Cree puppeteers from Pukatawagan on mission of laughter and language

When a sick girl had to be flown from her northern Manitoba community to a medical facility, her mom showed her Bighetty and Bighetty Puppet Show videos to distract her with laughter. 

“It’s incredible when we hear what is happening,” said Ken Bighetty, 54, one of the performers behind the puppets.

These are the stories that fuel Ken and his brothers Kelsey and Daniel, the Cree puppeteers from Pukatawagan, Man., about 700 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, who are the creative minds and performers behind Bighetty and Bighetty.

Their puppets deliver laughs in spontaneous interactions in Swampy Cree and English with elders, chiefs, adults and children. The brothers film the fun on their cell phones and post the videos on their YouTube and Facebook pages.

The brothers are also in-demand performers at schools, conferences, community gatherings and celebrations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the North. 

And now they are the subject of Bighetty and Bighetty, a new 22-minute documentary for CBC by Winnipeg-based Ice River Films. (The documentary will also air on CBC Manitoba on July 6 at 7 p.m.CT.)  They have also produced six social videos for CBC’s Creator Network. 

Puppet goes to the dentist 2:36

Their father Gabriel was a natural comedian who performed skits and entertained in their community. As youngsters, the boys would also stage plays and sock-puppet shows in their bedroom in Pukatawagan, often to entertain themselves when the power went off, said Kelsey, 47.

“That’s how we came up with the characters, but it came naturally,” he said. 

As children, the brothers were big fans of Mr. Dressup, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

“I was always looking out for a native puppet and I would never see one,” said Daniel. 

In late 2012, Daniel was working as a security guard at the health centre in Pukatawagan when he found an old puppet in the office and, with his brother Russell egging him on, he began goofing around and creating a voice for his new felt friend. Later, their brother Ken began filming the antics and posting the videos online. 

Their skits were, and still are, mostly improvised. Videos include puppets getting the flu shot, learning how to build a log cabin, checking the trap lines, hunting with a chief and listening to an elder tell stories.

Puppets go to the cabin 0:50

The first videos they made were less than a minute long but got a couple of thousand views each, said Ken, who lives in Thompson. 

“It exploded from there,” said Ken, who works for the Keewatin Tribal Council with the Jordan’s Principle team. 

The first spike in viewership came after the brothers posted a video of the puppets trying to order neck bones and Ichiban noodles at a drive-through in Thompson. A video featuring a traffic stop and a puppet pat down by a local RCMP officer, a friend of the family, also went wild online. 

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The online fame startled the brothers.

“I was just floored,” said Kelsey, 47, from his home in Pukatawagan. 

The puppets all have their own personalities. Michel, Kelsey’s puppet, is a powerful medicine man based on a real-life medicine man who was revered. The Chief, Ken’s puppet, is playful and loves to tease. Marcel, Daniel’s puppet, is mischievous, curious and talks a mile-a-minute.

“When I am around people, the character doesn’t stop,” said Daniel, 46. “My brother [Ken] has to stop me and whispers in my ear, ‘come on we have to go now.'” 

The brothers flip between Swampy Cree and English when they are performing. Younger audiences sometimes have a harder time keeping up but the brothers persist, and encourage kids to learn their language or “ask an Elder,” said Ken. 

Puppets visit Mathias Colomb Cree Nation chief 1:38

At schools, the puppets will also talk about bullying and addictions, respect, and self-esteem. 

Helen Trudeau, co-ordinator for Jordan’s Principle at the Keewatin Tribal Council, said the group works with children who may have gone through trauma and have anxiety and depression as a result and she has seen the puppets’ effect on them. 

“With the puppets, it’s play; it’s something they recognize to be safe,” she said.

“Some of the children don’t speak but the puppets are able to draw them out. Children are more apt to open up to them.”

The Bighetty brothers and their puppets sing The Pukatawagan Song as filmmaker Sam Karney from Ice River Films, shoots their performance in the northern Manitoba community. The brothers are the subject of a new CBC documentary. (Tracey Tyler)

In mid-May, the brothers embarked on a month-long tour that will see them make stops in 10 communities in Manitoba and one in Saskatchewan. On June 13 in Winnipeg, they will open for noted playwright and author Tomson Highway who is on tour.

Touring, and the long stretches of driving to communities, is exhausting but the brothers said performing is healing for them, too. 

“I used to work as a peace officer for 16 years and this helps me a lot mentally and emotionally,” said Daniel.

“It brings up my mood and my spirits when I see people, kids laughing. It’s like a therapy for me.”

For Ken, the performances are also cathartic. 

“When they laugh you just feel this energy and you are just sweating, too,” Ken said.

He compared it to a rock concert.

“You are gone for like five hours and you are just done, you are just spent. It’s a really good feeling. A really, really good vibe.”

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