How PBS's Molly of Denali Strives to Keep Native Culture Alive and Vibrant

TV Features Molly of Denali
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How PBS's <i>Molly of Denali</i> Strives to Keep Native Culture Alive and Vibrant

When she was young, Alaska native Princess Daazhraii Johnson would have loved a TV show where she saw herself. But children’s programming didn’t include Native American characters.

Now the mom of two is helping to provide that opportunity to a whole new generation of children. Johnson is the creative producer behind the new animated PBS series Molly of Denali, which follows 10-year-old Molly Mabray who lives in the fictional town of Qyah, Alaska. Molly has two best friends named Tooey and Trini, parents who own a trading post and a dog named Suki.

The idea for the series, whose first season will consist of 38 episodes and a one hour special, stemmed from executive producer Dorothea Gillim’s childhood. Gillim grew up in Rochester, New York which is the home of Wegmans. “It was the hub of the community,” Gillim says of the grocery store franchise. “It was the place you went to see and be seen. It really was like the town square.” The trading post on the series is the Wegmans of Gillim’s youth, while the beauty of Alaska inspired her to set it there against the gorgeous Denali mountain. “It’s so spectacular,” she says

When they got the pilot pick up, Gillim realized they couldn’t do the show alone. “We needed to partner with Alaska natives to tell the story right,” she says. They formed an Alaska Native working group and flew to Fairbanks to meet with them to talk about the characters and the world they were creating. “There’s this myth and misconception that Native Americans don’t exist, that they are something of the past, or they live in really remote places or they live very primitive lives. So I very much wanted to show a very vibrant, active modern take on that so that kids understand that these are real people with real cultures,” Gillim says.

Johnson says she “really steeped everyone on in the history of Alaska from our perspective as Alaska native people. I feel like a big part of my role is helping navigate this space of cross cultural understanding.”

Johnson strives to ensure that no character is one dimensional. “We’ve been so stereotyped and romanticized and relegated to the past,” she says. “So we just really try to push for this sense we are modern people. That our cultures are alive and vibrant.”

The values of the Alaska native culture will be woven throughout the series. “In Alaska we take only what we need,” Johnson says. “We take care of each other. I think it’s really important that we understand no matter where you are in the US or Canada, for that matter, you are standing on the land of indigenous people and understanding and having respect for different cultures. Respect for our elders and one and other and our land and animals and waters. I hope people see the value and the beauty in that.”

Molly is a contemporary character. She uses a computer. Her family uses a cell phone. She has a vlog where she shares her adventures with the world. “Molly is a really modern kid,” Gillim says. “But at the same time she has special clothing she sometimes wears. She sings her cultural songs. She has a native name she practices. It is important to show what is unique and special about this culture.”

For Linda Linda Simensky, Vice President, Children’s Programming for PBS, Molly of Denali provides an opportunity for the network to continue to represent children in all the states. “You have a real specific place and very specific on her background yet I think kids will still relate to her,” Simensky says. “For the kids who are from Alaska, It’s the first time they are getting to see themselves and their traditions on the air in a really positive way. There’s a lot about their culture that’s very aspirational.”

The series is committed to only having indigenous actors voice the indigenous characters, and the search for the voice of Molly was a long one. They found Alaska native Sovereign Bill, whose only credits before the series included playing Annie in her eighth-grade production of the musical, in Seattle. “There was just something about her voice where we were like that’s it. She just took to it. She’s a natural. She’s a phenomenal voice talent and an amazing young woman,” Gillim says.

Story ideas for the series come from a variety of sources including the Alaska Native working group of advisors who help guide and inform the series. In one of the first meetings, Luke Titus, one of the elders of the group, shared a personal story of his experience going to boarding school and the impact it had on his life. The result is an episode entitled “Grandpa’s Drum” which finds Molly discovering an old photo of her grandfather and learning about his past.

The series is based on the concept of informational text, which is the way kids can learn and consume information via words, images, graphics, video and oral language. “Kids will feel empowered by what they see to solve their own problems by using the information that’s all around them the way that Molly and her friends do,” Gillim explains.

Simensky says in today’s world where everything can seem like just a click on your computer away, informational text is imperative. “We wanted kids to see that there’s lots of different ways to find things out. Not just getting on your phone and typing in a keyword and hoping for the best. There’s a lot of role modeling in our show; Molly is role modeling being interested in things. If you are curious about things and the people around you don’t know the answers, look elsewhere. We believe kids should know all the different ways to get information.”

Molly of Denali premiered on July 15 and airs on PBS Kids.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).