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The New PBS Cartoon ‘Molly of Denali’ is the First to Have a Native Lead

“The new PBS cartoon ‘Molly of Denali,’ which centers on an Alaska Native family, is perhaps PBS’s most ambitious effort yet to educate its young viewers about a distinct cultural group.” J. Jacobs, The New York Times

Excerpt: With ‘Molly of Denali,’ PBS Raises Its Bar for Inclusion, By Julia Jacobs, The NYT

“When two children’s television producers from the East Coast set out to make a show about an Alaska Native girl whose parents run a rural trading post, there was no question that they would need some cultural guidance.

The new PBS cartoon Molly of Denali, which centers on an Alaska Native family.

Dorothea Gillim, who was executive producer of the ‘Curious George’ television series, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where the grocery chain Wegmans originated, and she had long imagined a children’s show that centered on a store that was the hub of the community. The show’s other creator, Kathy Waugh, who was a writer on ‘Arthur,’ envisioned a story about an adventurous young girl living in a remote area.

The setting for the show came to Gillim in 2015, when the news media was covering President Obama’s trip to Alaska.

On the eve of the visit he [President Obama] announced that the name of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, would be restored to Denali, its Alaska Native name.

A scene from Molly of Denali-sgptv.org

The show that the producers dreamed up, called ‘Molly of Denali,’ ended up becoming a PBS cartoon about a 10-year-old Athabascan girl with a video blog about life in rural Alaska. PBS says it is the first nationally distributed children’s series with a Native American lead.

The show, which premieres across the country on Monday, was written for children ages 4 to 8. It follows the spunky and inventive Molly Mabray and her friends as they solve kid-friendly problems, like earning enough money to buy an inflatable tube to ride on the water or finding ways to keep four-legged creatures out of their garden.

The core narrative of the show involves Molly making new connections to her Native identity…PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the nonprofit that distributes federal funds to public broadcasting stations and programs, including ‘Molly of Denali,’ urged the producers to find a way to intimately involve Alaska Native people in the making of the show.

In one episode of Molly of Denali, Molly and her two friends prepare for a canoeing competition. Credit PBS Kids

To make sure they got the show right, the Boston public broadcaster WGBH, which produced the show, involved more than 60 people who are Alaska Native, First Nations or Indigenous in writing the scripts, advising on cultural and linguistic issues, recording the theme song and voicing the characters. ‘We recognized our own ignorance of the subject and we didn’t want to repeat stereotypes,’ Gillim said…It’s a scope of inclusion rarely seen in children’s television, one the show’s Native writers and advisers hope becomes a new standard for how TV producers handle specific cultural identities…’It became very clear to me that I’m sitting with people who don’t know anything about my culture, about where I came from,’ said Luke Titus, one of the advisers.  Titus, 78, an Alaska Native elder who is Lower Tanana Athabascan, discussed growing up in a small cabin in an Alaskan village and the centrality of nature in his community. He eventually got used to the idea that it was O.K. to interrupt the producers to share his own insight, a behavior that isn’t part of his culture’s custom, he said. He shared painful stories, too, including one about being sent away to boarding school when he was about 12 years old, part of a broader forced assimilation campaign by the United States government.

Boarding school is a common childhood memory for Native Americans of a certain generation… At the heart of the show are Molly’s efforts to learn about her family’s Alaska Native heritage and sustain it as a member of a younger generation.”