Alaska native leads animated kids TV show in U.S. first

By RACHEL D'ORO
The Associated Press
Posted 7/12/19

By RACHEL D'ORO

The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Princess Daazhraii Johnson grew up eating dried salmon and moose-head soup - foods labeled weird by other kids who had no understanding of her culture and traditions.

Now the …

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Alaska native leads animated kids TV show in U.S. first

Posted

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Princess Daazhraii Johnson grew up eating dried salmon and moose-head soup — foods labeled weird by other kids who had no understanding of her culture and traditions.

Now the Fairbanks woman and other Alaska Natives are presenting their world to a general audience with "Molly of Denali," the nation's first-ever children's series featuring indigenous leads.

The animated show, which premieres July 15 on PBS Kids, highlights the adventures of a 10-year-old Athabascan girl, Molly Mabray. Her family owns the Denali Trading Post in the fictitious community of Qyah, whose residents are both Native and non-Native.

"We have an opportunity with this show, with 'Molly of Denali,' to inform and to show us in a positive and respectful light," says Johnson, creative producer of the series and a member of an Athabascan group, Neets'aii Gwich'in.

Her family has roots in Arctic Village, Alaska, but she grew up all over the state, she says, including summers spent with her grandmother in the Gwich'in village of Fort Yukon.

Native Americans voice the indigenous characters in the series, which is co-produced by Boston-based WGBH and animation partner Atomic Cartoons in collaboration with Alaska Native advisers and script writers.

Molly is voiced by 14-year-old Sovereign Bill of Auburn, Washington. Bill, who auditioned for the role after hearing about it through a Seattle-based Native youth theater group, is a member of the Muckleshoot Indian tribe in Washington and the T'ak Dein Taan clan of the Tlingit tribe from the southeast Alaska community of Hoonah.

Bill said her mother was deeply touched by one of the stories in the hour-long premiere: a look at Molly's grandfather, who left his traditional drum with a friend way back in his youth. Molly goes on to find the friend and drum in another community, using clues in an old photo of her grandfather and his friend to search the internet.

It turns out the grandfather had given up singing along with the drum after he was sent away — as scores of Native children once were — to boarding school, where students were prohibited from practicing their tribal songs amid language suppression efforts. The story ends with the grandfather reconnecting with those cherished traditions.

Bill said her maternal grandmother also had been sent away to boarding school. Given her family's background, Bill's mother was nearly brought to tears because of the story's "good message," the teen said.

Following the longer premiere, the 30-minute show will run mornings seven days a week, according to WGBH executive producer Dorothea Gillim. PBS ordered 38 half-hour episodes besides the premiere, with 13 episodes set for the first rotation.

Each episode also includes a short video featuring real Alaska Native children living life in a vast state populated by multiple Native groups with their own diverse cultures and languages.

Each episode contains two stories introducing children to various cultures, people and places through Molly, her dog Suki, her Native friend Tooey and African-American friend Trini, whose family moved to Alaska from Texas.