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PBS Standards

Alaska Native Featured in Lead Role on PBS KIDS Show MOLLY OF DENALI
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The animated characters of MOLLY OF DENALI talk in a kitchen

The spunky title character in MOLLY OF DENALI has been entertaining young PBS viewers since the summer of 2019.

Molly Mabray is a curious 10-year-old Alaska Native who helps her parents run the local trading post in their fictitious village. The show chronicles her adventures with her dog, Suki, and two friends.

To some fans, Molly may be the newest cute animated character to join the PBS KIDS family. But to others she carries a greater significance. Molly is the first lead character in a nationally distributed children’s program that is Alaska Native.

“Personally, as a Taiwanese American, watching that trailer also made me a little emotional just because to me it represented something that was missing from my own childhood,” said Linda Wei, chief content officer at Alaska Public Media. “I can empathize with someone coming from a Native culture as well that they are not seeing themselves represented in media. So this was really, really exciting and groundbreaking.”

Like LET’S GO LUNA!, which debuted in late 2018, MOLLY OF DENALI is also an excellent example of the core principle of inclusiveness.

But while LUNA takes children around the world and exposes them to cultures in many different countries, MOLLY OF DENALI delves deeper into a specific culture that has long been underrepresented and often misrepresented.

“You see a lot of different cultures being represented in media. And a lot of times when you see that they generate to become stereotypes. When you see Molly of Denali, that’s not what you’re seeing. You’re seeing what it really is like in Alaska,” Wei said.

The PBS Editorial Standards define inclusiveness as content that reflects “the views of people from different backgrounds, such as geographic areas, ethnicities, genders, age groups, religious beliefs, political viewpoints, and income levels.”

To make sure they were accurately depicting the lives of Alaska Natives, the producers of MOLLY visited Alaska in the early stages of developing the program and met with local community members. Four of those members now make up what is called the program’s Alaska Native Working Group and continue to serve as consultants on the show on an ongoing basis.

These advisers have helped teach the show’s producers and writers about the history and traditions of the Native people. Some of the members’ own personal experiences have even inspired story lines in the show.

For example, one of the stories that is part of the premiere, “Grandpa’s Drum” (see clip below), is about Molly helping her grandfather find his old drum that he gave away when he was sent to boarding school and forced to disassociate with his culture and traditions. Molly is determined to find his drum and return his traditional songs to him.

The idea for this storyline is based on the life experiences of one of the elders of the Alaska Native Working Group and an important member of the Native community.

“It’s not a passive thing where they’re just reviewing scripts after the fact,” said Tommy Gillespie, director of Children’s Programming at PBS. “They’re integrated from the beginning.”

Viewers will learn language, names, sports, music, and traditions, among other aspects of the Alaska Native culture.

The group of consultants is not the only way the producers have included people from the Native community. Gillespie explained that the producers have purposefully worked to include indigenous people in all aspects of the show. Alaska Natives fill roles ranging from the voice actors and interns to writers and advisers.

“It’s something we really wanted to be thoughtful about,” he said.

The PBS Editorial Standards urge producers to include diverse perspectives in front of and behind the camera. “PBS believes that a diverse staff helps guard against the perpetuation of cultural stereotypes and leads to content that better serves the public as a whole.”

Gillespie explained that it takes time and resources to put programs like MOLLY OF DENALI together the right way, but it makes the end result much richer and more authentic.

“This is part of our mission. Seeing it manifest, it’s been extremely powerful. It’s making us better at the rest of our work. It’s been a really emotional experience, and really rewarding,” he said.

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Engage Further

"Grandpa's Drum"

The inspiration for the story line of "Grandpa's Drum" came from the personal experience of an elder in the Native community who is now an adviser for MOLLY OF DENALI.

More from Linda Wei 

In this clip, Wei discusses efforts by producers to make the cultural representation in MOLLY OF DENALI accurate and inclusive.  

Editorial Principles

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