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(Left to right) Lance Cardinal, DerRic Starlight and Bobby Currie pose with their Nuppets on Oct. 16, 2020, in Edmonton. Blood Tribe, an Indigenous tribe in Alberta, is currently getting ready for their upcoming COVID-19 safety campaign.

Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

When DerRic Starlight was a little kid growing up on the Tsuut’ina Nation reserve in Alberta, he was sure he knew how to get to Sesame Street.

“I thought it was downtown Calgary. I kept crying to go down there. Sesame Street was down there," he said. His mom tried to convince him Sesame Street was far, far away, in a place called New York. He wouldn’t buy it. It couldn’t be. The buildings in downtown Calgary look the same as the ones on the television.

The young child wanted to meet Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster, Big Bird. He wrote a letter to Santa and at Christmas, opened a big red box. There was Kermit. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Mr. Starlight said. Soon, his Muppet shows headlined Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas gatherings and school recesses.

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Mr. Starlight has made a career out of this wonderment by putting an Indigenous twist on the Sesame Street crew in comedy performances and educational spots. Now his Nuppets – native puppets – are starring in the Blood Tribe’s coronavirus outreach campaign for kids, online and on local TV stations. The effort is designed to spread messages of public health and cultural inclusion.

Public health experts say to curb COVID-19, officials must tailor their communications for their target demographics. The Governor of North Carolina, for example, leaned on Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – two NASCAR drivers – to deliver COVID-19 safety tips, while the Governor in California turned to Larry David, known for co-creating Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and imitating Bernie Sanders on Saturday Night Live. Neither septuagenarian Hollywood powerhouses nor people who are NASCAR-famous would play well with the schoolyard set in southern Alberta.

Blood’s communications team also recognized a communications hurdle tripping up public health officials around the globe: Adults are tired of endless messages about COVID-19 safety protocols. So the team decided to bypass grownups and target kids, according to Pam Blood, the band’s director of communications and community engagement. She immediately thought of Mr. Starlight’s Nuppet shows, which play everywhere from comedy clubs to powwows.

“It was all about empowering the kids during this whole COVID experience,” Ms. Blood said.

In the campaign’s first episode, Granny, an elder Nuppet with long grey braids, teaches students about face masks. Wind Dancer, a youthful Nuppet character, serves as her mask model. Artwork from real students on the reserve decorates the classroom set.

“This is the way we wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask,” Granny sings to the same tune that taught generations of children how to wash their hands, comb their hair, and brush their teeth so early in the morning.

There were no active cases of COVID-19 on the Blood reserve as of Friday, according to band’s health department. So far, the virus has infected 49 members on reserve and one elder has died. Alberta, however, is having difficulty containing the virus in other parts of the province, particularly Edmonton. The province counted 2,836 active cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday and 1,268 of those were in the capital city. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, last week said contact tracers found about 11 per cent of Edmontonians who tested positive for COVID-19 attended work or social gatherings while sporting symptoms of the illness and waiting for their test results.

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DerRic Starlight poses with his Nuppets on Oct. 16, 2020, in Edmonton.

Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Devon Greyson, a communications professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said Blood’s decision to team up with Mr. Starlight’s Nuppets could be an effective way to reach Indigenous audiences.

“Indigenous groups … will usually be better at reaching members of their communities in culturally acceptable and trusted ways, which is something that mainstream medicine and public health have historically struggled with,” Dr. Greyson said.

While the COVID-19 skits are aimed at children, this approach can change adult behaviour. Anti-smoking and pro-recycling campaigns targeted schoolchildren who then influenced their parents and grandparents to change behaviour, Dr. Greyson said as examples. “So, children’s shows teaching proper masking and other COVID-19 safety measures could be helpful both in school and in the broader community.”

Mr. Starlight, who calls himself a comedian puppeteer and lives in Edmonton, based the Granny character on his paternal grandmother, Mary Jane Starlight. He sees himself in Little Bo. Wind Dancer shares character traits with one of his ex-girlfriends. Puppeteers Bobbie Currie and Lance Cardinal helped him manipulate the Nuppets for the COVID-19 campaign. Blood officials hope their students see aspects of their lives reflected in the characters on TV and online, where Indigenous people are underrepresented.

And the Nuppets campaign is also meant to remind non-Indigenous people that their Indigenous counterparts are struggling with the same everyday annoyances – such as getting kids to wear masks properly – as they are.

“We’re all in the same canoe,” Mr. Starlight said.

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