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Television

How ‘Molly of Denali’ helps Native American children feel seen

Molly and her mom at the trading post on PBS Kids’ “Molly of Denali.”
“Molly of Denali,” set in an Alaska Native village, is a landmark for Native representation on American television.
(WGBH Educational Foundation)

From white people in brownface to the “noble savage” — or just plain savage — the portrayal of Native Americans in mainstream TV and movies has long been one-dimensional and stereotypical, if they’re even shown at all.

So “Molly of Denali” is a huge step forward.

The PBS Kids animated series premiered in July, becoming the first nationally broadcast children’s program in the U.S. with a Native American lead character.

Molly Mabray is a resourceful 10-year-old who lives in the fictional Alaska village of Qyah with her mom, a bush pilot, and her dad, a wilderness guide. She’s voiced by Sovereign Bill, 14, who is of Tlingit and Muckleshoot descent.

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With a mom who manages Native education programs in the Auburn (Wash.) School District and a dad who is the cultural director for the Muckleshoot tribe, Bill said she has “grown up ... practicing traditional ways,” giving her a “strong cultural identity ... [which] ties me back to my roots.” But, she said, many Native kids aren’t surrounded by their cultures.

Which is why “Molly of Denali” is such an important television landmark.

“Molly of Denali” voice actor Sovereign Bill and her brother, Freedom
“Molly of Denali” voice actor Sovereign Bill and her brother, Freedom.
(Robin Pratt)

Emmy-winning co-creators Kathy Waugh (“Peep and the Big Wide World,” “Arthur”) and Dorothea Gillim (“Curious George”) were inspired to set a children’s show in an Alaska Native village after President Obama announced in 2015 that the former Mt. McKinley was being renamed Mt. Denali, restoring its indigenous name.

Gillim and Waugh, both white, knew they would need help telling stories not their own. About 70 Alaska Native people work on the show, across every level of production. Indigenous actors play every Native character on the series. “We really wanted to move beyond tokenism to true collaboration,” Gillim said in a phone interview.

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Cultural advisors review the scripts and animation to make sure the show gets it right, down to the smallest details. One advisor, Rochelle Adams, said by phone from Alaska, pausing when bush planes passed overhead, that they “help guide things along every step of the way.”

One scenario featured a fish camp with a basketball hoop nearby, and she said it should be removed “because you wouldn’t want to kick up dust next to where you’re drying fish.”

Another scene was going to have Molly run in and throw a map down in front of her mother. “‘No, no, no, that’s disrespectful,’” Gillim says, repeating an advisor’s response. Instead, Molly placed the map down gently.

One of the show’s goals is to spread Alaska Native values such as “living in balance with the land,” said creative producer and writer Princess Daazhraii Johnson, who is Neets’aii Gwich’in, in a phone interview.

While “Molly” is meant for young children, those who work on the show say older people are connecting with it as well. After the world premiere June 22 in Fairbanks, Adams said the elders in the audience stood and cried with gratitude. One segment, in particular, resonated with them, she added.

“Grandpa’s Drum” is the first half of the pilot. (Each 30-minute episode features two stories about Molly and her friends and family, separated by a live-action segment with real Alaska Native kids and adults.) Molly asks her Grandpa Nat to sing at a local event, but he refuses. After scouring an old photo and the internet for clues, Molly tracks down a woman who knew her grandfather as a boy. She tells Molly that Nat loved to sing until the boarding school they attended made him stop. The kids were forbidden from practicing their cultures and made to communicate in English only. So Nat gave the woman his drum, vowing to never sing again. She then hands over the drum to Molly, suggesting Nat might sing again if he got it back. This being a children’s show, it works.

Bill, who has a grandmother who was at a boarding school, said “making this story come alive” has been one of her favorite moments while playing Molly. She said she loved that it showed how Native peoples have been “able to stand back up again” after being knocked down so many times.

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“Grandpa’s Drum” was inspired by 78-year-old advisor Luke Titus, a Lower Tanana Athabascan tribal elder and chief who was sent to a boarding school at the age of 12.

Titus’ experience silenced him in many ways, as it did numerous others. “When we came back from boarding school, those of us that went away didn’t talk about what happened,” Titus said by phone. It was “too traumatic for our people to hear.”

For a long time, he was “afraid to speak” his language and abused drugs and alcohol until becoming sober in 1985. Going through Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program led to participating in Native rituals, including “healing ceremonies regarding assimilation,” he said. One day, he was having coffee when, he said, “it came out of my heart and out of my mind” — like Nat, he was singing again. It was then he realized no one was going to punish him. I’m “no longer ashamed of my native language,” he said.

Titus said he wanted to share his story because his people are “losing our language” and there’s an “urgency to hang on to that culture,” so that “my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren will hear me.” He said the segment “honors Native language and song” and that it “brings tears to my eyes.”

