Molly of Denali, ambassador of Alaskan Native Culture
Qyah is a village like many of the beautiful villages in rural Alaska. It has a population of approximately 94 people, a trading post where visitors can buy souvenirs, a school, a library, a co-op that serves delicious food, and even a tribal hall for community events. It’s a perfect place to be introduced to Alaska and its culture. The only thing is that it is a fictional place. The only way to visit it is by watching the Atomic Cartoons and WGBH Kid’s show Molly of Denali, the first nationally distributed show that has an Alaskan Native lead and the first to make people fall in love with the beauty of Alaskan culture. The show recently premiered its third season and received two Emmy nominations.
We talked with Dorothea Gillim and Yatiabey Evans, the executive producer and the creative director of the show about the story of how the show came to be, and its origins are quite surprising. Gillim is originally from Western New York and growing up, she had a childhood fondness for the grocery store Wegmans. So, she always knew she wanted to make a show centered around a store. She was developing one with Kathy Waugh and after President Obama visited Alaska, they realized that Alaska was the perfect setting for the story that they were creating.
However, Alaska is more than a backdrop for the series, it’s its beating heart. Evans told Sol de Medianoche News: “The Alaska Native values are an integral component to the series and every episode is connected to one of the values”. This is achieved with the constant collaboration with members of Alaskan Native communities. Yatiabey further explained: “Every part of production involves Alaska Native and Indigenous voices both on screen and behind the scenes. This includes not only producers, such as myself, but also writers and actors.” There is an Alaska Native advisory committee that supervises every aspect of the show and even Alaska Native story and language advisors. “Since Molly of Denali essentially represents the 229 tribes in Alaska, it is important to have as much representation as possible to create authentic and true stories” explained Evans.
The product is Qyah, the dynamic village where Molly, a young girl lives, with her family and friends and is constantly going on adventures that highlight life in Alaska, from Hot Springs to the Northern Lights. However, there are no igloos, and Molly participates in many activities that any other kid would do. This is an intentional departure from Alaska Native stereotypes. Evans was very clear about this: “As an Alaska Native person I’ve been faced with many stereotypes in my life, from the lack of understanding or knowledge of what my culture is, to being perceived as a culture from the past. We are active members of our community, we go to school, are professionals, live in houses, and use technology and in many ways are similar to everyone else.” The series wants to show this reality and it does not shy away from complicated topics.
There’s an episode where Molly and her friend Tooey are told by some tourists that their clothes and use of technology is not “Native enough” but Molly and Tooey explain why saying that is harmful. In another, they address the fact that Molly’s grandfather suffered through forced assimilation in a boarding school. However, all of this is done in a way that is friendly for young children. “It’s important to deal with topics such as racism and stereotypes because those issues affect kids. But, we do this in a way where kids can understand and relate. We tell these stories through their eyes with a mission to be inclusive and find a solution,” Yatiabey added.
The show won a Peabody award in 2020 and is now nominated for Outstanding Preschool Animated Series, and Outstanding Writing for a Preschool Animated Program at the Emmy Awards and both Evans and Gillim are very excited. Yatibey expanded on this: “We’re ecstatic! It’s really an amazing honor and I’m just thrilled that so many people appreciate the show as much as I love being a part of it” and it’s not stopping here. There are exciting new adventures still awaiting Molly. “We have so many more stories and adventures still to come and we can’t wait. We are excited to be able to continually share Molly and the larger Qyah community with everyone,” Dorothea mentioned.
You can watch Molly of Denali on PBS Kids.