Origins of Puppetry in Northern United States

I wanted to do a blog series on the history of puppets in the United States. While searching for information, I discovered that puppetry has been around a lot longer than I thought. Puppetry used by the Native American Nations is fascinating.

These various Nations utilized puppets for centuries.  The puppet got its start in religious ceremonies.   A variety of ritual figures used by the Native American peoples of the United States have been found.  Some of these objects have movable joints and were operated by strings.

Finding detailed information and pictures is challenging since there aren’t any written records until the late 1800’s due to the western expansion.  Almost all the records are by Europeans and they didn’t fully appreciate Native American culture.  Therefore it was either banned, ridiculed or discounted. 

Also, the puppets were used for religious ceremonies and were probably considered sacred and secret.   Adding to the challenge is that there is a difference of opinion among experts about what constitutes a “puppet” as opposed to a “dance object” or even a doll.  There are only a few objects collected that might fit the category of a puppet. 

Based on the information I was able to uncover the Native American Nations that historians could definitely identify as using a form of puppetry are:

  • The Sioux, Menominee and Ojibwe of the plains and woodlands of northern United States
  • The Yup’ik speakers of Western Alaska in the Arctic
  • The Hopi of southwest United States
  • The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe of the Pacific Northwest

Sioux and Menominee

The Sioux of the Plains Native Americans carried sticks in their war dance to assume the role of their war horses.  The Sioux lived in the northern Great Plains in lands that are today the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  Since the Sioux were a nomadic people following the buffalo they would be in different states for periods of time so their puppets would be very lightweight and portable. 
The Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin had some human figures attached by strings to sticks.  The Menominee Nation once occupied nine and one half million acres of land which is now central and mid-eastern Wisconsin and part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.


The Ojibwe are the most populous tribe in North America living in both the United States and Canada.   They occupy land around the entire Great Lakes, including Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario.  The Ojibwe had “juggler” dolls.   We don’t know exactly what they looked like but perhaps they were similar to “faceless dolls.” 

Many Native cultures have a tradition of the faceless doll.  In Ojibwe, the faceless doll is called Odaminwaagan and it is based on a traditional Ojibwe story (and helps facilitate stories) founded in the Ojibwe Seven Teachings.  Possibly the faceless doll could be considered a puppet since it was used to help tell the stories.  The picture below is a display of faceless dolls made by Joyce LaPorte, Giiwedanangikwe (North Star woman), an Ojibwe elder from the Fond du Lac reservation in northern Minnesota.  LaPorte learned how to make these dolls from her Grandmother when she was five years old .  Her Grandmother learned how to make them from her Grandmother.  And so on back in time. 

Shown is a display of Joyce LaPorte’s “Odaminwaagan” – the Ojibwe faceless dolls from a doll-making class at the FDL Cultural Museum. Photo from December 2008 issue of the Nah gah chi wa nong – Di bah ji mowin nan published by the Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee.

Sources:  World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts

University of Minnesota Intersecting Ojibwe Art Curriculum

Canadian Museum of History