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Meet the Alaska Natives Who Gave ‘Molly of Denali’ an Authentic Voice

Jul 18, 2019 | Alaska Native, Education, Featured, Media & Arts, News

The groundbreaking new PBS KIDS series, Molly of Denali, premiered this week on PBS stations, the 24/7 PBS KIDS channel and PBS KIDS digital platforms. It is the first nationally distributed children’s series to feature a Native American lead character, Molly Mabray, a feisty and resourceful 10-year-old Gwich’in/Koyukon/Dena’ina Athabascan girl.

WGBH Boston developed Molly of Denali with a working group of Alaska Native advisors, including Elders, who advise on many aspects of the show, including culture and languages.

Below are profiles of the six cast members who lent their voice talents to the show:

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October 2019

Sovereign Bill (voice of Molly Mabray)

Molly and her mom at the Denali Trading Post.

PBS KIDS

Sovereign Bill has been at the mic since she could stand on her own two feet.

Bill grew up accompanying her parents, Willard Bill, Jr. (Muckleshoot) and Robin Pratt (Tlingit), participating in events and performing traditional Muckleshoot and Tlingit dances and songs at tribal and community events — and as part of the Auburn School District’s Native American song and dance group.

“My Muckleshoot and Tlingit cultural identity keeps me grounded,” said Bill. “It’s a big part of my life and has shaped me into who I am as a person. I have a deep love and appreciation for my cultures, and just always want to learn more.”

Last summer, Bill went on a casting call with other young Native American and Alaska Native actors from Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre. Bill received a call-back almost immediately. Now at 14, she is standing at another mic voicing the title character, Molly Mabray, in PBS KIDS’ Molly of Denali. More than just Bill’s big break, Molly of Denali is a groundbreaking role. It’s the first nationally distributed children’s series in the US featuring a Native American lead character.

Since the inception of Molly of Denali, PBS KIDS and producer, WGBH, have been committed to ensuring that all Indigenous roles are voiced by Indigenous actors. Bill says that this positive representation and sharing of Native American and Alaska Native cultures is one of the most meaningful aspects of her role.“I feel lucky to be playing Molly,” says Bill. “I feel like I am contributing to positive representations of how Alaska Natives and Native Americans are portrayed in film and TV. It’s important for Indigenous people to play these roles because of our deep understanding of and connection with these characters.”

Prior to Molly of Denali, Bill’s formal acting experience was performing an eighth-grade production of the musical, Annie. As she dives into the role of Molly, Bill finds inspiration in the script.

“I just love the script and how Molly is a positive role model for children everywhere,” said Bill, who was recently given a Tlingit name, Yeil Shi Gis’ook, which means Raven Singing with the Northern Lights. “In the scripts, I definitely see a lot of the teachings that I’ve learned from my Elders, or my mom and my dad. Like when Molly says “thank you” to the animals or to the plants when she harvests them. I was taught the same values. It’s really amazing to see the familiarity and the connection between myself and Molly Mabray.” 

One episode that was especially meaningful to Bill was one in which Molly discovered that her Grandpa Nat had gone to boarding school, where he was punished for singing his Alaska Native songs. Molly gets involved with Native singing and dancing and tries to get her Grandpa Nat to join her. In the episode, she helps him regain his voice and reclaim their traditional songs.

“That episode helped give me a deeper understanding of this tragic past that we Alaska Native and Native Americans have,” said Bill. “Just reading that, makes me want to keep going and keep doing this work.”

Sovereign Bill attends the Molly of Denali world premiere in Fairbanks.

University of Alaska College Savings Plan

Lorne Cardinal (voice of Grandpa Nat)

Tooey, Grandpa Nat, and Molly.

PBS KIDS

As the stage lights came up, all the audience could see was a pair of legs sticking out from behind a stove. The legs wiggled and the audience laughed.

From that moment, Lorne Cardinal was hooked.

“I got bit by the bug,” said Cardinal about his first acting role as the stove repairman in a college production of William Robertson Davies’ one-act play, The Voice of the People. “I was standing on stage feeling totally comfortable. That’s when I knew that acting was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

Although Cardinal is a natural both in front of and behind the camera, his acting career is something he stumbled into. After a series of odd jobs ranging from planting trees to photography to working for a newspaper, Cardinal decided to attend college at age 23. During his first semester, he signed up for an Introduction to Acting class, believing it would be “easy credits.”

