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PHOENIX — Last weekend, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater hosted a Navajo language and culture experience with puppeteer Pete Sands (Diné).

Sands’ performance drew a diverse crowd that Great Arizona Puppet TheaterInterim Executive Director Jeffrey Lazos Ferns says is reflective of a shared interest in language preservation.

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“Pete Sands’ love for his community, its language, and culture transfers and translates to his body of work,” Ferns told Native News Online. “The turnout in audiences from all sectors of the community is evidence that the show captures not only the imagination but also a need and desire in the community for language preservation.” 

Sands’ journey with puppetry began during in 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. That year, he was recognized by Time Magazine as one of its “Guardians of the Year” for creating the Utah Navajo Health System’s COVID-19 Relief effort to deliver food, firewood, and water to thousands on the Navajo Reservation.

Sands created a puppet show with one puppet in 2020, hoping that he could make learning about Navajo culture and language fun for children. Because the Navajo Nation was heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, learning for school children was extremely limited. While running the COVID-19 Relief effort during the pandemic, he saw a barrier between generations in homes on the Navajo reservation and wanted to change that. 

 Because there is no word for “puppet” in the Navajo language, Sands named his show “Navajo Highways.” Navajo Highways portrays a family of Navajo puppets where the children learn about their culture through language. His inspiration came from travels to Manhattan, where he was on the production set of “Sesame Street.” 

“When I saw how the puppets came alive and how adults learned along with children, I thought I could do this back home,” said Pete Sands to Native News Online

So, he launched a GoFundMe to raise funds for producing a television show titled “Navajo Highways” to showcase a Navajo family learning — Sadie, Ash, Grandma Sally and Uncle Al — from each other. 

“Young kids are learning Navajo, and the adults can learn too,” Sands said of Navajo Highways 

He’s not the only talent in the show, though. He uses others, including youth and a Navajo language teacher, who voices Grandma Sally and is the host of the show. Together, they show others what life is like on the Navajo Indian Reservation, the nation’s largest Indian reservation in the country at more than 27,000 square miles.

 Great Arizona Puppet Theater theater hosts a variety of shows, but not many Indigenous-themed puppet shows. Puppetry has a long history among many groups of people throughout the world for storytelling.

“We look forward to hosting him and Navajo Highways again at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater,” Ferns said of Pete Sands. 

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.