A few days ago, I gathered with my two Potawatomi sons on our couch to watch Molly of Denali, a cartoon that recently premiered on PBS starring a young girl named Molly who is an Alaska Native (specifically, Gwich’in/Koyukon/Dena’ina Athabascan). This show is the first of its kind in the history of the United States.
To say that it was an emotional experience is an understatement. From the first episode, I knew that my children, who I have been trying to teach about what it means to be Indigenous and how diverse our cultures are, were learning important lessons about Native identity.
I grew up with Disney’s Pocahontas and Peter Pan, two movies that taught toxic stereotypes and lies about Indigenous identity and history. Natives were either savage warriors with face paint and headdresses or sexy young maidens with braided pigtails and buckskin dresses who could mystically control the wind. I had a Pocahontas Barbie doll and a Pocahontas pillow because, as a child, she was what I had to look up to, the only representation of who I felt like I was trying to become.
The first episode of Molly of Denali I watched with my children was about Molly’s grandfather and his experience in a boarding school as a child, specifically how they forced him to stop singing traditional songs. If you know anything about the history of religious-run boarding schools in the United States, you know that the goal of these schools was to “kill the Indian to save the man.” And the best way to do that was to cut out every aspect of their Indigenous culture from the beginning and forcefully assimilate them into being more “American,” which meant becoming as close to European/white Christians as possible.
In this episode, because of the abuse, Molly’s grandfather gave up his traditional drum and vowed to never sing again. At the end of the episode, after Molly and her friend Tooey go on a search for his drum, he stands before the community, his people, and sings again for the first time since he was a child.
In that moment, the trauma of generations is met with an emotional awakening of who he is, an elder with tears streaming down his face.
I wept and held my boys close as they watched, knowing that at 5 and 7 years old they already know more about what it means to be Indigenous than I did by the time I was 20. The effects of assimilation and colonization gave many of us grandparents who did not want to talk about what it means to be Indigenous. In hushed tones, some of us may have asked questions, but many other Native people I have met never had experiences with traditional ways as children, and now we are asking what it looks like to return, to remember, to engage with our people, stories, languages, and cultures. We are asking to be seen.
But this show is not just for Indigenous peoples to remember who we are and feel represented. This is a show that should be watched by everyone to correct an injustice that has long been perpetuated in the United States. As Leavitt, Covarrrubias, Perez, and Fryberg write in the Journal of Social Issues in 2015, “The lack of contemporary representation of Native Americans in the media limits the ways in which Native Americans understand what is possible for themselves and how they see themselves fitting in to contemporary domains (e.g., education and employment) of social life.”
Every aspect of American life has worked at the expense and erasure of Indigenous peoples. We deserve more than one show that represents who we are. We should have many, and I hope that Molly of Denali is only a glorious beginning in a growing movement to celebrate and acknowledge who we are on this land in all our diversity.
Charitie Ropati, author and leader from the Alaskan village of Kongignak, writes in an article written for Indian Country Today:
I have never truly seen myself in Western media. PBS Kids will broadcast a show with an Alaska Native lead, there is power in that statement. This isn’t ‘another Dora,’ this is Molly of Denali and after years of erasure and dehumanization, Indigenous youth will finally have something for themselves.
If you consider yourself an activist, or someone who longs to make right the injustices of the world, whether within or outside the church, watch this show. Listen to the podcast. Whether you have children or not, Molly of Denali is giving voice (in an incredibly child-like and beautiful way) to issues that have been long ignored in our society. Then, move on from there. Listen to the podcast This Land by Rebecca Nagle and start book clubs to study books written by Indigenous authors like Tommy Orange’s award-winning novel, There, There, about urban Indians. This is only the beginning, and Indigenous peoples cannot be the only ones celebrating and challenging that movement.
I will be at home, bundled up on the couch, watching every single episode of this cartoon with my boys and then watching them again.
If Americans can grow to understand that Indigenous peoples and cultures belong on the television, maybe we will all grow to understand that Indigenous voices belong in every dialogue that happens in the United States, because this land constantly tells the stories we are so often willing to ignore. It’s 2019. Let’s change that.