importance about culture and it really started to shape not only language, but also worldview. So when I think about, object, for example, I think when I think about object as an Anishinaabe person, I think about a subject and I think about relative, right? So not necessarily, things described as as nouns, but when something has a word in the language, it becomes real, it actually becomes relative. So what are the ways that we are making reciprocal relations with so-called objects stories? They actually become a living, breathing entity. And we’ll go to the next line. Here is my grandmother, I kind of pulled out, my grandmother went to a boarding school, right? So folks don’t know about boarding schools and I hope that you do, this is very important as it relates to native indigenous history because these boarding schools at a time, language was taken away, hair was cut, stories were taken away, this began this great white settler colonial project, right? Of completely invisibilizing and erasing native indigenous people from their homelands, from their stories. And since we’re talking about puppetry today, puppets, right? And all of the things that make you who you are. So I wanted to show you the sort of cookie cutter, like personified image of what, everything should look like, it should look like the same thing. And it goes without saying, this is, I am a survivor of this handed down past historic trauma. We’ll go to the next slide. 

And because of that handed down historic trauma, it was always embedded in me to really centralize community at an early age. I’m at an elder care center here, you see someone with a walker and other folks gathering in different places to tell stories. I began to go and I was actually very shy and did not want to speak. So it was really easy for me to move through space and sort of operate and work with objects to tell stories. And because of that, I did at every opportunity along with different teachers to tell stories. Some of those teachers are, Kevin Locke and Dallas Chief Eagle and the, the passing of Joanne Shenandoah incorporating songs. And I’ll go to the next slide. 

And so, I show up to the Chicago International Puppet Festival, right? I’m on this neighborhood tour going to many different neighborhoods and I’m talking about symbolic literacy, right? Knowing worldview in that at an early age. So I show up in Chicago and I see images like this posted all over, I think this was taken in last week over at Navy Pier Inside. And you see there’s a blackhawk, if folks don’t have not seen this image before outside of a United States context, it is a hockey team that’s, and there’s things that are going around about mascots and white settler colonialism, really sort of pushing a false and narrative forward and perpetuating myths about what native indigenous people need to look like, be like, feel like, talk like, eat like, I mean it goes down to a very cellular level. And of course that goes definitely with puppetry. So I’m gonna talk a little bit about symbolic literacy. We’ll go to the next slide. 

So this I wanted to show you, this is actually comes from the Americas and it’s an exhibit from the Museum of the American Indian. And of course, native imagery has been used by the federal government to distinguish the United States in particular Turtle Island from other nations to divine nation for citizens. And images like this were used by US armed forces to express the militarization, right? To define the American corporations and to signify to people and to designers to add sort of a luster or a cache to commercial products, right? Which sort of plays into capitalism. And we know capitalism is a cousin of white settler colonialism. So images like this that are shown throughout history, you these, some of these images still exist, some of them have been because of community organizers and folks really looking at the invisibilization of native people have, the Land O’Lakes butter, of course indigenous female has just been, removed from the butter. So there are things that are happening, but there is so much more to do. There’s something, a question in this exhibit that is asked is how is it that natives can be so present and then also so absent in and quote American life, right? When you think about it, native peoples are less than 1% of the population. But wherever you go in the United States, you see these kinds of images in grocery stores, at gas stations still, and it’s something that also becomes numb if you’re not really looking for these kinds of symbols. We’ll go to the next slide. Yeah, every time I look at this, I’m just like, wow, it’s just almost unimaginable when I think about ancestors and what folks had to sort of go through so we could be here today in 2022, and I could speak here in the Zoom. So these, some of these images might be familiar to people, right? So there is something coursing through, of course the enclave of the puppetry world as well as greater political puppets. 

There’s hand puppets, there’s finger puppets of course, there’s objects, right? That people are moving around. But these images are made by non-indigenous individuals, they are produced by non-indigenous individuals, they are directed by non-indigenous identified individuals, and the image on the left here is very, it’s a marionette puppet mechanically, works like a marionette puppet.  But if you look very closely at something that’s personified like this, the symbolism is so far reaching to be native or indigenous or to exemplify what a native indigenous person might look like based on an era of romantification, of exotifying indigenous men in, warriorship roles and leadership roles and of course the perpetuated myth of the thanksgiving tale where so much is not said about the genocide of native people in Turtle Island. And of course Sesame Street, right? Sesame Street people grew up with Sesame Street, and I had to include this images because it, it gets very complicated very quickly. How could you know what you don’t know, right? So it’s on allies and accomplices to do the work to really understand politically what’s going on with native people, to engage with community and to really ask the questions about how to amplify voices if you are very interested in that. So people are doing as much work as they can and this is just, images throughout decades of time of what is happening in puppetry. So we’ll breeze through these next slides, so we’ll go through the next slide, please. 

