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Puppets, hoop dance, knowledge: how Granny Willow shapes the future

Kelleen Blouin can be described in many ways. She is a knowledge keeper, a dancer, an educator, even a puppeteer. The Cranberry Portage woman is best described by the name that children throughout the region know her by - Granny Willow.
Kelleen Blouin, better known by the name Granny Willow, poses with Everest, one of the puppets she uses to share Indigenous teachings and culture with schoolkids.

Kelleen Blouin can be described in many ways. She is a knowledge keeper, a dancer, an educator, even a puppeteer. The Cranberry Portage woman is best described by the name that children throughout the region know her by - Granny Willow.

Blouin shares her knowledge of Indigenous tradition and life experience from her and family’s background with kids in schools and with community groups, hoping to empower and educate a new generation of children.

Blouin is Metis and has mixed Cree, Ojibway and Sioux ancestry. She learned culture and tradition from her grandmother, a residential school survivor who shared things she experienced with Blouin as a child.

Blouin first became interested in sharing traditional Indigenous teachings when her children were young. She wanted to share that knowledge with her children, but didn’t know where to start or even what knowledge she should pass down. Finding out how to do that led Blouin on a decades-long odyssey of education and learning, one that led her not only to become reacquainted with teachings but to share them with others.

The teaching journey began with enrolling her kids in the Nemihitowok Hoop Troupe - the troupe Blouin has now led for years. She said hearing the drums while the hoop troupe performed opened up a new path.

“I was talking to my kids and they were wondering about their culture, who they were as people. I wasn’t doing a very good job of it - I know mine, but I didn’t show them. They joined the hoop troupe and they were in that for a couple of years,” she said.

“The second I heard the drums, I started to cry - not like sobs, but there was crying, tears. I never looked back. It was pretty much from that point.”

Blouin learned how to hoop dance from the kids in the program and, with time, learned the significance of the dances, of each formation within the dance. She gained the confidence to not only dance herself, but to share what she learned with others.

“They said, ‘We’ll show you how to teach other people’. Most people learn from elders, I learned from kids,” she said.

Blouin eventually took the lead in running the troupe. Since then, Blouin and her persona as Granny Willow have been synonymous with hoop dance in Flin Flon, teaching generations of dancers not only the formations, what they mean and why they are danced, but educating in a wider way - going from the student to the teacher.

Blouin also uses an unorthodox tool to help educate the next generation. She uses puppets to educate children, to share wisdom that has been passed down to her in a way that kids may find more engaging than having an adult talk at a class.

She began using the puppets around 2009, hoping the new strategy would connect better with children than merely having an adult speak with them.

Blouin’s lessons have since expanded to include several puppets. The main event is Everest - she describes him as “the star of the show.” Decked out in traditional dress with moccasins, Everest’s character teaches the seven sacred teachings - love, respect, honesty, courage, truth, wisdom and humility. Each of the teachings comes with its own animal, with its own lessons and ideas.

Everest’s mixture of stories, anecdotes, a joke or two and wisdom can connect with children differently than Blouin can by herself.

“To me, Everest is probably my inner child. I’m guessing that’s what he is. He’s everything that I see in myself or in other children. When I look at him and talk with him, it’s not hard to separate,” she said.

In time, each of the puppets has developed their own story, their own personality. For instance, Everest is presented as someone who has been bullied in the past, allowing Blouin to share information about bullying with kids through him. Another puppet, bearing the name Sunny Vibes, speaks about the power of joy and positivity and mental health.

“When you value kids, when you have good stories and you let people open their hearts, good things happen,” she said.

The puppets can also be a way to teach kids big lessons and about experiences that could be tough to grasp. In her presentations, Blouin uses Everest to speak about the seven sacred teachings, about residential schools and generational trauma, about breaking cycles of abuse and finding ways to improve on the past.

Blouin mentions her mother’s struggle with dementia and the lessons she learned from that time, as well as the lessons learned from her granddaughter Ellie, who was born with a medical issue called Miller-Dieker syndrome and died in 2022, just five years old. During her hoop dance lessons, Blouin adds a new position, wheelchair position, to celebrate people with diverse abilities - Ellie is the inspiration for that.

“Every child that I talk to in every school, they learn about Ellie,” said Blouin.

“I talk about diverse abilities and how, if you see someone different than you, it’s okay to smile, it’s okay to be kind. Without those heartaches that I’ve had, I wouldn’t have that teaching.”

Drawing on experience and lessons brought from knowledge keepers before gives Blouin the confidence to share with the world, knowing she walks the same path trod by those before her.

“I never do this alone. My ancestors are behind me. I’m not doing this on my own, my wisdom has been passed down from ancestors, elders, knowledge keepers. I’m never by myself. I can’t take all the credit - we’re all in this together,” she said.

Blouin has taken the puppets, her hoops and her knowledge with her to different schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, sharing the lessons she learned with new generations of kids. As Granny Willow with her puppets and hoops in tow, she teaches kids the significance of hoop dance, teaches them about traditional knowledge through the puppets and hopes that knowledge can have a positive impact on kids now and into the future.

“You are the future and you have the opportunity to make a better world and a better life, one kid at a time,” she said.

“I had talked with a group of kids about residential schools. This little boy, about seven years old, an Indigenous boy, yelled out in the crowd, ‘Everest, this will never happen again.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You, young man, are going to be a leader one day.’ I got chills.”

Today, Blouin is still able to learn from the children she speaks with, as well as sharing what she knows with them - the same idea that got her into education so many years ago.

“I learn from the kids. Their energy is pure and it’s the best, unless they’re disrespectful, but if they’re engaged and connected, let them talk. I learn so much from them. I think if anything, I’m stronger in my own culture. I’m proud of who I am,” she said.

“I want to do my part on this earth while I can. That’s why I work so hard at it.”

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