Puppet show shares Cherokee language

Cherokee Nation citizen Chris Griffith, right, and his wife, Shari Aronson, play character Dagsi Turtle and Jisdu Wabbit in a production that shares the Cherokee language. They own the company Z Puppets Rosenschnoz based in Minneapolis. 

MINNEAPOLIS – With more than 20 years of experience running a puppetry business called Z Puppets Rosenschnoz, Cherokee Nation citizen Chris Griffith and his wife, Shari Aronson, recently incorporated the Cherokee language into one of their latest productions.

SING IT! SAY IT! PLAY IT! IN CHEROKEE is a live, touring show and web series that was created in 2019 in response to the CN’s declared state of emergency on the Cherokee language.

“When I started studying the Cherokee language about five years ago, I mean it’s something that’s been present in my life throughout my life, but five years I started putting time into it,” said Griffith. “Then I started learning more about the state of the language and the state of speakers and just decided that I wanted to put the skills I’ve developed using puppetry and music into trying to put that toward the revitalization of the Cherokee language.”

Griffith said he grew up watching shows such as Sesame Street and School House Rock that gave him a better understanding of the English language. He then had the idea to incorporate the same techniques into a production using the Cherokee language. 

“That really shaped a lot for of my understanding of English and how English works and spoke to me in terms of a lot of the music and the humor that I used in my work,” he said. “So when I was thinking about it, I was inspired by wanting to do something similar for the Cherokee language, to use original music and puppets and storytelling to create a world where people can get excited about Cherokee.”

Griffith reached out to Wade Blevins, CN language technology assistant, and fluent speaker Peggy Girty Flute for translations and pronunciation of words and phrases. 

The show follows the adventures of Dagsi Turtle and his sidekick, Jisdu Wabbit, on their voyage to help Grandmother Tsalagi, who has fallen upside down and needs help getting back on her feet. 

“So with grandmother being upside down is sort of a metaphor for language and the language needing attention, we have to pay attention to it. We have to help it get back on its feet,” said Griffith. “As they go on their adventure they begin to learn some of the basic sounds of Cherokee, exploring the syllabary a little and then putting those sounds together to make words. In this production it’s pretty basic words like hello and thank you and counting to three and those things.”

Griffith said in past productions noticed how audiences engaged with the humor and lessons played out in stories and wanted to continue incorporating those ideas into productions so that people can take away something positive.

“So after a few years…I started thinking if people are doing that anyway, what kind of messages do we want them to repeating after the show? What would we like them to take away from our shows? That was about the time that we started putting messages into our shows or trying to have shows that go a little deeper than just kind of comedy,” he said.

With SING IT! SAY IT! PLAY IT! IN CHEROKEE he hopes audiences will be inspired to learn the Cherokee language. 

“For myself, in my own journey I was always intimidated by the language,” he said. “I realized its becoming more and more endangered and you need to take action even before we get to that point. And I started realizing everybody can take a first step towards learning Cherokee. It doesn’t have to be perfect it just has to be a step.”

SING IT! SAY IT! PLAY IT! IN CHEROKEE is coming to Tulsa on Nov. 6 at a drive-in event and will be featured online. For information and tickets, visit www.zpuppets.org.