The PBS Kids television show “Molly of Denali” has been nominated for Children’s & Family Emmy Awards in two categories: Outstanding Preschool Animated Series and Outstanding Writing for a Preschool Animated Program.
Vera Starbard is one of the show’s writers who lives in Alaska. She now also writes for the ABC show “Alaska Daily.”
But “Molly of Denali” is special to her because of its role informing young people about what it means to be Alaska Native.
“We’re dealing with racism, we’re dealing with identity, we’re dealing with really serious Alaska Native issues,” Starbard said. “But in the context of educating small children, there’s just an inherently fun thing about that.”
Starbard is Lingít and Dena’ina. She said she often thought of “Molly of Denali” as a show about Alaska for Alaskans, but the Emmy nomination makes her think more about how people outside the state value the show.
“Alaskans in general kind of do that to themselves,” Starbard said. “You know, we love what we put out there to the world. But we don’t think anyone else will take it seriously or care about it. And this shows people ‘Oh, people do.’”
Juneau resident Frank Henry Kaash Katasse is a Lingít writer who is listed on the Emmy nomination. He thinks about people in the Lower 48 watching “Molly of Denali” often, because his family does.
“You know, this is something that my nephews can watch in Minneapolis, and my brother can go ‘This is our home,’ and they get a glimpse of what it’s like to grow up here,” Katasse said. “And that’s their connection to the place that my nephews’ ancestors have been since time immemorial.”
For Katasse, writing for a children’s show means he can help create representation that he didn’t have as a kid.
“When I was little, I thought the Ultimate Warrior, the professional wrestler, was a Native guy, because I just didn’t have any representation that I knew of in the media,” he said. “Turns out he’s like, Italian from New Jersey. I was like, ‘he’s a Lingít.’ He wasn’t. But you know, we were grasping at straws at that point.”
Now, Katasse points to shows like “Spirit Rangers” and “Reservation Dogs” that give young Indigenous people a view of themselves on television.
When television creators submit shows to the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Emmy review, they send in a few episodes in a package.
In one of the submitted episodes, called “Molly and Elizabeth,” Molly and her friend Tooey encounter uninformed white tourists who tell them they don’t “look Native” because they’re not wearing regalia.
Molly and Tooey then learn about Elizabeth Peratrovich and the work she did to advocate for Lingít people in Juneau in the 1940s. The kids then use this inspiration to educate the tourists about the harm they caused.
“Molly and Elizabeth is such an impactful episode,” said Yatibaey Evans, the show’s creative producer.
“Molly of Denali” has between seven and 10 Alaska Native writers on any given episode, according to Evans, who is Ahtna Athabascan.
“I just leapt for joy and happy tears came down,” Evans said. “I’m so grateful to be recognized along with our incredible team of people that have been working tirelessly on the show since about 2016.”
The nominations were announced in early November. This is the first year of the Children’s & Family Emmys, which will be presented on Dec. 11.
Vera Starbard is a member of KTOO’s board of directors.