SALT LAKE CITY — A man who is based in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation is trying to give new life to the Navajo language and culture through a kid's TV show that uses puppets to teach children about who they are.
Pete Sands says that during COVID, he had the opportunity to travel to homes on the reservation and realized a large disparity between the older and younger generations.
"We started knowing the disparities between the older generation, the elder generation and the younger generation - they had no communication," Sands explained. "The younger folks didn't know, they don't speak the language. They don't understand it."
Sands knew that he had to find a solution to keep his culture and language alive and teach it to the rising generation in a fun way. In the early months of 2021, he saw with his own eyes how a teacher used a puppet to teach young children in her classroom and a light bulb went off.
"It was this an epiphany...I had seen this one thing where a teacher got the attention of children with a puppet," Sands said. "Maybe I can create a puppet show where we teach a Navajo language and, and that's where it started."
Sands used his contacts he had in the film industry to help connect him to a puppet maker based in Los Angeles. After sketching his vision for what he wanted the puppets to look like, Sadie, Ash, Grandma Sally and Uncle Al were born.
The four puppets, who were made with Navajo features, are meant to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations and are the main characters in the TV show, "Navajo Highways."
Sands recruited some help from a teacher in the San Juan school district who created a language program to teach Navajo. The teacher is the host of the show and also voices the grandma puppet.
There are plans to film ten episodes, and each episode will have a specific theme. The first episode will focus on introduction and learning about the Navajo culture.
"Navajos had complex, complicated classes and it breaks it down to just really simple," Sands explained. "Instead of making it so complicated, we break it down simple where people can understand it."
The show will also focus on unity between native Navajo people and others in the community.
"I think it's important not just to show specifically just native Navajo people, as to show them interacting with people outside the reservation and really bring everything together to show unity," Sands said. "Just to help them expand beyond what they know...it's okay to be different."
Unlike English, the Navajo language is mainly phonetic, which can be a challenge when trying to teach it to others. Sands is hoping that by teaching with puppets, it will make challenging lessons more fun to learn and kids will be able to retain the information more easily.
"[Enlgish and Navajo are] intertwined [in the show] because the little kids are learning to speak it in the show," Sands said. "So that's how that's how the audience grows with them - with the kids. They learn how to speak it."
As Sands and his team work on creating and filming episodes, they're looking for funding for the project. A Gofundme page has been set up to collect donations. Sands hopes that when the episodes are completed, he'll be able to put them on a platform that is free for everyone to watch.
"This is special, this is this is something way outside the box," he said. "They see hope that this can really work. And I really think it can work. I mean, it's never been done before.
Sands says they've been chosen to do a few live shows on the reservation and in Arizona. This year, they will potentially travel to Los Angeles for a live show. He says the more that people see the special puppets and their potential to teach kids, the more they want them to come and participate in their own communities.