Navajo puppet show that teaches culture and language finds distributor

“Navajo Highways” is intended to “serve as an educational tool aimed at Navajo children from Pre-K to 3rd grade,” according to a synopsis.

Castle Valley • “Navajo Highways,” a family-friendly puppet TV show that teaches Navajo language and culture, has wrapped up filming after recently securing a distributor.

“I’m stoked about it,” said Pete Sands, the show’s creator and director. “It’s something that I hoped for from the beginning – you create something, you hope it means something to people and makes an impact.”

The TV show originally started as a community theater puppet show performed in a handful of venues in different cities over the last several years, including Star Hall in Moab.

The plot of “Navajo Highways” unfolds as the main character, Sadie — a Navajo kid who has grown up in the city — decides to spend her summer on the Navajo reservation with her grandmother to immerse herself in Navajo culture and language. It takes place in the fictitious town of Mitten Creek, on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, around her family and warm community.

“It centers around her learning these different things, [and] the audience doesn’t really understand so they learn along with Sadie the audience learns along with her, following her journey,” Sands said about the show, which will feature six episodes ranging from 15 to 20 minutes.

“Navajo Highways” is intended to “serve as an educational tool aimed at Navajo children from Pre-K to 3rd grade, encouraging language acquisition and cultural understanding,” according to a synopsis of the show sent to The Times-Independent.

Sands said his biggest inspiration for the show was seeing how the Navajo language is dying.

In 2017, the number of fluent speakers of the Navajo language was estimated to be around 170,000, which is less than half of the tribe’s population, according to the Navajo Times.

“The best way to save the language is to aim it at the children, so how do we get their attention?” Sands said, adding as a kid, he was super interested in shows like “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.”

“It was always puppetry or some sort of inanimate projects that are brought to life by people,” Sands said. “I just made that connection – there was never an Indigenous puppet on those platforms.”

Daryl Begay, executive producer of the show, said he first heard about the project a few years ago and encouraged Sands to make it a TV show so students, parents and teachers could always have access to it.

The Navajo Nation provided grant funding for the show through the state of New Mexico’s Public Education Department and they’re hopeful about their recent application for the Utah Film Commission’s tax incentive program, according to Begay.

One reason this show is valuable, Begay said, is there are not a lot of audio or visual learning tools in the Navajo education system.

“This is sort of the first effort to build a library – there’s some other animation stuff that was in the ‘70s through the San Juan County School District here in Utah, but it’s so outdated,” Begay said.

Sands said he hopes that Indigenous kids who watch the show realize that “learning your language doesn’t have to be hard.”

“Your own culture is part of your identity and you shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are,” he said. “And to take that and own it because now there are characters on TV that talk like you, that are from where you’re from.”

For non-indigenous kids, who he expects to enjoy the show too, he wants them to learn more in-depth about the history of Indigenous people in the U.S.

“There’s a connection to the land and culture we have that’s so rooted beyond when America first became America,” Sands said.

Begay said the project has become a lot bigger than he thought it would, with the addition of experienced producers and a distributor. (The distributor’s name has not been announced.)

“I would say it’s probably going to be the most cinematic puppet show I’ve ever seen,” he said.

On May 12, the crew was filming an episode of the show, which features guest star Alana Yazzie, a Navajo cookbook author and food creator who goes by @thefancynavajo on Instagram, teaching Sadie and her cousin about a Navajo recipe.

Yazzie, a Navajo, said it was an honor to be a part of the show because growing up, there weren’t any TV shows geared toward Native American culture in an accurate and respectful way.

“For this project, it’s really cool to see them highlight Navajo culture and show how unique and different we are,” Yazzie said.

Though her parents speak Navajo, as a child it wasn’t a priority for them to teach her, but she wishes it were.

“What I really like about the show is it incorporates the Navajo language in an easy way for kids to learn new words and phrases,” Yazzie said.

As a mother of a two-year-old daughter, Yazzie said it’s exciting to have a show where her child can see herself represented and learn about her culture.

Mace Eliaz, who portrays one of the characters in the show who’s not a puppet, said this show is so important because it’s an opportunity to inspire the younger generation of Native American kids, especially since the creator and director is Diné.

“It’s more for the kids than anything and we have to remember that,” he said.. “… It combines both worlds – the Anglo world and the Native American world, we can coexist.”

Also in the works is a “Navajo Highways” app where viewers can follow Sadie on her adventure and learn about the Navajo language and culture. It’s tentatively planned to be released in January.

In the long term, Sands said he wants it to grow bigger as a learning platform.

“The Navajo culture is so huge – it would probably take at least 20 seasons to even get halfway through,” he said.

In the future, Sands said he hopes educators and students can be directly involved in continuing to build this world and its characters.

Being able to make a show like this is a “dream come true” for Sands, who said he’s amazed by how many people believe in it from the crew members to the cast to the local community.

“It just blows me away … I’m setting the foundation right now of how to film it, how I want it to look, so I can’t wait to watch other people take it forward and make it their own,” he said.

This story was first published by The Times-Independent.