It’s an ordinary traffic stop in Manitoba, except the person getting the pat down is fuzzy and only has four fingers. The character, dressed in a fur hat with long braids, is named Mathias and was voiced by Russell Bighetty, one of the founding members of the Bighetty and Bighetty Puppet Show.
Brothers Kelsey, Andrew, Daniel, Ken and Russell Bighetty have brought their merry band of Indigenous puppetry from Pukatawagan, Manitoba (around 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg), across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta and even up to Yellowknife.
“Our stage is pretty much everywhere,” says Ken. While Russell passed away suddenly last year, the show now goes on in his memory.
Today, they have thousands of views on their videos and are popular performers at conferences, communities, and summer camps.
Even as they rise to fame, including a CBC documentary last summer, the troupe is still shooting their puppet skits on smartphones. “A guy had called us,
‘I have a $10,000-dollar camera. What do you use?’ And I said, “An iPhone! And an Android!” laughs Ken.
And they’re still performing in both English and Cree, with no subtitles.
“We wanted to make sure that the Cree is in there,” says Ken. “A lot of the parents are telling us that their kids watch them over and over on the computer, even though they don’t understand it. My son will beg me to watch it.”
It’s the way the brothers have always spoken to each other. Most of their sketches are completely improvised, just like when they were playing make-believe as children.
“Back home, it was a diesel-powered generator community, so when the power went out we used to set up a stage with candlelight and all that,” says Kelsey Bighetty. “There were eight of us growing up, so we did shows that we copied. We grew up like that as kids, so when we look at it today being a puppet, we don’t have scripts. We just go as we go!”
And when they played, they did it like many multi-lingual kids: slipping in and out of languages, whichever was best suited for what they were trying to get across. For the puppet show, that’s an important part of language preservation. “One of the elders [after a performance in Saskatchewan] said we have a group that gets together and we learn Cree, but it’s singular words like ‘cup.’ He says ‘I don’t want to do it that way. I want conversation,’” says Ken.
The brothers are actually working in multiple dialects of Cree, depending on the region, as well as throwing in Ojibwe and Dene words as they’ve travelled to communities who speak those languages.
“They say the geese speak different languages because geese land in different areas. They don’t all go to one area,” says Ken. “And the people just get a kick out of it.”
People get a kick out of most everything the Bighetty brothers do. In their videos, elders snap back as the puppets quip at lightning speed in Cree, children giggle as they shake their plush hands. In Pine House, Saskatchewan, where Mathias is being arrested for speeding, the RCMP officers in the background are struggling not to laugh while they snap the cuffs on the diminuiative puppet.
They’re more than just puppets trying to preserve a language, though. They’re cultural. And that includes humour.
“Our humour is crass. It’s straightforward, which is how Aboriginal humour is,” says Ken. “It’s in your face, there’s no soft touch about it.” He credits the connection they have, especially with children, to the troupe’s ability to portray a version of life that’s familiar to kids growing up on reserves. The puppets are dressed in fringed jackets with beading, fur hats and beaded earrings—just like some of the guys spotted in the background of their clips.
The puppets themselves originally came from nursing stations; liberated after one of the brothers found one while working there. “We modified them,” says Ken. “We had little buckskin jackets, two Dene leather jackets and two Cree jackets. And my mum made the beaded jackets, and also the hats for the puppets. She’s a very respected elder in the community so she gets a kick out of it that people recognize her sons as the ones that do the puppets.”
They’ve never really had anyone offended by their humour, whether it’s a puppet drive-by at McDonalds asking for ichiban and neckbones, or a puppet emptying a garbage can into a toilet because he was born in the bush and honey buckets are his thing. Ken isn’t worried either about their acts being taken as stereotypes— they’re performing for people who are in on the joke.
“Just once we were told no innuendo, no innuendo at the Truth and Reconciliation national gathering,” says Ken. Which was fine... until one of the puppets decided to start talking about how he liked to eat beavers—all kinds of beavers. “All the Aboriginals were laughing, but the non-Aboriginals...” he remembers, laughing himself.
In the CBC documentary produced last summer, the brothers all reflect on the fact that humour is medicine—and it won’t be leaving their shows anytime soon.
“What we’re doing next is coming up with our own alphabet,” says Ken. “The Cree alphabet. Like the letter B; B as in bannock with baloney and butter, like that. Or doing a skit with K; K as in Kraft Dinner and the other puppet sticks his head in, ‘With wieners?’”