Molly of Denali, the first nationally distributed children’s series to feature a Native American lead character, follows 10-year-old Molly Mabray, a feisty and resourceful Alaska Native girl who lives at a remote trading post and takes viewers on her adventures alongside her friends and family. The series, which bowed on PBS Kids on July 15, is produced by WGBH Kids and Atomic Cartoons in association with CBC Kids and incorporates Indigenous voices in all aspects of production, both on camera and behind the scenes.
After devising the show’s concept, Executive Producer Dorothea Gillim—alongside co-creator Kathy Waugh—quickly realized that she, as a native of Rochester, New York, couldn’t even begin to tell the story of the indigenous people of Alaska. “We quickly realized that it wasn’t our story to tell and we needed to work with people who could help us tell the story right,” Gillim tells TV Kids Weekly. “It would have been very presumptuous of me as a non-native to set out to tell their story.”
The show’s creators subsequently assembled a board of Alaska Native advisors to assist them on every aspect of the show’s production, from reviewing scripts to designing what Molly’s fictional village of Qyah would look like. “When we set out to do the show, we wanted to do it right, which meant not repeating damaging stereotypes of what it means to be Alaska Native,” Gillim said. They hired a full-time Alaska Native creative producer, Princess Daazhraii Johnson, who herself hails from an environment similar to Molly’s. They also received funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that allowed them to mentor six Alaska Native writers to write for the series, as well as do voiceover workshops with Native kids so that they could participate in the show’s creation. All of the Indigenous roles on Molly of Denali are played by either First Nations or Alaska Native actors, and Molly herself is voiced by Sovereign Bill, a 14-year-old girl who is of Tlingit and Muckleshoot descent. Even the theme song is sung by an Alaska Native band, Pamyua. Altogether, there are over 60 Indigenous people working in some capacity on the project, which extends outside of the TV series to educational companion materials and a podcast as well.
The show has a literacy curriculum that focuses on informational text, and in each episode, Molly navigates her world and solves problems with the help of books, online resources, field guides, historical documents, maps, photos, Indigenous knowledge from elders and her vlog, among other resources. “So Molly uses forms of informational texts to help solve her problems,” Gillim says. “We were trying to model that for our audience so that they learn that they’re empowered to solve their problems with the information that surrounds them.”
Between the two 11-minute story segments in each episode, live-action interstitials featuring Native kids are interspersed. Gillim and her team use the series’ live-action portions to reinforce its literacy goals, as well as showcase real Indigenous kids living their normal lives. “We felt it was a really great opportunity for us to do some live-action pieces that would show kids that Molly and her world and her culture are in fact real,” Gillim says. “There are real Alaska Native kids living today, doing all sorts of fun activities. So it was an opportunity for us to reinforce one of the messages of the show, which is that Alaska Native culture is not something of the past; it’s very modern and alive.”
Gillim also touched on the importance of young Native and non-Native kids alike seeing Native Americans represented on the shows they watch. For Native viewers, Gillim hopes that they’ll find the representation Molly of Denali provides validating, “But beyond that, if you’re non-Native, it’s an opportunity to learn about a culture that has been under-represented in American history,” she says. “I think kids everywhere will identify with Molly and her friends because they’re really just everyday kids who have the same problems that kids everywhere do.”
Each episode of the series reinforces Alaska Native values, too, like having respect for all life on Earth, revering your elders, having patience, being resilient and accepting what life brings your way with a smile. “We really hope that the audience takes away those messages because they’re important messages for all kids to learn, especially today,” Gillim says.