First Alaskans Magazine
Like many a millennial maligned for my dependence on media, I spent a considerable amount of time as a child filling up on all things television, whether from cable tv, the networks, or public television, and I grew up in the rapidly changing field of home videos (feel free to Google ‘CED video disc’ – I’m old enough to have owned things that pre-date the VHS.)
As much as I have fond memories of Fraggles and Care Bears and Darkwing Duck and (the holy grail of elementary classroom viewing) Reading Rainbow, I don’t have any memories of was seeing people on TV that looked like me. They didn’t live any place that looked like my home. Or have the sounds, songs, or values that were so familiar to me. As a little Tlingit and Dena’ina girl in Alaska, at least when it came to the big, exciting world of television, I didn’t exist.
That’s not to say I never saw a representation of Native people on screen. I saw plenty of funny “Eskimos” in igloos and Indian princesses in fringe outfits not saying a word as they were rescued. There were frightening, screaming warriors the white heroes so bravely fought against. But not a single time did I see myself in these stereotypes and caricatures.
I had these images in mind when I was approached by producers in the fall of 2016 to write for a new animated children's program, "Molly of Denali." The company was WGBH, the same company behind such monumental children’s programs as Curious George and Arthur. I was excited to hear that not only was it developing a show based on an Athabascan girl named Molly for PBS KIDS, it had an Alaska Native advisory group involved with its creation. I received a huge “bible” of material on the show, which described the effort to teach what’s called “informational text” to children through the episodes, and highlight the science and social aspects of Alaska. As exciting as this was, however, I didn’t grasp exactly what it could mean.
Then I saw the pilot.
The story was fun, the dialogue funny, the educational aspects clever, and the animation gorgeous. But that wasn’t what struck me most. In an early part of the pilot, Molly talks to her mom, who is simply sitting at a table, beading an Athabascan flower design onto hide. The beading isn’t even remarked on, but I felt a thrill to the system.
I could feel the beads beneath my own hands. I could see that design on a dozen dresses at an Anchorage gathering. I could smell the hide beneath her hands.
And I had never, ever seen that on television before, much less in animation.
Later in the episode, we see Molly and her friend talking to an Elder in a sealskin vest. Again, it was a thrill to see something that so many people don’t even know exists, but is such a beautiful part of our cultures.
“I think that seeing such a unique group of people will inspire a lot of other people to celebrate who they are and be proud of who they are,” said Rochelle Adams, Koyukon/Gwich’in, Alaska Native cultural advisor for the show. “And know that all of our cultures are valid and unique in their own ways.”
There are many, many productions in film and television focused on Indigenous people (though few focused on Alaska Native cultures.) The “authenticity” of the cultures represented, however, can be a major sticking point when it comes to its reception in Native communities. Too often productions present perspectives of non-Native persons about the culture, rather than the perspective of those in the culture itself.
With Molly of Denali, however, a common sentiment was often pushed – “Nothing about us, without us.” WGBH and PBS came to Alaska to find partners for every aspect of the show, and continue their search even as episodes are ready to air.
Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Neets’aii Gwich’in, is the creative producer on the show and describes some of the first production meetings, made up of non-Native producers and creative team members from the Lower 48, and Alaska Native advisors – including elders.
“When we had our production meeting, we had our grounding,” said Princess. “We didn’t even work on the show. We taught them about what we have been through as Alaska Native people. You need to know the history through our perspective. The first question we need to ask ourselves – ‘Why are creating this media?’ It was so important to start things off in a good way with a good partner who has a broad reach and big impact.”
It was after these integral meetings I joined the team as a writer for the series, without knowing just how in-depth these earlier meetings and teachings had been. I trekked to Fairbanks – excited and so nervous – to meet with group of seasoned television writers as the only novice tv writer. I was hired based on my stageplay scripts, and I was the only “just writer” who was Alaska Native. (Princess would also be writing, but her primary role was to be producer.)
Like I said… SO NERVOUS.
But then we went into the story ideas, and I was inspired - and I clearly wasn’t the only one. The Alaska Native cultural advisory committee had done such a thorough job of teaching and showcasing Alaska Native cultures, the non-Alaskan writers came up with amazingly authentic stories. Stories inspired from boarding school memories, stories inspires by receiving Native names, stories about eating Indigenous Alaskan foods.
Throughout, when the writers might mix up cultures, or have questions about certain aspects of a culture, the Native advisory committee would step in and guide, suggest or confirm. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a group of writers.
As I developed episodes and really learned the process of how the episodes came to life, I saw how every single scene, character, story, and line was examined for how it spoke about Alaska Native cultures. The production team was serious about the educational quality of the program, which included the educational value of learning from an Alaska Native perspective.
As the show developed and grew, so did the Alaska Native partnerships and presence. Language and cultural consultants were brought in from nearly every culture in Alaska. An Alaska Native production assistant joined the WGBH team in Boston. While there was no Indigenous animator at Atomic Cartoons, co-producer of the series, they brought in Alaska Native interns in hopes of developing Indigenous animators for the future of the series, and to consult on the authenticity of the look. And because the goal from the beginning was to really develop Alaska Native animated television writers, WGBH developed a screenwriting fellowship of six Native writers who each developed an episode of their own for the season.