Since then, Cardinal’s career has been nothing short of groundbreaking.

Now, Cardinal has almost 100 professional film and TV credits, and has acted in and directed a number of theatre productions. Whether he is portraying Sergeant Davis Quinton in the beloved Canadian sitcom Corner Gas or Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, critics praise Cardinal’s versatility and stage presence.

“I try and find characters that are interesting and complex and challenging,” said Cardinal, who is Cree. “That’s why I love theatre.”

The classically trained stage actor was the first Indigenous student to graduate with a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in acting from the University of Alberta. In his most recent stage role as Prospero, Cardinal leads a cast of both deaf and hearing actors in the Citadel Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The roles were both spoken aloud and signed. Cardinal learned some American Sign Language for his role, so he could communicate with his cast members on and off the stage.

This summer, Cardinal takes on another trailblazing role as Grandpa Nat Molly of Denali.

“I love the connection between Grandpa Nat and Molly, and the way he imparts knowledge and shares stories,” said Cardinal. “Grandpa Nat is very supportive of Molly. It is important to support young people, because there’s no limit to what they can do when encouraged to ask questions and learn more.”

The role of Grandpa Nat is personally meaningful to Cardinal. In one episode, Molly and Tooey find out that Grandpa Nat doesn’t sing his Alaska Native songs anymore because he was forbidden to do so as a child attending boarding school. Molly and Tooey go on a treasure hunt to find Grandpa Nat’s childhood drum that he had given to a friend. Touched by the children’s detective work, Grandpa Nat reclaims his Alaska Native songs and ends the episode by dancing with Molly.

As recently as a generation ago, many Alaska Native, First Nations and Native American children were forced to attend residential schools. Many were punished for speaking their Native languages and singing their songs.

“That episode is a very dear one, because both of my parents were residential school survivors,” said Cardinal. “I was very much thinking of my own parents, aunties and uncles who also went through that — that system and how they were affected by it. It affected me and my family growing up as well.”

Lorne Cardinal at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, CA to discuss Molly of Denali.

Rahoul Ghose | PBS

Adeline Juneby Potts (voice of Auntie Midge)

Molly interviews Auntie Midge.

PBS KIDS

The first time that Adeline Juneby Potts auditioned for a part in her high school play, she didn’t get the part. It wouldn’t be until February 2018, more than fifty years later, that Potts would try out for another part. This time, she finally landed the role she was born to play.

This summer Potts’ debuts as Auntie Midge in Molly of Denali.

“I still can’t believe I got the part,” said Potts. “I am overjoyed. I’m very happy that for the first time there is a TV series that respectfully portrays Indigenous people.”

For Potts, Molly of Denali is art imitating her life. When she first read the audition script, Potts immediately connected with Auntie Midge, a “feisty-busy body” who was Chief of the fictional village, Qyah.

“Like Auntie Midge, I know what’s like to live in a village,” said Potts, who is Han Gwich’in. “During part of my audition I had to sound upset. So, I thought back to a time when I saw a loose dog near my fish cache (a place where dried fish is stored away for winter). In my language I said, ‘Go away! Go home!’ The words came out naturally.”

When Potts later asked producers why she was selected, she was told that she sounded energetic and feisty—just like they had pictured Auntie Midge. The Alaska Native Elder is the fifth of eleven children who were born and raised in Coal Creek (Woodchopper) area, a part of the historic gold mining district in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve of Alaska. Potts spent the first seven years of her life in a mining camp, where her father, Willie, worked as a cat-operator in a mining camp owned by Ernest N. Patty, a mining engineer who later became the President of the University of Alaska.

Potts grew up in the village of Eagle, Alaska and went to school in a one room cabin. Now, she and her husband of nearly forty-four years, Mike, live on Lake Vermilion in Minnesota. They were Christian missionaries in Mongolia for seven years. “My faith in God keeps me going,” said Potts.

Potts was raised in a traditional subsistence lifestyle. Her family lived off the land; they hunted, fished, trapped, and gathered berries. She taught her children these traditional subsistence survival skills. Potts and her husband come to back to Alaska often to visit her daughter and four grandchildren and live a bit of their traditional subsistence way of life.

“I think Molly of Denali will introduce children to the traditional Alaska Native ways,” said Potts. “In one of the episodes, the children forget to tie up the boat and it floats away. So, Auntie Midge teaches Molly and Tooey how to build a raft using trees.”

