Kermit the Frog might arguably be the most famous puppet in the world, but puppetry as an art form stretches back through human history, long before television and movies became the primary storytelling devices of the western world.

At the Yanaguana Indian Arts Market, a free festival at the Briscoe Western Art Museum this Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 7-8, the Ibex Puppetry company presents Crane: On Earth, In Sky, a multimedia storytelling adventure through the life of the whooping crane. Other events and vendors fill the Market schedule with activities, native food, and wares.

Ibex Puppetry founder Heather Henson met kite master Curtiss Mitchell more than 20 years ago at a kite festival, where Henson was doing research to incorporate kites into her puppetry performances. For the Yanaguana Market, Mitchell and Henson combined in a dance of kitefliers to represent a soaring crane couple, and for a handheld puppet/kite duet teaching a young crane to fly.

If Henson’s surname sounds familiar, it should.

“I was interested in puppetry by birth, because I have a puppeteer father,” she said after Saturday’s performance. Her father is none other than Jim Henson, who through Kermit the Frog and assorted Muppets, helped turn puppetry into a popular art form. Today, his daughter turns the form towards “environmental spectacle,” to build understanding and tell stories about the Earth’s interconnectivity.

“What is it like to be a crane?” she asked. “What would it be like if you were a crab? What would it be like if you were a drop of water in the ocean?” Puppetry allows Henson and her audiences to relate to creatures they might rarely glimpse otherwise.

Ty Defoe, of the Oneida and Ojibwe Nations from Wisconsin, teams up with Henson and Ibex Puppetry for Crane. At one point during the performance, he donned eagle-feather wings and danced a short story of an eagle rising above storm clouds to circle above until the storm passes over.

Ty Defoe performs an eagle dance in the McNutt Sculpture Garden at the Briscoe Museum at the 4th Annual Yanaguana Indian Arts Market.
Ty Defoe performs an eagle dance in the McNutt Sculpture Garden at the Briscoe Museum at the 4th Annual Yanaguana Indian Arts Market. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“That’s the kind of puppetry I love in the native communities,” Henson said, “when you are that animal, when you can be that animal, when you see the world through that animal’s eyes.”

There’s a lot of empathy in the prayers Defoe does, Henson added, “where we’re praying for the four-footed and the winged and the rooted, and being able to see outside of our humanness into other living things on this planet.”

Defoe sees puppetry, and specifically the multimedia evolution of Ibex and related performances, as a means of combining ancient and new forms of song, dance, and narrative towards shifting existing perspectives.

“Oftentimes these stories are speaking more of shape-shifting, what the role of shape shifting is, in being able to tell stories in a different skin, or feather, or claw, or fur,” he said.

Henson’s combined interest in puppetry and indigenous communities coalesced through the story of the whooping crane, an endangered species that dwindled to 15 in number in the 1940s. Through the efforts of various groups, including Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundation (of which Henson is a board member), the number of cranes who follow a main migration route between Wisconsin and Florida has grown to over 100 birds. Henson said over 400 cranes also make a winter nesting ground of the Aransas Wildlife Refuge just north of Lockport, Texas. The devastation of Hurricane Harvey extends to these creatures as well, she said, and whether their migration and nesting pattern survives remains to be seen.

Though their methods have recently changed, Operation Migration for years used puppets as an accepted means of rearing young whooping cranes, in order to avoid the young birds imprinting their human caretakers as parents. The annual effort culminated in a crane-costumed ultralight plane leading the baby “whoopers,” as they are known to crane fans, along their 1,100-mile migration route.

Puppetry also played a key role in preserving San Antonio’s history. An apocryphal tale hinges on a puppet show presented by the early San Antonio Conservation Society, whose purported aim was to convince City commissioners to adopt landscape architect Robert Hugman’s plan for the Paseo del Rio. Though the puppet show, which parodied squabbles among the commissioners, wasn’t actually about the River Walk, it helped steer San Antonio towards preserving its built history, now a major source of civic pride and tourism.

The idea of puppetry as storytelling is an “old philosophy that existed for centuries,” Defoe said, rehydrating with a bottle of cold water after his strenuous performance in the hot midday sun. “I think there’s a resurgence of it, because of things like Standing Rock, because of our need to gather as humankind to find peace with what’s happening with the world.”

On Saturday, Ibex Puppetry’s performance united a diverse audience of young and old in singing, dancing, and kite-flying, even allowing audience members to pick up the kite-puppets and try their hand at puppeteering.

“I think the role of puppetry today in contemporary indigenous culture is to bring out the spirit in people, in youth,” Defoe said, “that youthful spirit that everyone has when they’re six or seven.”

Anyone who ventures to the Yanaguana Indian Arts Market on Sunday to witness the Crane: On Earth, In Sky outdoor performance from 12:30-1:15 p.m., might just find themselves caught up in a colorful mix of kites, puppets, song, dance, and stories about how connected each of us is to every other living thing.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...