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Native American animated series has New Mexico ties

Feisty. Resourceful.

Those are two words that describe 10-year-old Molly Mabray.

The animated character is making history as the first Native American to lead a nationally televised series. The program is “Molly of Denali” on PBS KIDS.

The series begins airing Monday on New Mexico PBS. Each episode will include two 11-minute stories as well as a live-action segment. The first season will feature 38 half-hour episodes, along with a one-hour special.

It took years for the team to get the project off the ground, a team that includes many with New Mexico connections.

Rochelle Adams, with the Alaska Native Working Group, and production assistant Sydney Isaacs are both graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

Princess Daazhraii Johnson, the series’ creative producer, serves on the board of trustees at IAIA.

Santa Fe native Maya Salganek is a producer of the live-action sequences for the series.

She is also the founding director of the film program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“It’s been a blessing to work on the series,” Salganek said. “It’s the culmination of a lot of people’s work. So many people are involved in it, and the project has taken on a whole new life.”

Molly is a Gwich’in/Koyukon/Dena’ina Athabascan girl who takes viewers along with her on adventures and fosters literacy skills along the way.

She helps her parents run the Denali Trading Post, a general store, bunkhouse and transport hub in the fictional village of Qyah, Alaska. Each episode follows Molly, her dog Suki and her friends Tooey and Trini on their daily adventures in Alaska, such as fishing, building snow forts and delivering a camera to friends on a volcano via dog sled.

With an emphasis on family and intergenerational relationships, the series models Alaska Native values such as respecting others, sharing what you have and honoring your elders, while showcasing contemporary aspects of rural life, including strong female role models and how technology aids in communication.

Every indigenous character is voiced by an indigenous actor, including the lead character of Molly, who is voiced by Alaska Native Sovereign Bill (Tlingit and Muckleshoot).

At the helm of the project is co-creator and executive producer Dorothea Gillim.

“The idea started in summer 2015,” Gillim said. “I grew up in Rochester, New York, and there was a Wegmans grocery store. It was a big part of my childhood and was this hub of the community. I always wanted to do a series around a store.”

Gillim teamed up with co-creator Kathy Waugh.

“(Kathy) was interested in doing a show about being outdoors,” Gillim said. “We built out the world of the characters, and when we got the pilot order from PBS we teamed up with an Alaska Native worker group on developing the show. We wanted to get it as authentic as we could.”

Salganek grew up in Santa Fe, where she went to Santa Fe High and Santa Fe Prep. She then studied media arts the University of New Mexico.

After graduation, she moved to Alaska, where her husband is from.

Salganek works with the film program at UAF in telling stories about Native people.

With this background, getting involved with “Molly of Denali” was a no-brainer.

“They really delivered from intent,” Salganek said. “It hasn’t been easy, and any group of people that decide to tell a cultural story, there’s a lot of trust that you have to gain. I don’t think it’s been an easy road for the production team.”

With “Molly of Denali,” Salagnek knows it’s the first time nationally that viewers will get to see real kids in Alaska in her segments.

“That was a huge responsibility to me on what it was going to look like,” she said. “There was a cultural and visual depth that I put into each segment. My approach to representing that cultural history was significant for me. It had to be authentic and powerful.”

Johnson said being able to showcase Native children to a wider audience is a great opportunity.

“Equally important is having a positive representation of Alaska Native culture shared with a broader audience,” Johnson said. “The show also reinforces for children that no matter where they’re from or where they live, we are all much more alike than we are different.”

Adams spent nearly three years working on the series.

She worked on developing Molly’s character and deciding what the village and community would look like.

“We were very intentional including our authentic way of how we do things,” Adams said. “Down to the small details; the artwork hanging in her home and the clothes that she wears. I’ve been involved in every step.”

Gillim’s excitement about the premiere is off the charts because the series is treading new ground.

Since each episode is fun and adventurous, she hopes kids everywhere will love it.

“There’s a special opportunity that Alaskan and indigenous kids in this country can see someone like themselves on TV,” she said. “This is the first national TV series to feature Native American leads. We’re going beyond what vacation brochures would highlight. The intention of the show is to be authentic.”

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