Alaska natives help give their culture an animated outlet
Animation on television goes back a very long way, but it’s never had anyone quite like a new PBS offering’s “star” before.
“Molly of Denali” starts its weekday run Monday, July 15 (check local listings), marking the first time a Native American character has headlined a national U.S. children’s series. Molly Mabray is a 10-year old resident of Alaska, where she proves to be curious and resilient as she and her friends Tooey and Trini encounter indigenous elements from moose to volcanoes. What Molly learns, she shares with those at the Denali Trading Post, which her family operates.
Keeping “Molly of Denali” authentic are the native Alaskans involved in every facet of the show’s production – helping to foster the program’s aims of diversity and inclusiveness that go along with its educational thrust, reflected by Molly’s use of such tools as maps, field guides and relevant online sites.
“I grew up without seeing anyone that looked like me represented in the media, in film and television,” explains “Molly of Denali” creative producer Princess Johnson. “And oftentimes, when I did see a depiction, it was a negative stereotype. My kids are the audience (here). I have a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old at home. And every once in a while when I’m looking at clips, my 8-year-old will come along and he’ll say something like, ‘Mom, that’s our Native food.’
“I live for those moments,” Johnson notes, “because we get to see ourselves represented in this beautiful, positive light and we are informing what our image looks like. We have a saying, ‘Nothing about us without us’ … so this is the way I feel like it should be done, in this respectful manner where we are partners and we get to really have input and say on how we want to be presented to the world and (have) our values shared with the world.”
Another advocate of “Molly of Denali” is award-winning Canadian actor Lorne Cardinal (“Corner Gas”), who voices the character Grandpa Nat. “Just having a young Native kid seeing another Native person on TV opens up so many doors,” he reasons. “When I do theater and we have a Q&A with an audience, we see Native people in the audience and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.’ There’s still that conception that we’re fighting with.
“We still have to do the hard work,” Cardinal adds. “There are no free passes. You still have to have the passion and the dedication. (By) us doing this show, there’s also a step for kids (in thinking), ‘Oh, I can do that, too.’ Yes, you can. And thanks to PBS for making that possible as well.”