The past couple years have been a watershed moment in the movie industry that may portend greater change, as films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have demonstrated to change-resistant producers that movies prominently featuring non-white casts can be enormously successful. But there is a significant and oft-neglected group that continues to be left out of mainstream film and television: Native Americans. The new PBS Kids series Molly of Denali, which premieres on Monday, July 15 and will be available to stream at wttw.com/kids, is a step towards better representation of Native Americans on television: it is the first national children's series to feature a Native American lead character. (You can learn more about the show at a free screening and discussion with June Thiele, a writer on the show, on Monday, July 15, at the American Indian Center in Albany Park.)
Molly Mabray is a 10-year-old Alaska Native who goes on adventures with her friends and family around a fictional Alaskan town, models Alaska Native values, and teaches viewers about the history and culture of various Alaska Native tribes, all while also fostering literacy for the show's target audience of 4- to 8-year-olds. The new show not only features Native American characters; it has also involved Alaska Natives in all aspects of production. Every Indigenous character is voiced by an Indigenous actor, and voiceover workshops were held in Fairbanks and Anchorage to help cultivate Native talent. A scriptwriting fellowship funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped six Alaska Native writers develop a script for the show, including Thiele, who now lives in Chicago. The theme song features Alaska Native musicians, an Alaska Native working group advises the show, and its Creative Producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson is Native American.
In addition to the animated parts of the series, the show will also feature live-action segments featuring local children and regions filmed by Alaskan production teams. It touches on difficult issues, too, as in an episode about Molly's grandpa. In the past, many Native Americans were sent to government-run boarding schools that sought to assimilate Native children into white, English-speaking culture by suppressing their own Native cultures. When Molly tries to draw her grandpa into Native singing and dancing, he resists, because of his traumatic experience in such a school.
Beyond the first season's 38 half-hour episodes and one-hour special, there is also an eight-part podcast that acts as a prequel to the show.