Within the first minute of new PBS Kids show “Molly of Denali,” Molly is snowshoeing through a snow drift, reading a field guide to Alaska, going on adventures with her two best friends, popping out of bushes with her malamute named Suki, singing and dancing.
She switches between traditional Alaska Native clothing and a sweatshirt and jeans, all while holding a smile that takes up almost the entirety of her cartoon face. It’s Molly of Denali and she’s making history, taking names and informing audiences about her native culture.
The actor who voices Molly in “Molly of Denali,” Auburn resident Sovereign Bill, is no stranger to embracing and learning about her own native experiences. Simply put, she’s a busy 14-year-old. Besides starring in the first nationally broadcast children’s series to feature an Alaska Native lead character, she is an active member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and T’ak Dein Taan clan of the Tlingit Tribe. She’s worked as a lead puller with the Muckleshoot Canoe Family and she’s served as speaker for the Muckleshoot Canoe Family during formal protocol at Tribal Canoe Journeys.
Sovereign will be a 10th-grader at Auburn High School this fall, and she has lived in the Seattle area all her life, participating in multiple native dance and theater groups, while also playing volleyball, soccer and the saxophone. “Molly of Denali” is the first show she’s worked on — besides starring in her middle-school’s production of “Annie” — and at times it’s been difficult getting adjusted to a new challenge. Luckily, playing Molly has come naturally for Sovereign because she’s not that different from the cartoon character she voices.
“We definitely have similarities through our culture, but it’s not only that,” said Sovereign. “Molly has a lot of perseverance. Even through the show I need perseverance, recording and everything. It’s really great work but it can be tiring at times.”
The audition process was a whirlwind for Sovereign. She was working with native youth theater group “Red Eagle Soaring” when she and her fellow group members were asked to audition. She sent in her audition electronically and ended up getting a callback.
“It’s crazy how it all happened,” said Sovereign. “It was very out of the blue.”
Being Molly demands a lot of energy, Sovereign said. Molly’s voice is slightly higher than hers, for one. But despite that, for Sovereign it’s an honor to play Molly, a girl who keeps her family’s memories alive.
The series follows Molly, a 10-year-old Gwich’in/Koyukon/ Dena’ina Athabascan girl as she goes on adventures, helps her parents run the Denali Trading Post and learns about her culture and family. The format is simple: The episodes wrap up with a happy ending and the fictional world is filled with bright colors and endless fun. But the stories told are informed by the experiences and traditions of Alaska Natives. The show is fun — but it also hopes to share forgotten narratives that have an impact on modern Alaska Native communities.
Native communities all over the country are frequently misrepresented, and “Molly of Denali” is attempting to change that trend.
From the 1900s to the 1970s, Alaska Natives were sent to boarding schools that, in many cases, stifled their native culture, and where many children were abused and forced to speak only English. In the episode “Grandpa’s Drum,” Molly learns about this difficult time, and in turn so does the audience.
Sovereign says “Grandpa’s Drum” is her favorite episode.
“It holds a lot of knowledge of native people and their stories,” said Sovereign. “In this episode it shows that, while we lost a lot of our culture and our songs, people in our generation, like Molly or like me, are fighting to keep the memory alive. Kids can understand that.”
Sovereign is helping bring to life stories that affect native communities like hers on a national scale. But this isn’t that unusual. She comes from a family of storytellers.
“Usually we hear stories right from our elders. But being younger, sometimes we don’t hear the stories until they’re already gone,” said Sovereign. “But my brother does a lot of work with one of our elders and he comes back and tells us stories. Everybody tells stories: my dad, my brothers, my mom, everybody.”
For Sovereign, there’s a lot of pride and responsibility that comes with this role. These are the stories her community has held for so many years. Now, she gets a chance to share them.
“Even if I wasn’t in the show I would still be so happy for this coming out and kids being able to see this,” she said.
“Molly of Denali,” is a storytelling project that prides itself on its authenticity. Natives who are a part of the show, Sovereign included, are not only attempting to tell Molly’s story, but the stories of many Alaska Native groups. From the very beginning, the show had an Alaska Native advisory committee that oversaw the animation, scripts, and stories that were told in the series, said Princess Daazhraii Johnson, the show’s creative producer and an Alaska Native (Neets’aii Gwich’in).
“We looked at the animation designs and said, ‘Oh they should be wearing this,’ or we’ll look at a script and say, ‘Oh, that’s not really how we would say it,’ ”Johnson said.
It’s important to both Sovereign and Johnson that the show portrays Alaska Natives accurately to the outside world and to the native communities that watch the show.
“I hope that different indigenous people are moved and appreciate that we’re telling that history, and sharing it with a national audience,” said Johnson. “I hope it inspires other tribes to continue with our rich storytelling traditions.”
While “Molly of Denali” is attempting to change the perception of natives in mainstream media, the decades-long misrepresentation of Alaska Natives has had a negative impact on how natives are perceived.
“When I was a kid growing up, there were very derogatory names that were used to describe American Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Camille Monzon-Richards, executive director of the Seattle Indian Center. But in the past 20 years, things have gotten better, Monzon-Richards said.
“I think nowadays there has been a concerted effort on the part of the television industry to portray American Indians and Alaska Natives more humanely. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accurate,” said Monzon-Richards, adding that she has not yet seen the show but hopes it will provide clarity on what it means to be an Alaska Native.
Sovereign agrees: “Oftentimes natives aren’t even portrayed in the media at all,” she said. “Or if they are, its either the stoic Indian or an over-sexualized portrayal of women like Pocahontas.”
But “Molly of Denali” is giving younger kids another way to see native life. And kids are excited for it.
Maia and Celia Englund, age 8 and 5 respectively, have been watching previews of the show for weeks before the show’s premiere.
“Molly is daring and she wants to find out answers to any question,” said Seattle resident Maia Englund. “She always wants to help people.”
The series hopes to reach young kids and their families and bring native narratives “out of extinction,” said Bill.
“We really hope that Molly is a trailblazer for other indigenous people to tell their stories because we need to move forward,” said Johnson. “We have been invisible in many ways. And the images that are out there were created by other people. This show is something that’s important because, as we all know, representation really does matter.”
“Molly of Denali” debuted July 15 on PBS Kids. All episodes will be available on YouTube or on KCTS 9.