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With Alaskan Native Lead, 'Molly Of Denali' Breaks New Ground

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And finally today, a new show on PBS is breaking new ground in the world of children's television. "Molly Of Denali" is the first nationally distributed children's series to showcase an Alaskan Native lead character. It debuted last week. And the show follows an adventurous, tech-savvy 10-year-old named Molly who lives in a fictional Alaskan village called Qyah. We caught up with the show's executive producer, Dorothea Gillim, and the show's creative producer, Princess Johnson. Both told us that the show means a lot to them because it highlights the community a lot of Americans don't know much about.

During our conversation, we discussed the show's unique approach to developing Molly's story. They assembled a group of Alaska Natives to consult with the show's producers on Indigenous culture. We'll hear from Princess Johnson first, who says that this group has been integral to putting the show together.

PRINCESS JOHNSON: We have a core group of advisers that have been with us from the very beginning, and they were critical to really partnering with WGBH and forming what the world, the fictional village of Qyah would look like, what the characters would look like down to their - what they would be wearing, the color of their skin and all other aspects. I mean, Qyah's a very diverse place, and we really wanted to show the world that our rural communities in Alaska are very diverse. And so they continue to help advise us not only on scripts and some of the designs but also as we create educational resources, outreach materials for the series.

MCCAMMON: There are a lot of stereotypes about Native and Indigenous peoples. I think - when I think of Alaska Native stereotypes, you'd see media references to igloos, for example. How do you think about the challenge of trying to debunk those myths and tell more nuanced stories about these communities than what people might be used to?

JOHNSON: From the very beginning, were really intentional about not showing igloos because we don't live in igloos (laughter). I still get that question when I travel. So those deeply ingrained stereotypes - we get to really dismantle those because we - as I mentioned before, we are a modern people, yet we still do practice our traditions of going out and hunting and fishing and sharing. And we have a huge language revitalization effort. So people are speaking in their Native languages and continuing with our drumming and singing. And all those rich traditions are still very much a part of our lives.

DOROTHEA GILLIM: I also wanted to say that in addition to debunking stereotypes around Alaska Natives, we're really interested in debunking just cultural stereotypes in general. And in fact, we did a story where a new girl moves to Qyah - Trini, who's African American. And she's from Texas, and Molly and her friend Tooey want her to feel comfortable in her new home, so they watch a lot of western movies and try to behave in ways that they think are Texan, which turn out to be very stereotypical.

And, in turn, Trini thinks that polar bears are everywhere in Alaska, so she has her own kind of stereotypes of what life is like. And in the end, you know, the lesson is that you need to find trusted sources of information and be careful about sort of misinformation that you might have about other people.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, and you bring up other difficult issues in the show. In one episode, you deal with the topic of Native American boarding schools. These, of course, are the schools that Native Americans were sent to be assimilated to Euro-American culture and customs. Here's Molly talking about this with an elder in her community.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MOLLY OF DENALI")

SOVEREIGN BILL: (As Molly) If he loves singing so much, why did he give you his drum?

MICHELLE THRUSH: (As Shyahtsoo) At the school, we weren't allowed to sing the songs of our people. It was forbidden. They only wanted us to sing new songs - their songs - in English.

MCCAMMON: How do you all think about how to cover potentially painful, sensitive topics on a children's show?

GILLIM: Well, we always try to approach potentially painful subjects in a way that will be sort of age-appropriate for our audience. So we think a lot about, you know, what our audience is capable of understanding and providing them with information that will enlighten them without making them uncomfortable. And we very often will work with advisors to help us around that.

MCCAMMON: And each episode includes animated stories as well as live-action segments featuring real children and real places in Alaska. What do you see as the goal of these live-action segments?

JOHNSON: So I think that the live-action interstitial with (laughter) Alaskan kids are so joyful and hopeful and really emulating all those things that we are seeing in Alaska, which are people that are, again, modern and still practicing the traditional ways and learning from their elders. And I really love that about this series - is that it's so intergenerational, and we just have so much love and respect for our elders, and they just have so much to pass onto us.

MCCAMMON: And, Princess, can I ask how your own background as an Alaska Native - how does that shape your work on the show?

JOHNSON: Well, I feel like I really wouldn't be able to fulfill this role if it wasn't for, first and foremost, my traditional education and having, you know, the great fortune of being raised by my mother and my grandmother, my grandparents, and being steeped in our native values. And that is, like, the foundation, I think, for anyone from any culture - is having those really strong values. And then we can build upon that and go out and pursue our higher education, etc. But I think we just all need to come from that foundation of strong values and what we all have in common.

MCCAMMON: A question for you both - what are the main messages, the main takeaways that you want children to have after watching your show?

GILLIM: Well, I mean, I think there are many takeaways that we'd like kids to have. One of them involves the series curriculum, which is informational text, which is sort of the idea that information is all around us, and you just need to have the skills and knowledge of how to access it. So we want kids to learn from Molly and feel empowered to solve their own problems by using information. I think that's one really important message.

MCCAMMON: Princess?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I would say, you know, another important message is that it's really important to keep our sense of curiosity even if we're not 10 years old. The world really needs us to approach things with that same sort of joy that Molly has and curiosity and innovation and to not be afraid to make mistakes. And that's one of the things that I love about her character - is that she does make mistakes, but she's not afraid to make them. And she has this community that is right there to gently help lift her up and guide her in the right direction.

MCCAMMON: That's Princess Johnson, the creative producer of "Molly Of Denali," the first nationally-distributed children's series with an Alaska Native lead, and Dorothea Gillim, the show's executive producer.

Thank you all so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

GILLIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.