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The first episode of the PBS animated children’s program Molly of Denali features the 10-year-old Athabascan girl Molly Mabray going on a quest to find her grandpa’s drum. Her Grandpa Nat once loved his people’s songs. Then the government sent him to a boarding school where he was forced to stop singing them. He became so sad he gave away his handmade drum and never sang his people’s songs again.
When Molly finds this out, she becomes determined to find his drum, hoping it will bring his songs back to him. She uses a search engine to find the woman Grandpa Nat gave his drum to. The Alaska Native woman was also a student at the same boarding school. She tells Molly about how the teachers wouldn’t let them speak their own language or sing their traditional songs. She finds Grandpa’s old drum and tells Molly to return it to him.
Molly gives Grandpa Nat the drum at a community gathering and asks him to join them singing an Athabascan song. But Grandpa Nat can’t remember them anymore. Molly and her friend Tooey sing without him. As Grandpa Nat listens to the children singing in Athabascan, he remembers when he was their age and used to sing with his friend.
He sees his culture wasn’t killed by boarding school. It is still alive in the hearts of a new generation. The song they sing slowly comes back to Grandpa Nat. He tentatively joins in, singing softly at first. Then he stands and joins the children, singing and drumming loudly as tears stream down his cheeks.
A Children’s Show For a New Era
At a time when most children’s programming is designed to sell toys or video games, Molly of Denali stands out as having a quality almost completely lacking in other children’s shows: authenticity.
Yatibaey Evans, the show’s Ahtna Athabascan creative producer, recently explained how Molly’s first episode was inspired by the real life experience of one of their Athabascan advisers.
“Luke Titus is one of our elder advisers,” Evans said. “It wasn’t intended for there to be a show based on an adviser, but it turned out to be one of our most spectacular, memorable episodes. It’s based on his experience of boarding school and the trauma he endured as a young man.”
Alaska Native children were especially hard hit by boarding school abuse, often sent from remote Alaskan villages to large institutions run like military bases. Nearly every Alaska Native family has boarding school survivors. This grim legacy is rarely talked about, so its inclusion in an animated children’s program is groundbreaking.
“It’s just such a beautiful story,” Evans said. “I’ve heard Luke speak at various conferences throughout the years and to have the story shared in this national way is especially meaningful.”
The episode turned out so well, the producers used it to help recruit other Alaska Native talent. Many of those contacted were concerned the show might be using Alaska Native culture simply as a colorful backdrop instead of representing it realistically.
“They brought us in as writers,” Tlingit actor, playwright, and theater director Frank Kaash Katasse said. “We were all suspicious. And then they showed us that episode, and we were all like, ‘We’re on board. This is amazing that you’re doing this!’”
Katasse has so far written three episodes. He was amazed that an animated show tried to represent accurately what life for Indigenous people in rural Alaska is really like.
“lt’s sort of mind-boggling. This is a representation everyone wished they had when they were growing up,” Katasse said.
Katasse grew up in Juneau but spent summers staying with relatives in a rural Alaskan community. His play They Don’t Talk Back premiered in 2016 at Native Voices at the Autry in Los Angeles and then later at Perseverance Theatre, a professional regional theater outside Juneau.
Authenticity and Humor
Although sometimes the subjects are serious, each episode of Molly of Denali is lighthearted, upbeat, and often funny. In one episode, Molly’s friend Oscar has to help his Grandma, who broke her hearing aid, watch TV by telling her what the characters in her favorite drama are saying.
“Did he kick her out?” the grandma, known as Auntie Midge to the other children, says as she and Oscar watch her show.
“No! He wants to marry her!” Oscar exclaims.
“What?” Auntie Midge says to the TV. “She doesn’t love you! She loves Percy Attafish!”
The unique accented English of Adeline Potts, the Han Gwich’in actor who provides the voice of Auntie Midge, is instantly recognizable and endearing to anyone with an Alaska Native family.
“We were all so happy when we found out Adeline had been cast as Auntie Midge,” production coordinator Sydney Isaacs said. Isaacs, who is Tlingit, said she recognized the accent as similar to ones she grew up around.
“I felt affection for her right away because she sounds like members of my own family,” Isaacs said. “We all felt that way.”
Isaacs worked as a WGBH Fellow for the production in 2018, and was later hired as a production assistant and then promoted to production coordinator. Her recruitment and promotion speak to the producer’s commitment to authenticity.
“It started,” Evans explained, “with an idea from our executive producer, Dorothea Gillim, and one of our lead writers, Kathy Waugh, who wanted to have a show that is educational and based around a general store similar to what one of them experienced when they were younger,” she said.
Originally Gillim and Waugh couldn’t decide where the show would be set. Then in 2015 President Obama visited Alaska and officially renamed Mount McKinley, the state’s highest mountain, to its original Athabascan name, Denali. The highly publicized visit inspired the producers to set the show in Alaska near the mountain. Only one problem remained: Gillim and Waugh are not Indigenous and knew nothing about Alaska or its Indigenous people.
“So they reached out to Dewey Hoffman. He’s one of our Alaska Native advisers,” Evans said. “Then Dewey reached out to Rochelle Adams and Princess Johnson and Luke Titus, Adeline Peter Raboff, and lots of other folks.”
This group met in Alaska and became the show’s Alaska Native advisory committee. They brainstormed the settings, characters, and plots, and mapped out the first season of the show.
“I think it’s been wonderful,” Tlingit adviser X’unei Twitchell said. “There’ve certainly been some growing pains, but on the representation side, it’s been awesome.”
As associate professor of Native languages at University of Alaska Southeast, Twitchell initially worked as a language consultant for the show but later became one of the writers. His role is particularly important because so much of Alaska Native culture is expressed through its many languages.
Molly’s Secret Superpower
This respect for Alaska Native culture clears the way for Molly’s secret superpower: her connection to her ancestors. She helps her family and enjoys learning from her elders. Although she uses computers and has her own YouTube channel, she still lives within a culture thousands of years old.
The author of this article, a Tlingit born in Juneau, recognizes Molly as the new growth on an old tree. Like the coming of spring, she is filled with the joy of living, rambunctious, and filled with laughter. Molly is Alaska Native culture healing itself.
“The healing that occurs in her stories,” Evans said, “sometimes shares tragedy and yet also shares that we’re resilient, we’re healing, and there’s a new generation helping us along with that. I love that we’re shining a light on our value system, and Molly gets to be the one to share that with the world.”
Frank Hopper , Tlingit, is a freelance Native journalist born in Juneau, Alaska, now living in Tacoma, Washington. His work appears in Last Real Indians, The Stranger, and Indian Country Today. His self-titled YouTube channel features videos about Native issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. His YouTube link is https://youtube.com/c/FrankHopper1