When the “Molly of Denali” television series premiered in 2019, an Alaska Native traditional drum group played the launch party in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Princess Daazhraii Johnson, creative producer of the series and a member of the Neets’aii Gwich’in tribe, watched her two sons, then 8 and 4, dance to the beat.
“I’ve never seen them take so much pride. They danced so hard,” Johnson, 46, recalled recently with a laugh. “There were even non-natives — these little white kids were next to me totally dancing. It was like, wow, this is such an amazing validation, because I did not have this as a child.”
“Molly of Denali,” the groundbreaking PBS Kids series produced by Boston’s GBH, won two major awards in its first season: a Peabody and the 2020 Television Critics Association award for outstanding achievement in youth programming. The “Molly of Denali” podcast proved equally popular, with the second season arriving just this week.
The series is the first nationally-distributed children’s series to feature a Native American lead character, according to GBH. The franchise stars Molly Mabray, a resourceful 10-year-old from the Gwich’in/Koyukon/Dena’ina Athabascan tribes, who lives in the fictional village of Qyah. Molly helps her parents run the Denali Trading Post, assisting tourists, trekkers, and scientists. She might ride along in Mom’s bush plane or make deliveries via dog sled.
Along the way, viewers learn lessons both scientific and cultural, all of it pitched for 4- to 8-year-olds. In the “Culture Clash” episode, for example, Trini, a new girl from Austin, Texas, moves to Molly’s village. To befriend her, Molly and pal Tooey watch spaghetti westerns and imitate the stereotypical cowboys, even misunderstanding the word “grub” — they think it means that Texans eat worms.
Later, Trini learns that Alaskan kids don’t grow up fighting polar bears. They’ve never even seen one.
GBH developed the show with a group of Alaska Native collaborators. Every Indigenous character is voiced by an indigenous actor. Molly is voiced by 16-year-old Sovereign Bill, a member of the Tlingit and Muckleshoot tribes.
One of the show’s goals is to authentically portray “Molly’s life and the lives of many indigenous peoples and culture in Alaska,” says GBH Executive Producer Dorothea Gillim, who lives in Lexington. “Portraying a modern village girl is important just because that has been so invisible in the media.”
Johnson came onboard after “GBH put out a call” and she responded as “the little girl in me, who never saw myself represented at all as an Alaska Native person.”
Growing up in Alaska, Johnson said, “Every frame of reference I had was white people and white kids. Even in college, everyone was watching ‘Friends.’ Where’s the diversity there?”
Reaction in Alaska has been “amazing,” Johnson continued. “When the show first premiered, there were a lot of tears. … One mom said ‘I’ve been trying to get my kids into their culture, and the show has made my son so much more interested.’”
Johnson recalled working on a scene recently at home in Fairbanks:
“One of Molly’s favorite foods is muktuk, which is the whale blubber — and my older son saw me looking at this clip where Molly’s mom is cutting it with a traditional knife — the ulu — and he’s like, ‘Mom! You have that!’ ... And I just sat there like, yup. This is what it’s all about. You get to see your life."
When the show won the Television Critics Association award in September, Johnson said, it was a “wonderful acknowledgment that our Alaskan Native values matter, [that] telling our stories from our perspectives matter.
“We put so much heart into this series from the very beginning," she continued, "just grounding it in our Alaskan Native culture and values and ... acknowledging that there’s been a lot of hurt in the past with how the media has repressed and misrepresented us indigenous people.”
Learn more at https://pbskids.org/molly