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'Anaana's Tent' passes Inuit songs, legends, language to a new generation

Last Updated Sep 23, 2018 at 8:40 am EST

Singer Rita Claire and Qimmiq are shown in a scene from the television show "Anaana's Tent." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Arvaaq Media Inc. MANDATORY CREDIT

In Pangnirtung, Nunavut, on the eastern tip of Baffin Island, Rita Claire Mike-Murphy’s two-year-old niece is watching Treehouse TV. The 22-year-old herself grew up watching the Canadian kid’s channel, but now finds the programming akin to giving kids a shot of caffeine.

“It’s loud and fast and chaotic,” she says. “She is watching it and not taking anything in.”

Mike-Murphy hosts the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network series “Anaana’s Tent,” an educational children’s show aimed at preschoolers that teaches Inuit culture and language through puppets, music, and animation.

After premiering in Inuktitut in May, the English version of the series premiered Sept. 15.

Mike-Murphy’s slow, deliberate delivery clashes with the accelerated pace that has become standard in children’s television.

“When we pitched the show to several broadcasters, they didn’t like our editorial sensibilities,” creator Neil Christopher says. “We weren’t willing to cut a show like ‘Paw Patrol’ with fast cuts where you barely got a chance to focus on a scene before you cut to the next scene.

“We don’t think that’s healthy for children and we don’t think that’s representative of the culture of the North. We couldn’t have done this show with anyone else but APTN because no one else would have allowed the community to do it our way.”

Filmed in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the series is set in a tent where Mike-Murphy camps out with her puppet-pup sidekick Qimmiq.

“Most of the kids have experience going on camping trips with their families,” Christopher says. “It’s a time we are together as a family, we are out in nature; it’s a very positive time.”

In a format inspired by “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood,” Mike-Murphy’s live action elements frame a variety of segments featuring animated Inuit legends, Nunavummiut musical acts including throat-singer Celina Kalluk and The Jerry Cans, and, in the English-language version, Inuktitut vocabulary lessons.

Preserving the cultural integrity of the program wasn’t always easy. Mike-Murphy, a singer who performs as Riit, had no previous experience on camera, but speaks excellent Inuktitut.

“Some people said, ‘She’s not a professional host,'” Christopher says. “We had to explain, the show is about language. And the way she acts is going to be understood by Nunavut children.”

Christopher has seen the Inuktitut language decline during the 20 years he’s spent teaching school in Iqaluit. The 2016 Canadian census found that the percentage of Inuit people who could speak Inuktitut had declined to 56 per cent from 61 per cent since the 2011 census.

But Christopher says those numbers are misleading.

“Even when people are identifying it as their language, their understanding of grammar and their true fluency is declining,” he says. “For people on the front lines, it’s deeply concerning.”

Christopher was also motivated to create “Anaana’s Tent” to create positive representation of the Inuit culture for kids.

“What’s on TV is what’s cool to a child,” he says. “If all the cool shows you want to see are in English, then English is the cool language. We recognized this was a problem in Nunavut.”

“Anaana’s Tent,” which translates to mother or grandmother’s tent, isn’t the first series of its kind, but it is filling a void in Inuit educational television.

The long-running Inuktitut kids series “Takuginai,” which premiered on the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation in 1986, has aired as a web series since 2014. Fans can also catch reruns on APTN.

Other Indigenous languages have received similar educational treatments. “Teepee Time” airs on APTN in Mi’kmaq, and includes Mi’kmaq language lessons in its French and English versions. “Tiga Talk” aired on APTN from 2008 through 2011 and taught different Indigenous languages with kids and puppets.

So far, the response to “Anaana’s Tent” has exceeded Christopher’s expectations.

“We were getting comments from parents that it is their child’s favourite show, they’re speaking more Inuktitut, they’re speaking better Inuktitut,” Christopher says. “It’s better than we could have imagined.”

The English-language version of Anaana’s Tent airs Saturdays on APTN. The Inuktitut version airs Saturdays and Sundays.