One of the most prominent features of an animated show, of course, is the voice acting. And for this, the production team looked high and low for Indigenous voice talent. Much of the voice acting is from Canadian First Nation’s actors, but the most visible voice of all – Molly – was discovered in the talents of Alaska Native teen Sovereign Bill.
Sovereign is Tlingit, T’akdeintaan clan and Muckleshoot, now 14, and she lives in Washington state. But most strikingly, she is every bit the energy, humor, and curiosity ingrained in the character of Molly she voices.
“My favorite thing is the similarities between me and Molly – just the culture and how rich the show is with the cultural values,” said Sovereign. “She incorporates the language and the teachings, and it’s so special to watch and see. I haven’t seen that anywhere else.”
Like Molly, Sovereign is really engaged in the cultures she comes from, like taking part in traditional Northwest Coast canoe journeys, making and wearing regalia, and dancing.
“Being a Native actor playing a Native role allows me to connect a lot with the character,” said Sovereign. “I feel like I have a deeper understanding. I sang that song in our dance group, or I saw that in Alaska. We all have that deeper understanding and that connection.”
Sovereign’s mother, Robin Pratt, Tlingit, is an educator, and is excited to see the educational aspects and cultural focus of Molly of Denali.
“I was a little girl who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska,” said Robin. “At the time, knowing I was Alaska Native, I felt second class, not as important as other people. Then when I started traveling people start asking you crazy things like, ‘Do you live in igloos?’ This show, the impact – it’s going to be amazing.”
Even before the premiere, the show had quite the national buzz going about it, and Sovereign would see people talking about it on her mother’s Instagram or Facebook accounts. But even for Sovereign, it’s still sinking in that PBS Kids is bringing an Alaska Native girl to the forefront.
“It’s kinda crazy to feel like I’m just watching this cartoon and – hey wait! That’s me!”
While Molly may be fictional, so many Alaska Native women and girls who have seen early episodes of the show have remarked on how familiar she feels. The whole production team and advisory committee focused on making Molly as authentic as an animated Alaska Native girl can be, surrounded by an authentic Alaska Native community.
“One of my favorite Molly moments is in the naming episode,” said Princess. “Molly tries to name herself, and she’s corrected. Her parents let her know you don’t name yourself, and it’s such a lovely teaching moment for all of us. She’s not afraid to make mistakes. That’s a good lesson for children, and adults. We’re going to fall down, but if you have a community that really loves and supports you, then we get through it together. And our elders gently guide us back in the right direction.”
And while there is an effort to make the show as representative of all sorts of different Alaska Native cultures, much of the strength of the show comes from basing the show in traditional Athabascan lands, and Molly as a character having a specific Native heritage.
“What I liked about (the cultural aspect) of the show, is it is such an incredible outlet to share about the Dene people, the Athabascan people, from the Interior,” said Phillip Blanchett, Yup’ik, who sings the show’s opening theme song. “How beautiful and important their story is. How, as Native people, our stories can be told, and they can be relatable to everybody. They can be relatable to me as a Yup’ik boy growing up, relatable to kids across Canada, relatable to kids all over who want to learn about life and human development.”
Phillip recorded the theme song with his co-parent Karina Moeller, Inuit, both members of the popular Inuit music group Pamyua. While they did not compose the whole song, they were able to make some suggestions during the recording that gave it a more Athabascan feel, as well as a composer credit for the song.
“It was a really amazing experience where we were working in the studio … on a project that’s so groundbreaking, that our own kids are going to watch,” said Phillip. “The fact that the two of us sang together for our children, and our children’s children? It felt like it was really something special, like it was more of a legacy. That we did something we were really proud of and honored to share with our descendants, and everybody.”
That feeling was not lost on me. When I first toured the WGBH production offices in Boston, it was just weeks after my nephew, Emmett, was born. I had the initial excitement of seeing studios where Yo-Yo Ma recorded, and the countless Emmy’s in the lobby. But as we entered the huge Children’s Programming wing of WGBH, we started to see the other characters developed by them. Giant Arthur cutouts and Curious George dolls line the offices. I was looking at important fictional characters that informed my childhood.
And it really hit me that we were here to work on a show that would be informing Emmett’s childhood. My nephew would be able to turn on a tv and see characters that look like him. That live in a place that looks like his home. That has sounds, songs and values that are familiar to him. In the big, exciting world of television, my nephew will be celebrated.
The early reception to the show all over Alaska has been better than anyone could have hoped. I’ve seen so many Alaska Native faces light up at the recognition of their cultures, or language, or home being showcased in a way that cared and valued who they were, and where they came from. At the Fairbanks premiere for Molly of Denali, Rochelle repeated a sentiment shared by the hundreds of people involved in the show.
“We put so much love and attention into this show for years. And now it finally feels like Molly is coming home.”
Vera Starbard, Tlingit/Dena’ina, is editor of First Alaskans Magazine, playwright-in-residence at Perseverance Theatre, and writer for the PBS Kids animated children’s program “Molly of Denali.” You can follow Vera on Facebook, Instagram @vera_starbard, or visit her site.
To subscribe to First Alaskans Magazine, please visit firstalaskans.org. Molly of Denali can be viewed on PBS KIDS starting July 15, or through the PBS KIDS video app.