New PBS Children’s Show Aims to Promote Diversity with Native American Lead

PBS has premiered a new national children’s TV show with a Native American lead. “Molly of Denali” premiered on the broadcasting channel on July 17. The show features a 10-year-old Athabascan girl named Molly Mabray who is running a video blog about her life in rural Alaska. A press release from PBS Kids from May says the show will follow Molly, her dog, Suki, and her friends--Tooey and Trini--on their adventures in Alaska like building snow forts and other challenges.

The show “is designed to help kids ages 4-8 develop knowledge and skills for interacting with informational texts through video content, interactive games, and real-world activities.”

“PBS KIDS programming is rooted in education and inclusion, and we are always looking for new ways to highlight the many different communities that make up America,” Linda Simensky, Vice President, Children’s Programming, PBS, said in a statement. “With Molly of Denali, we’re building on that commitment. We believe this series will provide more kids with the opportunity to see themselves represented in our programming and are excited to engage all kids with the culture and traditions of Alaska Native peoples.”

The TV show will also depict the painful parts of Molly’s heritage, according to The New York Times. In one episode, the 10-year-old girl goes on a journey to find a drum her grandfather had given away when he was a child attending boarding school because native songs were prohibited at the school, The New York Times reported.

Boston PBS broadcaster WGBH helped make the show authentic by hiring more than 60 Alaska Native, First Nation, and Indigenous people as writers and advisers to write the script, according to the publication.

One of the advisers even gave Molly the native name, Shahnyaa, which means “one who informs us,” according to The New York Times. The advisers also gave advice on language issues, provided voices for the characters, and recorded the show’s theme song. “We recognized our own ignorance of the subject and we didn’t want to repeat stereotypes,” Dorothea Gillim, one of the show’s creators, told the publication.

Gillim told The New York Times that she was inspired to set the show in Alaska after former President Barack Obama traveled to the state in 2015 and renamed Mount McKinley to Denali, its Alaska Native name. “WGBH is thrilled to work with PBS and CPB on this important initiative,” Gillim said. “Molly, her friends, and family are funny, relatable characters that resonate with kids everywhere. Alaska itself plays a key role in the episodes and offers a rich context to learn about informational text. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with Alaska Native peoples and appreciate the support of our Alaskan public media colleagues.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) tweeted her support of the show when it aired and urged her Twitter followers to watch the show.

“Today’s the official premiere of @PBSKids’ new show @MollyofDenali on PBS stations! Tune in to see the first nationally distributed children’s series to feature an Alaska Native lead character and to learn about Native cultures, traditions [and] the uniqueness of Alaska,” Murkowski tweeted.

This is not the first time PBS has aired a children’s show that depicts diversity. In May, the station aired a same-sex wedding episode on the popular children’s show, “Arthur.” In the episode titled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” Arthur’s teacher, Mr. Ratburn, marries his partner, Patrick, a local chocolatier, The New York Times previously reported.

The episode sparked controversy and there were petitions to take the episode off of the air. In a statement to The New York Times, Maria Vera Whelan, the senior director of marketing, communications and social media for children’s media and education at PBS, said the network believes it is “important” to represent all different kinds of communities.

“PBS Kids programs are designed to reflect the diversity of communities across the nation,” Vera Whalen told the publication. “We believe it is important to represent the wide array of adults in the lives of children who look to PBS Kids every day.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.