Flying into Alaska is a magical experience. From the plane, the landscape shines and asserts itself both in its might and beauty. It truly is a sight that is hard to forget. The opening sequence of the latest hour-long special of the PBSKids show Molly of Denali, “Wise Raven and Old Crow,” captures that magic perfectly. In this sequence, a raven flys over the fictional village of Qyah, where the titular character and her friends embark on their adventures around Alaska.
In the special, Molly and her family have to travel up the Yukon River to the Gwich’in village of Old Crow. The special’s animation by Atomic Cartoons is beautiful and it’s elevated by its wonderful character dynamics. Molly of Denali is the first American nationally distributed children’s show to feature an Alaska Native as the lead character. “Wise Raven and Old Crow” continues shining a light on Alaska Native culture and diversifying media representation with innovative and authentic storytelling.
To better understand the world of Qyah and the story of Molly and her friends, I talked with Dorothea Gillim, creative director and executive producer of the show, and Yatibaey Evans, creative producer of Molly of Denali. Gillim said the original idea of the show was building a story around a store. “Growing up in Rochester, New York, I have always had fond childhood memories of the grocery store Wegmans,” Gillim said. “So, when I was thinking about the concept for Molly, I knew I wanted to do a television show centered around a store.”
A special collaboration
However, after President Obama’s visit to Alaska in 2015, Gilliam and Kathy Waugh, the head writer at the time, decided the setting for their show would be Alaska. As they further developed the concept, they realized they needed some additional support.
“When we decided to have the series highlight Alaska Native culture, we knew that this was not our story to tell,” Gillim said. “The production team at GBH reached out to members of the Alaska Native community who graciously agreed to be our collaborators to ensure that we were accurately portraying that culture.”
That partnership was not a one-time thing. Instead, it became the creative core of the show. The village of Qyah and its characters were developed through many careful conversations with collaborators. Evans also explained that Alaska Native and Indigenous voices became present in every step of the show’s process, both on and off-screen.
“In addition to having multiple advisors who are Alaska Native, the series also includes Indigenous writers, actors, artists, and producers like myself,” Evans said.
Moreover, because Alaska Native culture is diverse, they wanted to make sure to represent and celebrate all 229 tribes based in Alaska. “To do this, we rely on cultural advisors and our Alaska Native advisory committee to work with us and look at every aspect of the show to help assure we’re portraying the many different Alaska Native communities accurately,” Evans said.
One of the important results of this is that the show serves as a mechanism for the preservation of Indigenous languages. Evans and the rest of the team have ensured the authentic representation of a variety of Alaska Native words.
“So far, we’ve had over 476 different Alaska Native words in the series,” Evans said. “This is really a testament to the work of our Alaska Native language advisors. They provide translations and pronunciations for every script to help us reach our goal of having at least two Alaska Native words in every story.”
A celebration of Alaska Native values
However, the efforts of representation go beyond languages; it also emphasizes the portrayal of values. Evans said they tie every episode to an Alaska Native value as a way to connect the series with the culture. This effort to celebrate Alaska Native values is evident all over the special “Wise Raven and Old Crow.”
While this is not the first hour-long special that the show has done, it does significantly expand on the exploration of Molly’s heritage. This was very special for Gillim.
“A highlight for me in working on this special was the chance to learn more about Molly’s Gwich’in heritage both in terms of the new relatives she meets and her encounter with parts of the culture that are uniquely special, like the porcupine caribou herd,” she said. “It was especially exciting to see the herd come to life through Atomic’s incredible animation.”
In addition, Evans emphasized that the special pays close attention to the relationship between Molly and her late grandmother Catherine to reflect the importance of connecting with elders. “The writers of the episode, Princess Johnson and Peter Hirsch, did an incredible job in portraying Molly’s special connection to her grandmother through dreams, visions, and memory.”
This connection was instrumental for Molly and her family to arrive at the village of Old Crow, in Canada, for a ceremony celebrating the life of her grandmother.
The show’s emphasis on values is essential to understanding how the culture continues to thrive despite attempts to erase it. Evans used the example of the episode “Grandpa’s Drum” to showcase this. “In the episode, we learn that Molly’s grandfather, Grandpa Nat, was in an Indigenous boarding school as a young child. The discipline he experienced for speaking Gwich’in in the boarding school had a major impact on his life and explained why he no longer played the drum,” she said. “That story was based on the personal experience of one of the series’ Elders, Luke Titus, who was part of the Alaska Native advisory group.”
At the end of the day, when Molly and her friend Tooey are able to recover her grandfather’s drum, he plays it again. “It really is a story that reflects the value of honoring your elders, knowing who you are, and ultimately celebrating Molly and Grandpa Nat’s culture,” Evans said.
In addition, Molly of Denali makes an important effort not only to showcase Alaska Native history but also to accurately represent the contemporary experiences of Alaska Natives and combat stereotypes.
“In every Molly story, we do our best to represent Alaska Native cultures with accurate depictions of what it’s like to live in our present-day society,” Evans said. “Like other cultures, we go to school, are professionals, live in houses, and use technology and share current issues as all people do.”
The team has addressed pressing topics like microaggressions by collaborating with Dr. Laverne Demientieff, a professor of the social work department at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They helped write an episode where Molly and her friend Tooey experience microaggressions from tourists visiting Qyah. After discussing it with elders, they were able to navigate the situation after receiving inspiration from the work of Alaska Native rights activist Elizabeth Petratrovich.
The work of Evans, Gillim, and the rest of the team is getting recognition. In 2020, they received a Peabody Award in the Children’s/Youth category. Last year, they were nominated for two Children’s & Family Emmy Awards and now for a Television’s Critic Award.
The impact of the show is a testament to the power of collaboration and stories. Gillim said she has learned a lot from her Alaska Native colleagues and constantly hears about the positive impact the show is having with kids all over the country. It’s wonderful to see that the beauty of Alaska Native culture is reaching more audiences and, with “Wise Raven and Old Crow,” it’s now an excellent time to follow the adventures of Molly, her friends, and the community of Qyah in Molly of Denali.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Molly of Denali is available to watch on Prime Video.
Images courtesy of PBS