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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

Heidi Holton remembers the day Ojibwe puppeteer Michael Lyons called in to the radio station where she worked.

She’d been following his puppets, Nanaboozhoo and Natasha, on YouTube, and commenting about their use of the Ojibwe language and culture.

“He said, ‘How about ‘Boozhoo Nanaboozhoo’ on the radio?’” she recalls. She stopped a moment to think.

“Hmm. Puppets on the radio? That might just work!”

And it has. A five-minute radio show, “The Boozhoo Nanaboozhoo Podcast,” is now featured regularly on the morning show at KAXE/KBXE community radio in Bemidji, Minnesota, where Holton is news and public affairs director. It’s one of a growing number of platforms for Lyons and his puppets to reach new audiences.

“It didn’t hurt that both Michael and I grew up watching and loving 'The Muppet Show,'” Holton told Indian Country Today. “Unlike me, he did something with that and created his own puppets who teach us all about Ojibwe culture and language. They also take phone calls from ‘celebrities’ like Keanu Reeves, Anthony Fauci and Sylvester Stallone.”

The radio station did a test run with Lyons and got great feedback, Holton said. KAXE/KBXE then included his work in its annual Legacy funding. And his reach is growing as a self-made entrepreneur with a niche as an entertainer, author and educator.

Lyons, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, has written and illustrated a number of children’s books, comic strips and comic books, and a coloring book in the Ojibwe language.

He also has a podcast on YouTube that airs daily at 8 a.m. central time that goes  beyond teaching the Ojibwe language, delving into a range of issues.

“’Boozhoo Nanaboozhoo’ is a comedy podcast that teaches Ojibwe words and phrases,” he told Indian Country Today.

“It's not an Ojibwe language class that makes jokes and sings songs. I do tell stories about my grandparents and their experiences about boarding school, but we also talk about totally unrelated subjects, like why they faked the moon-landing, how KISS is the greatest band of all time, and discussions about genuine appreciation for Adolf Hitler's paintings.”

Finding his voice

Lyons’ interest in language and culture started with his grandparents, who were boarding school survivors. He wrote a song called “Home,” about his grandfather’s eventual escape from the Flandreau Indian Boarding School in South Dakota.

His interest in working in the Ojibwe language grew because he wanted to become a comic strip artist.

“For 20 years I was drawing and trying to get published, but nobody was all that interested in my work until I started drawing cartoons that taught Ojibwe,” he said.

Writer, illustrator and puppeteer Michael Lyons, Ojibwe, wrote his first children's book, "Little Cutie: A Teddy Bear's Vision Question," about a ragged teddy bear searching for its identity. (Illustration courtesy of Michael Lyons)

His first children's book, "Little Cutie: A Teddy Bear's Vision Quest," tells the story of a bedraggled teddy bear searching for his identity.

“I illustrated a couple of children's books in Ojibwe, then when Facebook became a thing, I published color cartoons with an ‘Ojibwe Word of the Day.’ Eventually, I had enough to publish a collection of these cartoons in a book called, ‘Ojiberish, An Illustrated Introduction to Ojibwe.’ The only problem was, people started writing to me asking how to pronounce certain words and phrases.”

“That's when I decided to start the puppet show with Nanaboozhoo and Natasha. This way viewers could hear Ojibwe spoken.”

He taught the Ojibwe language and culture at a school in Bemidji, Minnesota, for three years. That lit a fire that is continuing to burn.

“That really helped me learn a lot of Ojibwe and sort of informed how the show goes, but again... it's only partly about that,” he said. “Sometimes, Nanaboozhoo will go off on a comedic rant on how terrible public schools are currently and that tribal schools are even worse.”

Writer, illustrator and puppeteer Michael Lyons, Ojibwe, has written a number of children's books and comics teaching the Ojibwe language. The 2013 book, "Dog and Ma'iingan," teaches readers how to count in Ojibwe and introduces words for certain animals. (Illustration courtesy of Michael Lyons)

His flair for the dramatic started in school in Minnesota.

