Indigenous knowledge from Alaska shaping children’s TV today
Dewey K. Hoffman
I look out at the waves rolling in at Cape Nome and tell my daughter she belongs to this place. We are well into her second summer at the Tahbone’s camp, twelve miles outside of Nome within the widespread ancestral homelands of the Iñupiat peoples of Northwestern Alaska, and Telele Iŋmag̣ana is learning so much already. Eagle eyes gaze out of her amauġuti (handsewn baby carrier) as we work together on locally-harvested superfoods that will nourish our extended family throughout the year. We carefully process walrus, seal and other meat that is shared with us, and put out nets to catch salmon, trout and other species of fish in season. We pick varieties of greens to mix with freshly rendered seal oil. Berries provide instant delight. We gather driftwood for heating fuel or building projects, haul drinking water from nearby spring fed streams. This is similar to how I was raised at my family’s Koyukon Athabascan summer fish camp called Big Eddy, upriver from the central Yukon River village of Ruby.
It is hard work to maintain and grow a fish camp. I realize not everyone has the opportunity to sustain this way of life. It is with purpose that my family and I strive to maintain our connections here. I do not expect others to fully understand the lived experience of Indigenous peoples who have grounded themselves in specific areas throughout Alaska for over ten millennia. It is difficult to love something you have never seen before. Maybe one way to share that way of life is through a new lens.
Molly of Denali is a new animated television series that centers on the adventures of a 10-year-old Athabascan girl from the interior region of Alaska. She and her friends learn from and interact with a broad circle of characters from many different backgrounds who reside in and visit the fictional rural community of Qyah, Alaska. What is most exciting to me is that the show’s robust efforts centrally involve the talents of our own people! Alaska Native and Canadian First Nations voice actors breathe life into the Alaska Native characters, and the teams of writers, producers and staff members all include our own local and other Indigenous perspectives as well.
As part of the Alaska Native and Educational Outreach working groups for the series, I have been working with this cadre of professionals based here in Alaska as well as at WGBH Boston and their educational programming counterparts at PBS KIDS and rural stations. We incorporate the same traditional values we have used and continue to use as Indigenous peoples to effectively adapt to our surroundings. We hope to promote solution-oriented attitudes that will help others use the real-life skills they learn from each other as well. Alaska Native values can model behaviors that are important and relevant not only here in Alaska, but to all human beings and the whole of creation.
I strongly believe that Alaska Native and other viewers will feel empowered as legitimate knowledge holders in the face of mainstream European societies that predominantly control schooling in our country. If those who create children’s programming take a more inclusive approach to bringing unique perspectives and lives to the foreground, viewers will feel more engaged and invested in what they learn. Highlighting next-generation leaders who are reclaiming their cultures and ties to their lands is the most significant impact media can have. Molly of Denali can break trail for other educational programs that intentionally build in more authenticity and local Indigenous forms of knowledge. A leader who is better equipped to use the full range of their lived experience can promote healing and social justice in our real communities.
It is important for Indigenous kids to see that Molly problem solves using knowledge accumulated across generations within her family, while she also adeptly (and sometimes comically) uses the tools and technology available to us today. Molly often vlogs to share what is happening in her hometown and explain things such as revitalizing traditional dancing and singing, the experiences of boarding school survivors or what a fish wheel is.
In one episode Molly turns to her Elders as well as reference books and the Internet to learn more about paddling a canoe. She must filter through to find the relevant information and also be mindful of her relationships to family and community. She models how to incorporate both Indigenous and Western ways of thinking and understanding the world.
We have always learned to speak across dialects and cultures in Alaska. Indigenous language advocates help us weave new words and phrases into the dialogues within the context of what is being shown. Repetition of commonly used phrases like “mahsi’ choo,” Gwich’in for “thank you,” or “sekoye,” Denaakk’e for “my grandchild,” helps even the youngest viewers grasp the meaning. The officially-recognized place name of Denali is adapted from the Denaakk’e word “Deenaalee,” which means “the high one.” The relationship our own people have to this place is being celebrated and shared with the world. Not just we ourselves, but especially our children will know where they come from and that their heritage languages are extremely important and useful. Nogheedeno'! It is coming back to life!
My daughter will learn this place belongs to her. She must take care of it so the abundance we enjoy now can continue beyond our lifetimes. We do so for the same purpose as our families before us — to share and take care of others, to be self-sufficient, and to honor the ones who give themselves to us with respect and gratitude so we can nourish our families and plan for the future. To have a good mind and to love.
Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman is a member of the Alaska Native and Education working groups for Molly of Denali. Originally from Ruby, Alaska Dewey was given the Koyukon Athabascan name Kk’ołeyo by his grandmother Lillian Olin, after her grandfather Big Jim; it means “long distance walker.” He has a strong professional interest in positive youth development through cultural education, which is in line with his lifelong love of language learning and cultural exchange across the world.