Next month, audiences across America will be introduced to “Molly of Denali,” the first nationally-broadcast children’s program to feature an Alaska Native lead character. WGBH, the public TV station that produces the show, held a premiere event at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Saturday, where locals got to see 10-year-old Molly Mabray and the rest of the inhabitants of the fictional Interior village of Qyah for the first time.
Molly is voiced by 14-year-old Indigenous actress Sovereign Bill of Auburn, Washington. Bill is of Tlingit and Muckleshoot descent.
Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early spoke with Bill after the premiere, who said that even thousands of miles away in Washington state, she still regularly expresses her Alaska Native roots.
SOVEREIGN BILL: We have a dance group that we perform with called Kuteeyaa in Washington, so oftentimes we have practices and stuff. And we do regalia-making and beading and different activities like that, that often draws back to Alaska. But sometimes we come to Alaska for Celebration, which is a big Tlingit festival.
WESLEY EARLY, ALASKA PUBLIC MEDIA: How did you get involved with “Molly of Denali?”
BILL: Well, I participated a little bit in a Native youth acting group called Red Eagle Soaring. And they just sent in auditions and I just tried it for experience, and a few other kids did, too. And then I got a callback and got it from there.
EARLY: What was your immediate reaction when you found out you were going to be Molly?
BILL: I was very excited. I was kind of shocked. I didn’t really know too much about it then, but I was super excited, and I just kind of skipped through my house and tried to tell all my family.
EARLY: As a young Indigenous woman, do you find that you see yourself reflected in the TV shows you watch and the movies you see?
BILL: No, I don’t see that we are reflected or represented well in many of the films throughout history, or the movies like “Pocahontas” or “Peter Pan” that are shown to young kids and show a very stereotypical and very untrue representation of Native Americans. But now that “Molly of Denali” is coming out, there is starting to become that representation, and that’s why it’s groundbreaking. It’s not only showing good representation of all Native Americans, but it’s showing specifically Alaska Natives. It’s showing the difference between between the usually-thought-of headdress and the Plains Indians. So it’s showing the different variety as well.
EARLY: How would you describe Molly to someone who hasn’t seen the show?
BILL: Molly is a very energetic and bright and persevering character. She always wants to do something and keep going. And if something doesn’t go right in her perfect plan that she thinks of, she keeps on going and asks for information if she needs it. She really wants to know the knowledge, too. And that’s what is brought up in the Native names episode, where her Native name is “one who informs us.” That’s a very big characteristic as well.
EARLY: Do you find that you have similarities with Molly?
BILL: Yeah. I think, definitely culturally, there’s a lot of similarities between our culture. But also, I often have to persevere, even through the show. It’s very fun and very exciting, but sometimes it can be a little bit of hard work.
EARLY: And this is your first professional role, right?
BILL: Yeah, this is basically my very first acting role. I did do a little play in eighth grade, “Annie,” but that’s pretty much it. And then I got this right after that.
EARLY: Did you play Annie?
BILL: Yeah, I played Annie.
EARLY: What do you hope that Native audiences get out of seeing a program like “Molly of Denali?”
BILL: I hope that they feel proud, because in our community a lot of the people already feel proud that this is showing, and our teaching and our knowledge is being passed down to a lot of kids. Even families that are watching with their kids, too. It’s been very hard for Native Americans all throughout history, so this is a step forward, and this is a step of revitalization of our culture as well.
EARLY: And for non-Native families watching with their kids, what do you hope they get out of it?
BILL: I just hope they get a deeper understanding of our culture. Because many kids, or even adults, just think of Alaska as, like, igloos … they don’t know a lot about Alaska or Alaska Natives. So it’s just breaking those barriers and giving them that knowledge that is needed and was never really there.
EARLY: Do you have a particular favorite episode, or favorite moment with Molly, without spoiling too much?
BILL: Yeah, I think my favorite has to be “Grandpa’s Drum,” because this is one of the first episodes that’s coming out, and it holds a lot of our knowledge and it holds a lot of what has happened to Native people. But it’s showing it in a way that kids will understand, and it’s not too … it keeps it still bright and still with how we’re able to get through it. That episode is showing the boarding schools and showing how we lost a lot of our teachings and a lot of our ways, and now that kids like Molly of this generation and generations before have been fighting for that, for our revitalization to get our culture back, and to be able to sing and dance. And it’s all shown in that episode, in that little 11-minute slot. But I think it’s really powerful, and that’s why it’s my favorite.
“Molly of Denali” premieres on PBS stations nationwide on July 15.