Potts sees Molly of Denali as a positive role model for all children from diverse backgrounds. It’s about family, love, respect, laughter, curiosity, and hope for the future.

Molly of Denali is going to make a positive influence on children around the world. Many people who only know about Alaska from reality television shows will soon learn about the Athabascan language and culture. They will see Native people showing respect and love as well as learning from people who are from a different background,” said Potts. “Molly of Denali is a children’s show and will help them to be prepared, ask questions, and navigate through life’s many challenges.”

Adeline Juneby Potts (right) watches a preview of Molly of Denali at the series’ world premiere in Fairbanks.

University of Alaska College Savings Plan

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Princess Daazhraii Johnson – Creative Producer

Growing up, Princess Daazhraii Johnson loved watching movies, but longed to see someone who looked like her on screen. Johnson was born in Israel and raised mostly in Interior Alaska. Her background is diverse—her mother’s family is Neets’aii Gwich’in and her late father was Romanian and Lithuanian. As a result of growing up fairly transient in Alaska, never attending one school for more than two years, she faced a lot of adversity. This, and the discrimination she faced as a child, fueled her desire to see a more just and equitable world.

It wasn’t until she was a teenager when Johnson saw actress Sheila Tousey’s portrayal of Maggie Eagle Bear’s character in the film Thunderheart that she witnessed a strong Native woman on the big screen. Even decades later, Johnson genuinely glows when she talks about how much it meant to see Sheila’s work in Thunderheart, a 1992 contemporary western mystery film. Seeing a positive and strong portrayal of a Native woman stuck with her, and she realized how Native people really needed to see more images like the one Sheila helped bring to life.

Johnson holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from George Washington University, and a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She gives much credit to those individuals and organizations that inspired and supported her as an artist throughout the years: she is a Sundance Fellow for the Filmmakers, Producers, and Screenwriters Lab, and an Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellow with the PEN Center. She has been a member of the SAG-AFTRA Native American Committee since 2007 and also serves on the Boards of Dancing with the Spirit, NDN Collective, Native Movement, and was appointed by former president Obama to serve on the Board of Trustees for the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her screen acting credits include Jericho (CBS), Big Miracle, and Uncross the Stars. Her personal roles include daughter, sister, wife, aunt, and most importantly, mother.

Now, Johnson is the creative producer on Molly of Denali. With an emphasis on family and intergenerational relationships, episodes of Molly of Denali model 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. Additionally, the series is grounded in a curriculum focused on Informational Text, a foundational aspect of literacy education.

 “It is important to me in my role as Creative Producer to advocate for Indigenous representation in all aspects of the creative process,” said Johnson. “I aspire to see more Indigenous people gaining narrative and visual sovereignty over the images and stories that appear on screen. I hope that we start to see more and more original content created by Indigenous people, because no one can tell our stories like we can. These stories contain our values and that’s something the world needs. I’d like to inspire the next generation to continually ask questions and examine their own cultural stories, the ones that have shaped who they are and honor where they’ve come from.”

“Seeking the wisdom of the Elders, practicing subsistence activities such as fishing, and berry gathering, as well as honoring and respecting the land that has provided for humans for millennia are just a few of the themes that will be woven in through the series,” said Johnson. Additionally, the production team’s vision for Molly of Denali is to showcase many universal topics with which children from all cultures will be able to identify.

Princess Daazhraii Johnson at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, CA to discuss Molly of Denali.

Rahoul Ghose | PBS

Rochelle Adams – Molly of Denali working group member

Rochelle Adams grew up fully immersed in her Alaska Native culture in the villages of Fort Yukon and Beaver. She currently lives seasonally between the village of Beaver and the city of Anchorage with her three children Amaya, Koso, and Khan. It is a balance of living the best of both worlds. Now she is sharing the beauty of her culture and language with children across the United States and Canada through her work on Molly of Denali. Adams is a member of the Alaska Native working group that has been an integral part of the creation of the show and advises on Alaska Native culture and language on many platforms for the series.

As a member of the Molly of Denali working group, it was important for Adams to ensure that Alaska Natives were being accurately portrayed. Adams provides feedback on art, culture, storytelling, and language in a genuine and authentic way, as these are all incorporated into Molly of Denali and provide an opportunity to educate many about Alaska Natives and Indigenous people. But the real honor, for Rochelle, is to reflect the true beauty and uniqueness of Alaska Natives to be able to see themselves on the big screen and to see the pride and love on their faces.

