Molly of Denali

(Featured image: Molly and her mom look at a map. Courtesy of © 2018 WGBH Educational Foundation)

by Diane L’xeis ´ Benson

Angayuqaq, Dr. Oscar Kawagley, a long time UAF scholar in Cross Cultural Studies and Education, once shared a story to a group about when he was a boy wanting to be the cowboy, instead of the Indian. Film has always had an impact on societal perceptions and intended or not has perpetuated stereotypes. The recent development of the CultureStrike movement in America’s film capitol Los Angeles speaks to the tenacity of stereotypes and the ever ending need for social change in the film arts. Even today Native children knowing they are Native often may not relate to venerated cinematic imagery about Native people. A PBS animated series in production is challenging this status quo before it has yet to premiere; and is changing lives in Alaska.

Molly and her mom at the Denali Trading Post. Courtesy of © 2018 WGBH Educational Foundation

Molly of Denali is a new PBS Kids national television series slated to begin airing in June. It is about a ten-year-old Athabascan girl who lives in the fictional village of Qyah and her adventures with family in running the Denali Trading Post. From the onset, WGBH Boston sought to hire as many Alaska Native people as possible for not only acting roles but in all areas of production. Maya Salganek, Director of UAF Film and Theatre Department has been instrumental in finding talent. Subsequently, Alaska Natives have been hired as production assistants, writers, animators, and cultural advisors. What is groundbreaking is the extent the producers have taken to ensure the Native voice throughout the production and beyond. WGBH has created Scriptwriting Fellowships that provide hands-on opportunities for novice writers and new filmmakers like Joe Yates.

“I just started learning about film two years ago,’ says Joe Yates, a Fellowship writer on the project, and media employee and third-year film student at UAF. “I just wrote my first script two years ago, so to be one of the fellowship scriptwriters is very humbling.’ Indeed. Now thirty-one and involved with a national career soaring production, Joe reflects on his journey.  He made his initial mark on his hometown of Craig on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast beginning as a high-schooler working with the local youth center. As a teen he was committed to island youth and thought he would be an anthropology teacher of Haida history and culture. Instead, he found himself certified as a chemical dependency counselor. The motivator? “Helping kids have a role model.’ He also wanted adults to realize that what they do affects others. His sense of community extended to making little basketball films appreciated by the schools while working with the Boys & Girls Club. It was an awakening. He loved making films. He expressed to his wife Charleen that he wanted to make films. But how?

Molly of Denali Voice Director, Nicole Oliver, coaches Peter Griggs while Eve Berry laughs like Molly. Anchorage, Alaska. 2018. Photo Credit: Carrie Baker

“My wife said that if I really wanted to do this, we’ll do this. And, we both quit our jobs. We were making decent money…so going from comfortable to starving college students again… paycheck to paycheck…’ He smiles as he thinks on it. “She totally supported me.’ They uprooted and moved to Fairbanks. Not only did Joe enroll in the film program at UAF but Charleen took up studies in business management, with baby in tow.  

Fellows are lead writers for one episode and receive guidance through the entire process by professionals in the field. This unique opportunity offers them a chance to write about topics that matter to them.

“More Native people means we move more towards visual sovereignty.’
-Princess ‘Daazhraii’ Lucaj (Neets’aii Gwich’in)

“Molly of Denali is the first Alaskan Native lead character on a national level,’ says Joe. “It is not just great for myself, and those who came before me, but our future generations as well. I have a one-year-old daughter and she now gets a chance to have someone like her growing up in Alaska, being Alaska Native, and doing the things that she does… on TV.’

Princess Johnson encourages kids during the Voice Acting Intensive in Fairbanks, Alaska. 2018. Photo Credit: Carrie Baker

Princess ‘Daazhraii’ Lucaj (Neets’aii Gwich’in) sometimes adjunct for the UAF Department of Theatre and Film and well-known activist is the Creative Producer for the project and expresses similar sentiments. “Something turned in my heart,’ she said in response to its importance. “And thinking about being a young girl and not seeing myself represented in the media at all; that was the main draw to this. And children across the U.S. can see, we are a modern thriving people with our values and cultures.’ She points out that after all, “media is the reason of how and why there are negative stereotypes.’ The production “provides Native people more input into how we want to be represented. We know our stories the best.’

She was asked recently how they balance the social ills of Native peoples in such a program. For Princess, the fact that it was asked suggested a pervasive stereotype of Native people. “Well, our audience is four to eight-year-olds. That question is why it is important to do this — to address stereotypes. Social issues like that are across all cultures; any people.’

Mr. Patuk, Tooey and Molly at Mr. Patuk’s workshop. Courtesy of © 2018 WGBH Educational Foundation.

Big Bird and the Sesame Street Workshop have evolved into addressing delicate social issues tailored to reassuring young children, and with Native writers at work, it seems that Molly of Denali will not only transport kids on adventures and educational journey’s on Alaska but tackle some difficult issues in the process. One of the episodes may be on boarding schools Princess reveals. A source for the story was encouraging for her. “One of the things he said was that when we understand our trauma and what we have been through, we are able to create the new.’ She added, “It is so validating hearing from the people … to keep doing this.’

Joe and Princess and the many others committed to the project understand the power of film and of being involved. As Princess says, “More Native people means we move more towards visual sovereignty.’


Diane L’xeis ´ Benson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Alaska Native Studies & Rural Development and founder and former owner of Northern Stars Talent Agency. Her theatrical work on Elizabeth Peratrovich led to the development of the film, “For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska.’