Molly of Denali

The creative team behind "Molly of Denali" pose for a group photo Saturday at the Davis Concert Hall on the UAF campus on Saturday, June 22, 2019. Dorothy Chomicz/News-Miner

The Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska Campus was filled with activity and laughter Saturday at the premier of a new, animated children’s TV series.

“Molly of Denali” tells the story of Molly, a 10-year-old Athabascan girl who lives with her mom and dad in the fictional village of Qyah, Alaska. Molly helps her parents run the Denali Trading Post and has adventures with her dog, Suki, and friends, Trini and Tooey. The show is the first of its kind to feature an Alaska Native main character, and aims to improve children’s literacy skills while teaching them about traditional rural activities and Alaska Native values.

"Molly of Denali"

"Molly of Denali" voice actress Sovereign Bill, center, with parents Willard Bill Jr. and Robin Pratt, pose at an activity booth at the world premiere of the new PBS series. Dorothy Chomicz/News-Miner

The premier was hosted by the UA College Savings Plan and included multiple kids activity areas and demonstrations such as wood carving, beading, plant pressing, drum making and Alaska Native dancing. The event was free to the public and each child received a “Molly of Denali” backpack and a plush sled dog.

The show is produced by WGBH Kids and Atomic Cartoons for PBS Kids and CBC Television.

The show’s creators worked closely with Alaska Native advisers such as Princess Johnson, Rochelle Adams, Dewey Hoffman, Adeline Peter Raboff and Luke Titus. From the beginning, the creators made a commitment to include Alaska Natives and other indigenous Americans in all aspects of the production. Every indigenous character is voiced by an indigenous actor, and talented Alaska Native kids received extra training at intensive voice acting workshops to prepare for their roles. In addition, six Alaska Native writers were awarded scriptwriting fellowships. 

The character of Molly is voiced by Sovereign Bill, a 14-year-old Tlingit and Muckleshoot Indian girl who lives in the Auburn, Washington, area. Bill won the part of Molly during an open casting call, and brings the character to life with an on-point blend of sweet but sassy curiosity, humor and perfect diction.

Each 30 minute episode features two, 11-minute stories and includes live-action portions of Alaska kids exploring different activities throughout the state.

The first story shown at Saturday’s premier was “Cabbagezilla,” a cute tale about the challenges of keeping wildlife away from the giant vegetables grown under the midnight sun. Kids giggled at Molly and Trini’s antics, while parents chuckled knowingly at moose encounters and Trini’s bragging about her home state of Texas.

In the second story, “Name Game,” Molly compiles a book of her neighbors’ Native names and how they got them. In the end, Mollie’s seemingly gruff auntie gives her a Native name of her own.

Elder Marie Yaska, originally from Huslia, sat near the front and watched the show with a delighted smile. Afterward, Yaska praised the show for its depiction of Alaska Native culture and language.

“My cousin Eliza Jones helped write the Koyukon Athabaskan dictionary. Then people in the villages started to teach it, and now there’s this show. Whoever would have thought this would go this far. I’m very happy about it,” Yaska said. 

Molly of Denali

Audience members join Alaska Native drummers, singers and dancers on stage at the Davis Concert Hall before the world premier of "Molly of Denali" on Saturday, June 22, 2019. Dorothy Chomicz/News-Miner

Bill posed for pictures afterward and talked to well wishers with poise, despite her excitement over the audience’s obvious enjoyment of the show.

“It’s amazing just to see all of this come to life and see the kids’ reactions, their laughing and smiles,” Bill said. 

Bill’s mother, Robin Pratt, said she was proud of her daughter and overjoyed at the show’s positive representation of Native culture.

“I grew up in Anchorage, and I wish I could have had it growing up. I can’t even talk about it without my voice breaking,” Pratt said.   

“Molly of Denali” is the brainchild of WGBH executive producer Dorothea Gillim, who previously created “WordGirl” for PBS Kids and executive produced “Curious George,” both of which won multiple Emmys. Gillim conceived “Molly of Denali” in 2015.

"Molly of Denali"

Aniya Sweet, 3, looks up while decorating a drum at one of the children's activity tables at the world premier of "Molly of Denali" on Saturday, June 22, 2019, at the Davis Concert Hall. Dorothy Chomicz/News-Miner

“I’ve always wanted to create a show set in a store, because kids love playing store. Kathy Waugh, who’s an incredibly brilliant writer and a creative producer at WGBH, had always wanted to do a show about an outdoorsy girl and a family that lives in a very remote place,” Gillim said.

“When PBS said they wanted to create the pilot, we came up here, met with our Alaska Native advisers, and together we developed the characters, the world and the story of the pilot. Shortly thereafter, Princess Johnson came on board as our creative producer and we’ve been collaborating with that group ever since. That was four years ago. It takes a long time to make a series,” Gillam said.

“Molly of Denali” will air on PBS Kids on July 15.

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.