Adams sees Molly as a reflection of herself: an Alaska Native young person with a diverse group of friends; someone who is modern, with a strong desire to learn and use technology while also holding strong to her Indigenous roots.

Growing up, Adams was encouraged to ask questions and learn as much as she could about her surroundings. She has fond memories of being with her parents Angela Peter-Mayo and Cliff Adams out on the land. Rochelle spent countless hours traveling on the Yukon River with her family in the summer going to fish camp and salmon fishing with the family fish wheel. She also has great memories of being out on the trapline with her father in the winter. She learned to hunt, fish, and gather, which are all traditional Alaska Native activities that maintain a strong connection to the lands and waters. Some of her earliest memories are of watching her great grandmother do beadwork and skin sewing, as well as listening to her tell stories.

Just like Molly, Adams is proud of her diverse Gwich’in, Koyukon, Japanese, Swedish, and Dutch heritage. The characters in the show are proud to honor their heritage, culture and ancestors by interacting and learning from and with many different people from many different backgrounds.

Adams sees Molly as a youth ambassador to share the views and experiences of Alaska Native people and Native Americans as modern people who are part of today’s world. Adams is confident that Molly of Denali will educate and inspire all viewers to learn more about the beautiful stories of Indigenous people.

Rochelle Adams talks to the audience about making Molly of Denali at the world premiere in Fairbanks.

University of Alaska College Savings Fund

Dewey Hoffman – Molly of Denali working group member

Dewey Hoffman’s grandmother gave him two gifts, his Denaakk’e name and a passion for sharing Alaska Native languages with others. Now, Hoffman is bringing those gifts to a national audience.

Named Kk’ołeyo, after his great-grandfather, Hoffman’s name means “long distance walker.” It’s a name that Hoffman, who is Koyukon Athabaskan, strives to live up to. Throughout Alaska, he is known for going the distance and has collaborated across learning communities and advocacy groups to help Alaska Native languages thrive.

Hoffman also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese and has worked to learn several local Alaska Native languages in community settings from first and second language speakers. He says that learning Denaakk’e, the Koyukon Athabascan language, was the most challenging and the most meaningful.

“Learning my ancestral language has helped me connect to my roots and grow as a person,” said Hoffman, who studied Native American studies and Portuguese at Dartmouth College. “When I started finding little ways to incorporate my own culture and traditions into my everyday life, speaking and understanding the language clicked with me.”

It’s been more than a decade since Hoffman began studying the Denaakk’e language. Throughout his journey, he has openly shared his knowledge with others. His patience and passion for teaching has inspired people of all ages. Hoffman designed Denaakk’e language coloring pages and worksheets for young language learners. Hoffman has led language circles for adults and taught dual language Denaakk’e-Koyukon Athabascan and English to 3-to-5-year-old students through the Fairbanks Native Association Head Start.

Hoffman has appeared several times as one of the guest hosts on In My Family, a series of 30-second video spots that air on Alaska Public Media in between children’s programming. In the segments, Hoffman teaches Raven (a hand puppet) how to say words and phrases in Denaakk’e like deneege (“moose”), leggune (“dry fish”), and Nedaats’e ne’ooze’ (“What’s your name?”) in various Alaska Native languages.

“Learning a language is just like CPR training or driver’s education in that anyone can learn it and anyone can teach it,” said Hoffman. “Alaska Native languages are a connection to culture and a guidebook to survival for our people.”

Hoffman has been with the PBS KIDS series since the beginning of production as one of a team of Alaska Native cultural and language advisers from across the state. Each episode features Alaska Native words and/or phrases with enough context for viewers outside Alaska to understand. Molly of Denali is more than just an opportunity for people in Alaska and in the Lower 48 to learn new Alaska Native languages, it is also an opportunity for Alaska Native children to see themselves reflected in children’s programming.

“Alaska Native and Native American people are under-represented in movies and television,” said Hoffman, the father of a young daughter. “It’s empowering for Alaska Native children like mine to see themselves, their language and their cultural traditions positively portrayed in Molly of Denali.”

Dewey Hoffman leads the UAF Troth Yeddha’ dancers and the audience into the Davis Concert Hall for the world premiere of Molly of Denali Fairbanks with dancing and drumming. The dancers performed several dances and invited the audience to participate.

University of Alaska College Savings Plan

Alaska Business Magazine October 2019

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