“I always wanted to be either a rock star or a cartoonist as a kid and a grown-up, and didn't really think anything of puppets until this show,” he said. “Once I started doing the voices for the characters, I reached way back in my experience in high school speech and theater programs at Laporte High School.”

He had an eye for comedy, too.

“I was one of those kids who was always in some stage production or competing in the ‘Humorous Interpretation’ category of a speech tournament,” he said. “I did my first professional stand-up comedy spot when I was 16 years old at a dinner theater thing we put on at a bar in Walker, Minnesota. I basically plagiarized a bunch of jokes from a Steve Martin album I had.”

Not ‘Sesame Street’

The daily, livestreamed podcast on KAXE features Nanaboozhoo, a middle-aged, Ojibwe speaker who is in a relationship with co-host Natasha.

“Natasha is the adorable and adoring sweetheart to Nanaboozhoo,” he said. “She is usually just off-camera when Nanaboozhoo is on, to offer commentary and laughter to his rants. She also sings, plays guitar and piano. Often times, Natasha will get teleported (you know, like in ‘Star Trek’) outside to put out tobacco and pray in Ojibwe. More times than not, Gichi Manidoo responds with his characteristic, gruff Irish/Australian accent. She's also in charge of the phone lines when celebrity guests call in, like Sylvester Stallone or Kermit the Frog.”

But don’t mistake the show for those other puppets.

“’Boozhoo Nanaboozhoo’ is clean, family-friendly comedy, but it is not a spin-off of ‘Sesame Street’ in any way,” Lyons said. “We don't swear or talk about sex in a bad way during the hour-long, live-streaming show, and we will teach a few phrases, but along the way, Nanaboozhoo and Natasha discuss anything.”

He said the show was influenced by controversial podcaster Owen Benjamin, a former actor and alt-right commentator who has been banned at times by YouTube and other social media, and by comedians Dave Chapelle and Michael Jr.

“We're not a children's show,” Lyons said.

Music, however, is also a key element.

“Writing songs and recording music is a big part of the show,” he said. “As far as my background connecting to my current work, I could say that I was inspired by David Bowie and the movie, ‘Labyrinth,’ as a teenager, and I grew up watching ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Muppet Show.’”

In addition to Nanaboozhoo and Natasha, the podcast features a cast of animal characters who make cameos from time to time, including Animosh (Dog), Makwa (Bear), Sabe' (Big Foot), Amik (Beaver), and “a gray alien named Steven,” he said.

Looking ahead

Lyons doesn’t have mentors. He does have major influences, though.

“I would credit Jim Henson for being the father of this sort of medium,” he said. “David Bowie and Paul Stanley are musical heroes of mine. I've learned a lot about comedy from people like Owen Benjamin, Dave Chapelle and Michael Jr.”

"Boozhoo Nanaboozhoo” is his only job. He makes his living through the videos and the radio show, and from sales of books.

He plans to continue to grow the YouTube channel, and is scheduled to do some in-person events next year.

Heidi Holton, news and public affairs director of KAXE/KBXE radio in northern Minnesota, gave writer/illustrator/puppeteer Michael Lyons the opportunity to host his own podcast with his Ojibwe-speaking puppets, Nana Boozhoo and Natasha. (Photo courtesy of Heidi Holton)

“His sense of humor, storytelling, celebrity impersonations and music are remarkable,” Holton said. “Listeners who haven’t seen the podcast but have only heard him on the radio ask me, ‘Are Natasha and Nanaboozhoo as fun as they seem on the radio?’ – not knowing Michael is both characters. In fact, some have asked for a relationship advice segment from the couple, as they are incredibly kind to each other and are role models for supportive partners.”

Lyons was featured on the “Area Voices” show of KAXE, “Michael Lyons: The Man Behind Boozhoo Nanaboozhoo,” and on Native Report and Minnesota Native News.

“Humor and satire are important and especially from differing perspectives,” Holton said. “We are lucky to have Michael Lyons’ wry sensibility and talent on KAXE/KBXE.”

For more info
Michael Lyons collection of books and comics are for sale on Amazon.com and at Birchbark Books. His podcast can be viewed on YouTube. 

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