“Grandpa’s Drum” showed “Molly” would not shield young viewers from some of the darker parts of American Indian history, but it is still meant to promote hope and healing. “It was medicine for us,” Johnson said.

In a scene from “Grandpa’s Drum,” Molly hugs her Grandpa Nat with friend Tooey standing by.
In “Grandpa’s Drum,” “Molly of Denali” introduces young viewers to the system of Native boarding schools that operated in the U.S. into the 20th century. The schools were designed to destroy students’ attachment to Native culture.
(WGBH Educational Foundation)

The boarding school system began in the 1870s and lasted well into the 20th century. Countless Native children were taken from their families and forcibly sent far from their homes to the schools, where they were physically, emotionally and psychologically abused to coerce them into assimilating into U.S. culture. Upon arrival, the kids’ hair was cut short, and they were given Americanized names. The system’s ominous slogan was “Kill the Indian … save the man,” spoken by Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the flagship Carlisle school.

Emily Pawley is an environmental historian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., who watches “Molly” with her children, Sam, 8, and Laura, 2. Pawley, who is white, said in an email interview she’s “grateful the show doesn’t gloss over” the “pain and damage” caused by the boarding schools.

Johnson said she didn’t even know about the boarding schools until she was 12 and asked her mother why she never spoke their language to her. Her mom had been at one of the schools and been beaten whenever she spoke Gwich’in.

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The erasure of Native Americans from popular culture has a long history of its own. For the most part, they’re excluded entirely. Even when they are included, their stories are not told. They are there to be seen and not heard, whether in the form of the town drunk, a brutish or cartoonish villain, or a joke in paint and feathers — something to laugh at or fear but not a full-fledged human being.

Adams and Johnson both said that they never saw anyone who looked like themselves while watching TV or movies. “I saw squaws, the red man … very stereotypical, racist imagery. I couldn’t connect with it,” Adams said. Johnson echoed that sentiment. “It was always dehumanizing, when you see images that are stereotypical and characters that are one-dimensional,” she said. “How many times do we have to see this Pocahontas woman?”

Kristi McEwen, who is Yupik, said by phone that she was struck by “how powerful it was ... as an adult ... to see my culture reflected” in “Molly of Denali.” But she couldn’t express just how much it meant to her. “There’s a day when I’ll be able to express how meaningful this is,” she said.

McEwen’s son Luke, 6, loves the show too. After watching “Grandpa’s Drum,” she said he was dancing and singing, saying, “Mom, Mom, don’t I sound just like Grandpa Nat?” McEwen said she planned to incorporate the segment, which she called “so correct and so true” and “validating,” into her lessons as an elementary school music teacher in Fairbanks.

Johnson said one of her sons, 9-year-old K’edzaaye’, got excited when he saw Molly’s mom cooking muktuk, or whale skin — one of his favorite foods. “It brought tears to my eyes,” she said, the emotion apparent in her voice.

The show doesn’t assume viewers won’t get Molly’s diet or kids would turn their noses up at it, and Pawley appreciates that. “She doesn’t tell her vlog audience, ‘You probably wouldn’t like this’ or pretend that whale skin really tastes like potato chips,” she said.

Tooey, Trini and Molly hold their oars aloft after a canoe race.
Tooey, Trini and Molly learn canoeing to compete in a local race.
(PBS)

That gets to the heart of “Molly’s” purpose. It exists to help Native children to feel seen and to learn about their cultures, as well as to help all kids understand and appreciate the ways in which they are alike and different.

That is part of the appeal for parents such as Pawley, who said she wants her children to be able to “imagine the perspectives of people who are not like them.” She said Laura calls the program her “favorite movie” and that Sam said, “You don’t mean to start watching, but it pulls you in — we were away across the room, and now here we are.”

Lindsey Passenger Wieck, who is not Native, said by email that she and her 6-year-old son, Aiden, love “Molly.” She said they “raced through” the podcast that acts as a prequel to the show, and as soon as it was over, he wanted to start it again. Aiden quickly showed an interest in the Native language spoken on “Molly,” Wieck said, asking what different words meant and singing mahsi’ choo, the Gwich’in term for “thank you” that is repeated throughout the show. Because of that, she said, “the significance of integrating indigenous words into the show really sunk in for me.”

But her interest doesn’t stop there. In August, Wieck tweeted that she planned to include “Molly of Denali” in the curriculum of her graduate-level introduction to public history class at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. After all, the series’ representation of Native cultures — the traditions, togetherness, pride and pain — may be geared toward children, but it’s worth talking about whatever your age.

‘Molly of Denali’

Where: KOCE

When: Weekdays 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Rating: TV-Y (suitable for young children)


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