'Molly of Denali' tackles 'discrimination and stereotypes' Alaska Natives face: 'We're breaking it down so young kids can understand'

·Senior Lifestyle Editor
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Animated frame from Molly of Denali characters standing in front of a doorway.
Season 2 of Molly of Denali will consist of a one-hour special and 23 half-hour episodes. (Photo: PBS Kids)

A new set of adventures are coming up for Molly Mabray, the 10-year-old protagonist of Molly of Denali, an award-winning PBS Kids animated series about Molly, her fictional Alaskan village and her life as an Alaska Native girl.

The second season of the series premieres the week of Nov. 1 with five new episodes, just in time for November, National Native American Heritage Month, something show producers Yatibaey Evans and Dorothea Gillim tell Yahoo Life is no coincidence.

"Through this premiere, I'm hoping more kids across the nation and world learn who the Indigenous people are they're living amongst and see we're still here and we're great contributors to society," Evans, an Alaska Native herself, says. "Although we're not always walking around sharing where we come from, we're here and we have amazing heritage to share."

Yatibaey Evans sits surrounded by her four sons.
Yatibaey Evans, creative producer of Molly of Denali,with her sons, who range in age from 8 to 21. (Photo: Yatibaey Evans)

Evans, a mom of four who belongs to the Ahtna tribe, an Athabaskan language-speaking tribe from Alaska's Mentasta village, works as the creative producer for Molly of Denali. She says the first episode of Season 2 — in which Molly and her brother, Tooey, face discrimination from tourists who think they don't look "native enough" to serve as tour guides — was emotional for her to work on.

"My children are biracial and I've had to deal with them being both Alaska Native and Black," says Evans. "They're more visibly Black in their features and they've been called the N-word before — not just one of my kids, but all of them actually. I've had to deal with that not just at school, but at summer camps and in my neighborhood, and it's challenging and disappointing that in this day and age we still have to confront racism."

Working on an episode that showed Alaska Native children speaking up for themselves when discriminated against was important to Evans.

"It was very challenging as we were producing [Episode 1 of the season] not to cry because it's so incredible to see a show that's sharing our history as well as showing it in relation to today's time," Evans explains. "The way we're tackling civil rights, discrimination and stereotypes is such an amazing way, because we're breaking it down so young kids can understand and [use what they see to] learn what's right."

The second season of Molly of Denali premieres on Nov. 1 on PBS Kids. (Photo: PBS Kids)
The second season of Molly of Denali premieres on Nov. 1 on PBS Kids. (Photo: PBS Kids)

Also important to Molly of Denali creators is including Native American and Alaska Native voices in all aspects of show production. Dorothea Gillim, the show's executive producer, says more than 75 indigenous people now work on the show in some capacity, from voice-over actors to animators.

In fact, Gillim, who has worked on shows like Curious George and Word Girl, says the biggest difference in her role on this series as opposed to others is that she does not view Molly's story as hers to tell.

"This is an Alaska Native's story to tell," Gillim says. "I'm extremely proud of that effort and our team, which is amazing and continues to grow and learn and evolve. It's long overdue that kids are introduced to the fact that Alaska Natives and Native Americans are alive and their cultures exist and are thriving in many ways. That's something that's absent in media — especially kids' media — and kind of invisible in our society."

Dorothea Gillim.
Dorothea Gillim, executive producer of the series, has worked on shows like Curious George and Word Girl, but says Molly's story belongs to Native Alaskans to tell. (Photo: Dorothea Gillim)

What parts of Alaska Native culture will kids see in Season 2 of Molly of Denali?

Evans says the show will focus largely on Molly's outdoor adventures, as part of Alaska Native history and tales of their ancestry come from past generations' ability to rely on the land, survive in their environment and interact with plants and animals found in their surroundings.

"Depicting those values of respecting nature and animals and living in balance is a big part of what our elders have passed down and taught us," Evans says. "And adventuring as a young girl? It's a big part of how our women are. We're a matrilineal clan system where women are very strong leaders: There are not many shows that have had female outdoor adventurers, and isn't it great that we can be that?"

Animated frame of character from Molly of Denali standing outdoors and looking at a hummingbird.
Yatibaey Evans says Native Alaskan women have a history of being adventurous, strong leaders, and Molly's character is no exception. (Photo: PBS Kids)

The season will also focus on the importance of family and community.

"That's definitely a big part of our ways of living," says Evans, who lives in Alaska's Tanana Valley. "Our ancestors have taught us we have to rely on one another, get along and capitalize on each other's strengths as well as support each other when we're not able to do things."

Evans says she and her colleagues hope the show brings a sense of community to everyone who watches.

"I feel like that's what Molly of Denali has been doing: Empowering us to see our incredible heritage and rich cultures as a way to carry us forward, not only as Alaska Native people but as a human race," she says. "We all have something to contribute, and when we bring our strengths to the table, we're able to propel forward together."

"I hope the show builds bridges and community relationships," Evans says. "If we can help educate kids from a young age to be open-minded and accepting of diverse communities, cultures and people, they'll grow up to be incredible leaders that encompass and engage with people of all backgrounds."

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