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With ‘Molly of Denali,’ PBS Raises Its Bar for Inclusion

Jul 21, 2019 06:29AM ● By Editor
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.  Image: PBS Kids

By Julia Jacobs of The New York Times - July 21, 2019

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.

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 announced that the name of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, would be restored to Denali, its Alaska Native name. 

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.

It also represents what is perhaps PBS’s most ambitious effort yet to educate its young viewers about a distinct cultural group, while investing in making sure that members of that group are involved at every level of production. 

The core narrative of the show involves Molly making new connections to her Native identity. But neither of the creators had Native roots, and they knew they would need to educate themselves about the cultural heritage of their main character. 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 the past, one or two cultural advisers might have been considered sufficient for informing a children’s show about an Alaska Native family. But for a television show created in 2019, after years of reckoning with inadequate representation in television and film, there’s an understanding in the industry that Alaska Native people should be integral to the process of telling a story about themselves. 

“For so long people have come in and literally just taken our stories and have done what they wanted with them,” said Princess Daazhraii Johnson, a creative producer and writer on “Molly,” who is Neets’aii Gwich’in. (The character Molly’s cultural heritage is from three Athabascan groups: Gwich’in, Koyukon and Dena’ina.)

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.

The production had cultural advisers from each region of Alaska that the show addresses, and for each animated Native character, they hired a voice actor who was of either Alaska Native or First Nations heritage. 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.

Growing up in the 1980s, Johnson, the “Molly” writer, said she remembers few Native role models in the media and troubling racist portrayals of Native Americans in television and film. Even now, stories in mainstream pop culture about Native American communities tend to rely on tropes about “savage” or “noble” warriors and focus on the anguish of poverty and alcoholism, instead of showing Native Americans in everyday roles, according to a report released last year by the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit focused on improving the economic conditions of Native Americans.

Instead of outsiders continuing to co-opt and misrepresent Native culture, “we have to be a part of informing what that image is, and we have to be at every level of production,” Johnson said.

Not all shows have the funding to reach that goal, said Linda Simensky, the vice president of children’s programming at PBS. “Molly” could because the show received support from the U.S. Department of Education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, she added.

To read the original article and see related reporting, follow this link to the New York Times website.

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