Molly Mabray lives in the Denali region of Alaska, in the fictional village of Qyah, where her parents run the local trading post; her mother is also a bush pilot. Molly loves herring eggs and blueberries; she is super curious; has a dog, Suki; and a vlog, where she records videos about her Alaskan life. Molly is also Gwich’in, Koyukon and Dena’ina Athabascan – marking the first time the lead character of a national U.S. animated series is Indigenous, according to the team behind Molly of Denali. It’s also a first for CBC Kids, according to the public broadcaster.
“We’re trying to reflect a very beautifully diverse country in everything we do,” says CBC Kids’ senior director Marie McCann, who says she hopes the show becomes as much a part of Canadian families’ morning routine as Arthur has been for years. “I think it’s a beautiful feeling to see a world that’s a lot like your own world reflected back at you.”
The made-in-Vancouver show premiered on PBS in July and launches on CBC Sept. 2 (it’s produced by PBS member station WGBH in Boston, which also makes Arthur).
It was created with comprehensive consultation with a group of Alaska native advisers and Indigenous language advisers. Molly’s cultural heritage comes from several Athabascan groups in what is now Yukon and Alaska – the Gwich’in, Koyukon and Dena’ina. On the show, we hear some of those languages, and words from other Indigenous languages – including Tlingit, Inupiaq and Unangam Tunuu – are also used from time to time, depending on where the episode takes place and who the characters are.
The show’s core narrative involves Molly learning about her cultural heritage and traditions, and also solving universal problems – such as how to deal with mosquitoes or earn a bit of money to buy something you really need (or want) when you’re a child.
To ensure authenticity, the Indigenous advisers took the writers out on cultural experiences, such as a fishing camp, in Alaska. The input was not at all a box-ticking exercise, as major creative changes were made at the request of the advisers. For instance, Molly’s father was originally conceived as non-Indigenous, but the working group spoke up and said they felt strongly against that, and the change was made.
At the CBC, programming executive Melanie Hadley, who does not generally work with CBC Kids, was brought in as the production executive for the pilot. “There’s a real specificity about [the show], but within that, there’s universality and I think a lot of people are going to see their family dynamics reflected on it,” says Hadley, who is Ojibwa and from Pine Creek First Nation.
“There’s nothing alienating about Indigenous stories. [But] I do think there’s a large chunk of the Canadian public – they hear it’s an Indigenous story, they think it’s not for them.” She thinks Molly of Denali will help change that.
The series deals with some serious issues in a way that children can comprehend (it is geared toward four- to eight-year-olds). In one episode, inspired directly by stories heard from the working group in Alaska, Molly invites Grandpa Nat (voiced by Cree actor Lorne Cardinal) to sing with her at a performance. He refuses, telling her he doesn’t sing anymore because he gave away his drum. “Poof – all the songs I knew went with it. I cannot sing a note,” Nat says.
This sends Molly and her best friend, Tooey, on a quest. They find Grandpa’s drum – and also the truth: Nat as a boy was sent to a residential school, where he was forbidden to sing traditional Indigenous songs.
“If I can’t sing our songs, I just won’t sing anymore, ever,” young Nat tells his childhood friend at school, standing in front of a chalkboard with the words “English Only” written in capital letters. And he gives away his drum.
“I got to … channel all the experience that I’ve had into the character, because both my parents were residential-school survivors,” says Cardinal, who was sent to day school himself when he was 5. He was treated badly there, punished for being left-handed.
“What I like about Molly is that we didn’t get too deep into it. We just know that he went through it and there’s no need to get into the nitty gritty of the violence and the torture. … You don’t want to emotionally scar some kids for accuracy,” says Cardinal, who was born in Alberta and now lives in British Columbia.
“The good thing is getting the voice back,” he continues. “That was the point. Being able to sing, sing your songs and sing in your language.”
All of the actors who voice Indigenous characters are themselves Indigenous, including middle-school student Sovereign Bill, who plays Molly. She is a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the T’ak Dein Taan clan of the Tlingit tribe.
“We discovered a lot of people that had never had the opportunity to be represented or had a chance to be a voice actor in a pop-culture show,” says Jennifer Twiner McCarron, chief executive of Vancouver’s Atomic Cartoons, which makes the show and was responsible for casting.
There are also Indigenous writers and production staff, from creative producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson – a real force in the show – to storyboard artists and Atomic’s intern.
“It’s absolutely a shame that until 2019, this is maybe the first time that an Indigenous culture has been starring in a kids’ cartoon. When our teams went up to Alaska, they said there wasn’t a dry eye in the house listening to the community saying that for them to see themselves represented in pop culture meant a lot,” Twiner McCarron says. “It’s about time. It’s too late, almost.”
Twiner McCarron says she’s not sure how much of what students are taught about Indigenous history is actually getting through. She often asks children about the land acknowledgments made at the beginning of school assemblies (and other public gatherings). Why do you think we do that, she asks? “They have no idea. There’s no context of reconciliation or anything,” she says. “Not that this show is going to change the world, but maybe it can help a little bit.”