A family tradition

Father and daughter teamed up with Heather Henson in Native American play

The cast of "Ajijaak on Turtle Island," an IBEX Puppetry Production directed by Ty Defoe and Heather Henson. Photo by Richard Termine
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The cast of "Ajijaak on Turtle Island," an IBEX Puppetry Production directed by Ty Defoe and Heather Henson. Photo by Richard Termine

When Kevin Tarrant was in the third grade, he learned about Native Americans in school. He knew his bloodline was in the Hopi and Ho-Chunk Native American tribes, although he had a lot of Irish blood as well. His father was very Irish, even playing in an Irish pipe band.

His father was from Jersey City. In Hudson County, there were a lot more Irish people than Native Americans. Nevertheless… “I went home and told my father that I had decided I was going to be an Indian,” Tarrant said.

Perhaps it was impossible for Tarrant to know then how much his decision would affect his life, how following the trail of his Native American ancestors would help him to explore their cultural traditions and bring to life their music and rituals.

Although he had danced since he was very young with his brothers and sister, he began to learn Native America songs at age 9, and later traveled West to learn more from other Native Americans.

“When you’re in the community, people share,” he said.

He learned all the songs he could, and later began to compose his own.

Tarrant went through the school system in Belleville.

SilverCloud was his mother’s Indian name, and in 1991, he and his brother formed what would become the SilverCloud Singers. The group became an educational vehicle, touring schools and providing firsthand experience to people who might not have seen rituals of indigenous people before.

Tarrant, now a Jersey City resident, went on to become executive director of the American Indian Community House in New York City.

Several years ago, he became the musical director of a play titled “Don’t Feed the Indians: A Divine Comedy Pageant.”

“This is a thing I do to live, growing up in a singing community,” he said.

“Native nations assist us in reflecting how we are taking care of and taking action for the environment.” — Ty DeFoe

Teaming up with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop

Earlier this year, his path led Tarrant and his daughter, Henu Josephine Tarrant (called Josie), to work with puppet artist Heather Henson, a daughter of legendary puppeteer, Jim Henson, on a musical called “Ajijaak on Turtle Island.”

Co-directed by Henson and Grammy Award winner Ty Defoe, the show features puppetry from the world-renowned Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and Native American performers. It honors contemporary indigenous cultures in an ecologically-focused story.

Josie, age 25, is the lead character, Ajijaak, a young whooping crane who must face her first migration cycle on Turtle Island in North America after being separated from her family.

The cast includes performers from many Native American nations, including the Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Lakota, and Cherokee.

“Native nations assist us in reflecting how we are taking care of and taking action for the environment, and ‘Ajijaak on Turtle Island’ is a metaphor for how we can be better stewards of our Mother Earth and one another,” Defoe said. “I was inspired by my lived experience and journeys across Turtle Island—with continual visits to landscapes, cousin nations and communities, and in speaking with elders and youth—to learn how ecological knowledge and sacred wisdom from indigenous people can be shared. I am thrilled to share this story.”

Tarrant’s role was to make sure the play was authentic.

“I enjoyed the experience and liked puppets,” he said. “While they had their own vision, they consulted me and took time to listen. The magic is still there.”

An up-and-coming performer

Josie attended James Ferris High School magnet school for the arts, where she studied theater. She graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, performing in several off-Broadway productions and short films.

Her first time in a puppeteer role, Josie was faced with the daunting task of learning puppetry. Heather Henson was her teacher.

“I was in `Don’t Feed the Indian,’ and Heather took an interest in the show and came to see me,” Josie said.

Heather offered Josie the lead role. “But the bird didn’t sing or speak, and I asked to be allowed to, so they scripted it in,” Josie said.

Josie has been described as an up-and-coming indigenous performance artist. Native American culture is a part of her and has been the inspiration in her work. She believes in using her artistic platform to educate and to combat social injustice.

“This was a big step for me career wise,” she said. “When they approached me, I wasn’t sure. I’m a very green puppeteer. So there was a lot of pressure. I felt I needed to be good at what I am doing, and this meant I had to learn about different types of puppets.”

Henson to the rescue

“Last year, I took a trip to L.A. with her,” Josie said. “I’d never been out there before. I got to meet people in the cinema.” She visited the Jim Henson studios.

“It was a big moment and very exciting,” she said.

Despite her stage experience, Josie said she was nervous when she got on stage.

Tarrant said he believes he gave his daughter confidence and stage presence, but also awareness about who she is.

“You get questioned a lot,” he said. “My daughter needs to be confident about who she is, and wear it as a badge of honor. We are Indians.”

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com