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Now Starring in Children’s Cartoons: Authentic Indigenous Characters

By: National Public Radio (NPR)

In the PBS program Molly of Denali, Alaska Native Molly Mabray helps her mom run a trading post in an Alaskan village. WGBH Educational Foundation

For decades, animated children’s stories included negative stereotypes of Indigenous people.

There was Disney’s Pocahontas, which presented the daughter of a Powhatan chief in a romantic love story with Captain John Smith. Crystal Echo Hawk, CEO of the media watchdog group IllumiNative, says it was a false narrative about a girl who in reality was “taken by force and sexually assaulted.”

There was Tiger Lily in the classic film Peter Pan, the princess of the “Piccaninny” tribe who smoked a peace pipe and spoke in one-syllable gibberish. The same went for the various “injuns” in old Bugs Bunny cartoons.

More recently, Disney and Pixar got kudos for more authentic representations of Native people in the films Moana and Coco. Now, TV networks and streaming services are reaching children with realistic portrayals on the small screen – where they consume most of their media.

The new PBS show Molly of Denali is the first nationally distributed children’s series to feature an Alaska Native lead character. She’s 10 years old; her heritage is Gwich’in, Koyukon and Dena’ina Athabascan. She lives in the fictional village of Qyah, population 94. She goes fishing and hunting, and also looks up information on the Internet and on her smartphone.

“Molly is computer-savvy,” says the show’s creative producer, Princess Daazhraii Johnson. “I think it’s really important for us to show that, because we are modern, living people that are not relegated to the past. That stereotype, that romanticized notion of who we are as Native people, is rampant.”

Johnson says when she travels, she still meets people who assume all Alaskans live in igloos and are Eskimos – “which isn’t a term that people really even use anymore up here,” she says. “We have 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska; we have 20 officially recognized Alaska Native languages here. We are so diverse and dynamic. And that’s something else that we’re going to be able to share out to the world.”

 

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