PBS Kids’ new star: Indigenous inclusion
‘Molly of Denali’ is the first children’s TV show to feature a Native American lead character.
The animated show follows 10-year-old Molly Mabray and her friends in her fictional Athabascan village of Qyah, set in the shadow of “The Great One” – 20,310-foot-tall Denali.
It’s the first nationally distributed children’s series to feature a Native American lead character, and the standout star of the show is the authentic depiction of indigenous culture driven by the show’s creators, who are Alaska Natives.
“I’m thrilled that Alaska Native children will get to see themselves and our vibrant cultures represented in ‘Molly of Denali,’” said Princess Daazhraii Johnson, creative producer of the series, in a blog post from PBS. “Equally important is having a positive representation of Alaska Native culture shared with a broader audience. The show also reinforces for children that no matter where they’re from or where they live, we are all much more alike than we are different.”
WGBH, the Boston-based studio that developed the show, sought out Alaska Native screenwriters and producers and also created a scriptwriting fellowship for Natives, while every Native character is portrayed by a Native actor. The title character is voiced by a 14-year-old girl named Sovereign Bill.
In all her adventures – which she documents on her video blog – Molly models Alaska Native values including respecting others, honoring elders and an emphasis on family. It also showcases the realities of contemporary rural living through strong female role models and storylines emphasizing the increasing use of technology. And it’s formatted with a live-action interlude between animated segments that shows Alaskan children, communities and traditions.
Modern literacy is the educational backbone of the show, as Molly navigates her world by relying on books, historical documents, maps, photos, online resources and generational knowledge from elders.
Elizabeth Hinde, PH.D., dean of the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, consulted on some of the social-studies aspects of the show. She previously led a team that developed a social-studies framework for PBS Kids and occasionally reviews scripts and scenes for different shows.
“I was asked if I would be a consultant to ensure that the scripts – not all of them, but many of them – are aligned with social-studies best practices and standards. You’ll see the kids interacting with computers, with books, and figuring out how to solve problems through writing. They also touch on many aspects of elementary social-studies skills and content, including civics, geography and history. That’s where I came in,” Hinde explained.
For instance, in one episode, a character from Austin, Texas, visits Qyah; Hinde helped direct how the maps featured showed the direction and distance from Texas to the fictional Alaskan village.
Despite being an animated show for young children, “Molly of Denali” tackles some controversial issues, Hinde said. But it does so in a “developmentally appropriate way.”
In one episode on which Hinde consulted titled “Grandpa’s Drum,” the history of Native Americans being taken from their families and assimilated into white schools and banned from speaking their Native languages is addressed. As Molly and her friends are singing Native songs, her grandpa takes up his long-lost drum and joins in the music at the end of the episode.
“It’s an amazing kids show, and it’s groundbreaking in many ways because it is so tied to the culture,” Hinde said. “The main characters, the writers – everybody in the show is from Alaska. It truly is showing how it is in Alaska: ‘These are our cultures, these are our traditions, and this is our language. Yet we’re American.’”
David Heska Wanbli Weiden, associate professor of political science and Native American Studies at MSU Denver, said “Molly of Denali” is “superbly done.” The show is important because Native people are rarely represented in media outside of historical Western dramas, Weiden said.
Weiden is intensely focused on Native-produced media for children, and he recently finished a children’s book about a famous chief from the Sicangu Lakota nation, in which he is an enrolled member. “Spotted Tail” will be released in October by Reycraft Books.
“(‘Molly of Denali’) is doing a wonderful job of teaching kids not just about that unique culture but what it means to be Native in the 21st century,” Weiden said. “So rarely do you see a Native American person just going about their lives. It’s kind of a travesty. You see nearly every other ethnic group out there, but Natives are very much the invisible group. I can’t express how important this representation is to all Native peoples.”