Jan. 26, 2021

Story of bison's return to Banff ecosystem brings people together

Immersive puppet-lantern performance draws on talents of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, UCalgary students, faculty and alumni
Iniskim, an immersive puppet-lantern performance, celebrates the return of the buffalo. Mike Tan Photography

In a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Arts Centre created an initiative called Grand Acts of Theatre, bringing together Canadian artists and audiences. Twelve of Canada’s most innovative theatre companies were engaged to create and perform large-scale new works in response to these times, for live audiences in various Canadian locations.

One of the works is Iniskim, an immersive puppet-lantern performance, produced by the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry, and involves Indigenous and non-Indigenous University of Calgary students, faculty and alumni.

“When the Canadian National Conservation plan brought back a herd of plains buffalo to Banff National Park in 2018, there was a lot of excitement,” says Amethyst First Rider, MFA’94, one of the core creators. “It was decided that there should be a community celebration and that’s how Iniskim was created.”

The return of the buffalo to the natural landscape is not just about conservation. It resulted in the creation of the historic Buffalo Treaty, creating an alliance within First Nations to restore the bison.    

Treaty 7 artists, elders and youth pitch in

The production relied heavily on local Indigenous knowledge and was developed further through relationships. The team members had a camp gathering and shared their skills, from artists making puppets, to elders and youth from Treaty 7 sharing stories and teachings of the buffalo and the land.

“Many non-Indigenous Peoples in Canada have no idea of Native American stories and knowledge,” explains First Rider. “This collaborative effort was an opportunity to experience through relationships, story, movement, light, and song how we relate to landscape and how traditional stories help us understand our responsibility to land and community.”

Iniskim was developed three years ago and remounted this fall for a one-time performance at the Leighton Art Centre, captured on film and now streaming online. The original team remounted the experience, brought in other puppeteers, Indigenous artists and elders and added a choir in the woods.

“The remounted performance reminds us what the land has to teach and share,” says First Rider.

Land creates no barriers or boundaries but opportunity to be in relationship with nature.

Adds assistant professor Peter Balkwill, another core creator: “Through art, we are able to get people talking about things in creative ways and address sensitive themes.”

Balkwill researches puppetry and immersive performance and is also interested in exploring the nature of intercultural artistic collaborations tied to creation processes.

Immersive performance tied to the land

“I am interested in discovering new ways to approach design and performance through other ways of knowing,” says Balkwill. “The Indigenous heritage of this area is very connected to and informed by the land and the landscape. I believe that there are ways to grow as individuals and as a community through experiencing immersive performance tied to the land.”

Although there were some barriers due to COVID-19, performing an immersive experience outside brought its own challenges.

“Stretching the performance over a kilometre has folks running about, being unable to move things by vehicle and being at the mercy of the elements made COVID-19 seem tame to a certain degree,” says Balkwill.

“The production and performance have moved many people. It truly reflects relationship to and the teachings of land,” concludes First Rider.

Iniskim has its sights set on performing at the 2022 World Stage Design at the University of Calgary, as well as in Ottawa and New York City, and in Indigenous communities throughout Canada and the U.S.

Iniskim Leighton

During the performance, the audience moves through a wooded area containing static lantern sculptures before they emerge into a clearing where they discover the buffalo and Napi, a Blackfoot storyteller.

Mike Tan Photography

The National Arts Centre Foundation acknowledges the RBC Foundation as a Presenting Partner of Grand Acts of Theatre.

Grand Acts of Theatre is also made possible by the support of the Jenepher Hooper Fund for Theatre at the National Arts Centre Foundation, established as a result of a generous gift from the estate of Jenepher Margaret Hooper.