Yes, and so native indigenous puppetry has been on Turtle Island for decades. We’re gonna get into some images that were given to me from teachers and collaborators I’m working with now. Next slide. This is exclusively used in society rituals. It’s not an actual like carving of a doll or a puppet that’s used in a day society, but it’s something that’s publicly can be seen, figures like this. It’s from a survival exhibit and what an image like this, the object is hollowed out and it’s in, there are sacred things placed in its chest and sometimes its backside for healing purposes, right? So sometimes puppetry in my worldview was used for sacred, sacred acts for healing. So go to the next image. And some of the biggest influences to me or here is someone from the Tlingit community is Gene Tagaban, right? Someone who I saw as a youth who was there placing on, raven feathers to tell stories and enacting stories with a wooden head. This to me was puppetry and it’s something that was like highly influential to me. Next slide, please. Buddy Big mountain, a marionette performer in Florida that, if you weren’t looking, you probably just pass by and say, oh, this is a marionette performer, but was a really influential. We’ll go to the next slide. Here’s another picture and next slide. I just wanted you all to see these really amazing images. Corn husk dolls from the Horidoshoni nation, right? Dolls that were given to teach about vanity to young women. Next slide. And puppets now that are talking about language revitalization, puppets used in communities, the Dine nation as well as Canada. Next slide. And the Cree nation, right? I think native people are so funny and are using puppets to really. Next slide. So here’s an image right by a, I guess cross racial team. And I always think about, I think about how are people collaborating and what kinds of questions, ethical questions that you need to ask each other before you start collaborating? So this is one production I’ve been following called the Breathing Hole. And I’ll, you can go to the next slide and I’ll just keep talking, thanks Josh. It’s like, it is, what does it mean to think about stories and puppets as a tool for resistance to fight against colonial inequity and erasure, right? I think these are things that if you’re collaborating with someone, you like need to talk about right up front because you know it’s the difference about being in quote good or being real. Like which one do you, which one would you like to do? So next slide. 

And Josh, you can just breeze through these next slides and I’ll just talk so people can kind of see as I’m chatting, thank you. So some birch bark I’m working with, really interested in materials. I think, here at the Chicago Puppet International Festival, I’m working with materials and really fascinated by that. I think it’s really important, and I’m just showing some images from productions I’m working on, of course Ajijaak on Turtle Island made with several collaborators, Kevin Teran, Don Avery and Heather Henson. And a lot of this work, I think because it isn’t, out there so much, it’s really galvanizing people to engage in dialogues about that. Some of these puppets, of course were made by the Jim Henson workshop, which I was so grateful to work with different artists and bring alive stories and bring those to people so people can think, especially indigenous youth and people in our communities that are stories are animate, they’re animate things to be heard and spoken of. Of course, if you were on the neighborhood tour, I utilized materials such as wings that were given to me at a young age and I kept using those, of course, to study the movement of object and puppetry. And we’ll get into some of these next slides with the Skeleton Canoe. And Josh, you can just keep tapping that return button so folks can see that maybe you all, you all have questions to ask me so I don’t have to talk so fast about each slide. That is a tiny tempest farm with Blair. So Skeleton Canoe, I’m working with a few different collaborators, Kate Frier, Blair Thomas and Mark Denning. We began conversations and talking about this piece and Blair approached me and really wanting to do a 360 holistic view of an indigenous piece. And I, really thought about what that would be, what it would look like, what conversations would happen, going to ask permissions from elders in the community about using specific materials, how to get bark from trees. The piece is called Skeleton Canoe and we’re doing an inward progress showing this weekend. There’s Blair, of course, my ally friend there taking a bow, right? So it is really, you get really intimate in some of these conversations with folks. Blair and I, I told Blair, I was like, if you’re not dreaming seven generations ahead, you are not dreaming big enough, right? And that’s a philosophy when we first started chatting. That becomes extremely, extremely, extremely important. We started talking about truth telling, liberation, nourishment, healing, reremembering, and of course always to deepen democracy. So I end here with saying, what does it look like to challenge present colonial legacies and imagine a decolonial futures? Thank you so much everyone. Much more to say, reach out if you need.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 29-30, 2022
American Indian Center
3401 W. Ainslie St. in Albany Park

A work-in-progress, written and performed by Ty Defoe

Created by Ty Defoe, Mark Denning, Katherine Freer & Blair Thomas Skeleton Canoe, a new work-in-progress, is the story of young Nawbin as they leave home and set out on a rites of passage through a season of their life. Their journey along the water to discover their truth and way back to themselves and ancestral knowledge. Along the way they discover unexpected friends, weather storms, and gain a canoe! Through the use of puppetry, traditional Anishinaabe lifeways, and multimedia design, Skeleton Canoe makes known what is just below the water’s surface.

Creative Team:
Written and Performed by: Ty Defoe
Dramaturgy and Mask Design by: Mark Denning
Scenic and Multimedia Design by: Katherine Freer
Puppet and Movement Consultant: Blair Thomas
Illustrations by: Katrina Brown
Puppet Design and Fabrication: Kris Waymire
Canoe Design and Fabrication: Kevin Finney

With special funding from:

Image Gallery

Past Performances and Further Reading