‘Molly of Denali’ creators work to make show authentic to Alaska Native experiences

Dad, Mom and Molly unloading the bush plane.

Dad, Mom and Molly unloading the bush plane. “Molly of Denali” launches later this year and features a young Alaska Native protagonist. (Courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation)

Molly Mabray is a 10-year-old Athabascan girl who lives in the fictional village of Qyah in Interior Alaska. This summer, kids across the country will be able to watch Molly, her dog Suki and her friends on their various adventures around the state in “Molly of Denali,” the first nationally-distributed kids program to feature a main character who is Alaska Native.

In building the show, producers reached out to Alaska Native groups around the state to form partnerships and ensure both authenticity and respect. It’s through these partnerships that Dewey Hoffman, a Koyukon Athabascan community advocate, became one of the show’s cultural advisers.

“At first I was a little bit hesitant, thinking that, ‘OK, they’re gonna have one adviser to represent all Alaska Native peoples, all 20 languages, 200-something tribes,’” Hoffman said. “And that’s not real representation. That would be closer to tokenizing.”

Hoffman said through Molly’s travels and interactions — Molly’s mother is a pilot, and she helps her parents run their local store — the show highlights many aspects of Native life in Alaska. He said the creators are trying to feature five Alaska Native words or phrases in each episode, with enough context for viewers in the Lower 48. There will even be an episode where Molly gets a traditional Athabascan name. Hoffman said there will also be traditional rural activities, such as subsisting, dog mushing and canoeing.

Even though “Molly of Denali” is a kids show, Hoffman said that the cartoon tackles some heavier issues, such as inter-generational trauma among Native people. For several generations, many Native people were sent off to boarding schools where their Native cultures were suppressed.

Hoffman described the plot of one of the episodes: “She (Molly) gets involved with Native singing and dancing and tries to pull in her grandpa. He resists, and she’s not sure why,” Hoffman explained. “And as the story unfolds, it’s really a triumph and something that shows how our people are constantly overcoming challenges.”

Joe Yates at KUAC studios for an interview.

Joe Yates is one of six Native screenwriting fellows working on Molly of Denali. (Photo by Lori Neufeld/KUAC)

Recently, PBS and WGBH announced six Alaska Native screenwriting fellows who will be working on the show, bringing their Indigenous perspectives and stories into the picture.

Haida filmmaker Joe Yates is one of the fellows.

Yates said that the episode he’s working on deals with sports in Native communities. He said the fellows come from a wide range of Native backgrounds, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to help tell the story of Alaska Native people to a wider audience.

“I really hope that this is not just a one-time thing, but hopefully they not just hire us, because that would be great,” Yates said. “But to hire other Native writers who are looking to be part of something as groundbreaking as ‘Molly of Denali.’”

In preparation for the launch, the producers have held several test screenings in the state. Hoffman, the cultural adviser, said he’s happy the show has received positive responses from Native children and their families. He said there aren’t a lot of portrayals of Native people in mainstream television, especially kids programming.

“It’s really important to understand that, if they’re portrayed in a positive or negative light, that actually has an impact on their self-esteem and how they view themselves,” Hoffman said.

For non-Native viewers, Hoffman hopes the show will portray a more nuanced view of life in Alaska beyond the typical outdoorsy tourist stuff, like fishing, nature and wildlife.

Families across the country will be formally introduced to Molly this summer when “Molly of Denali” premieres on PBS Kids.

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